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Dating And Relationships - Alternative Partnership Styles | April 13, 2021, 10:42 CDT

The Real Differences Between Open Relationships and Polyamory
If consensual nonmonogamy is difficult to comprehend, here's a good place to start learning.

Written by

Annie Burdick
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The monogamy mindset is still going strong, so for those people who look to diverge from it, or simply research other possibilities, some degree of confusion right off the bat is a safe bet. Let's start with the basics: In consensual nonmonogamy (CNM), partners approach relationships with some openness, and all parties involved are aware of and in agreement on the situation (ahem, if you lose that last piece, the consensual aspect is gone and you're just in the realm of infidelity). 

Google CNM and your head will soon be swimming with phrases such as metamours, kitchen table poly, NRE, relationship anarchy and the like. But there are two types of CNM relationships that you might already be familiar with: open relationships and polyamory.

In an open relationship, committed partners are sexually nonmonogamous; a polyamorous relationship involves having more than one sexual or romantic partner. Yes, they definitely sound similar—but there are some important differences to keep in mind if you're interested in dipping your toe into the vaguely murky waters of consensual nonmonogamy.

The main differences between open relationships and polyamory

Most often, people in open relationships seek out solely sexual experiences beyond their primary partnership, while the point of polyamory is to engage new romantic partners as equal additions to a previously established partnership, explained Dana McNeil, a San Diego-based therapist who works with CNM couples and individuals.

In an open relationship, "it's likely that friendships or other emotional connections are not part of the goal," McNeil said.

Instead, these relationships develop for a range of reasons, including if "the couple is deciding if they want to remain a couple, and opening up the marriage is an alternative to infidelity," said Coltrane Lord, a relationship expert based in San Francisco. It may also be due to sexual compatibility issues, desires to explore kinks the primary partner doesn't share, or sexual interest in people of a different gender than the primary partner.

On the other hand, polyamorous people and couples are open to a range of connections that may or may not include sex. Polyamory has many subcategories—such as parallel polyamory (in which all partnerships are kept distinct) and kitchen table poly (in which all parties spend time together familiarly)—so it's far from a "one size fits all" mold, and it's up to the people involved in the relationship to determine what works for them.

Where do they converge?

Equating all CNM relationships to each other is rocky territory, but there is a bit of crossover, especially in open relationships and polyamory—mainly in how couples have to evolve and grow to be ethically nonmonogamous.

Think about how much communication is needed for a monogamous relationship, then picture opening up those boundaries to include discussions of sex and relationships with other people. Communication is such a crucial part of open and polyamorous relationships that monogamous partners reported less satisfaction with the amount of communication and openness they had with their partner compared to those in a CNM relationship in a 2017 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

While trust is integral for any healthy relationship, it's another key element of both open and poly partnerships. That's because these couples don't enjoy some of the aspects that are normally taken for granted in monogamous relationships, such as fidelity or romantic exclusivity.

"Individuals who make up a CNM relationship must develop trust through their own means, through constructing their own relationship agreements and sticking to them, showing integrity to each other and cleaning up quickly whenever there is a violation in trust," said Caitlin V. Neal, resident sexologist for sexual hygiene company Royal.

And, of course, a relationship outside the normal boundaries of monogamy requires plenty of independence. "Creating space in a relationship keeps that spark alive and allows you to grow as an individual," Neal said. Independence also tends to lead to increased desire, something many CNM couples experience once they begin setting out on their own more often.

Even with communication, trust and independence, an open or polyamorous relationship isn't for everyone. But considering the fact that relationships make us happy, limiting ourselves to just one isn't the only good way to live.

Written by

Annie Burdick

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