Created | Updated Aug 19, 2015
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Polyamory refers to relationships which are based on ethical and intentional non-monogamy. This can include group relationships, 'open' couples, and networks of erotic friends. Polyamory is not a sexual orientation, rather it is a way of structuring relationships. It does come under the banner of 'alternative lifestyles', and is practised by people of all sexual orientations.
Polyamory is a relatively new term, derived from 'poly' meaning 'many' and 'amor' meaning 'love'. Many will be more familiar with the term 'polygamy', which Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines as a marriage where one partner has more than one spouse. Polyamory is a much more open term, which encompasses many relationship models.
Because the term covers many different kinds of relationships, there are many different ways to describe polyamory. At its core, polyamory is an openness to the idea of being in loving/sensual/sexual relationships with more than one person at a time. Not all polyamorous people (polys) are actually in relationship with multiple partners (or even, necessarily, one partner) at a given time. However, poly people all reject the idea that two person monogamy is the only acceptable relationship model.
Some examples of polyamorous relationships are:
Group relationships of three or more people. These can be 'open' (members are able to pursue love relationships outside the group) or 'closed' (members are in a love relationship only within the group). People in closed group relationships often refer to their relationship model as 'polyfidelity'. While these relationships are not legally sanctioned in most countries, some group relationships are celebrated with ceremonies not unlike weddings.
Open couple relationships. In this model, two people are in a committed relationship with each other, and are able to pursue other relationships as well. The other relationships may range from casual sexual relationships to erotic friendships to other 'couple' relationships.
Singles in multiple relationships. This differs from 'playing the field' in that all the partners are aware that there are multiple relationships ongoing.
The key to polyamorous relationships is honest communication. All parties are aware of the situation, to a greater or lesser extent. This is where being in a polyamorous relationship differs from cheating on a partner. The common ground for all polys is that they are honest with their partners about the fact that they are or may be in relationship with other people. Generally poly partners are aware of the other relationships in each other's lives, though to what degree details are shared depends on what all the parties find comfortable.
Since polyamory is a nebulous term that covers many different relationship models, most questions about polyamory have several answers. If you are curious about aspects of polyamory, a number of websites offer very good information, ranging from (often many) answers to basic questions to tips on discussing safer sex with partners to discussions on all aspects of poly life. There are several on-line communities that function as discussion groups and sources of information as well as a place for poly people to meet other polys. For a fairly extensive and amusing introduction, take a look at the alt.polyamory frequently asked questions.