Being in an open relationship is totally the same thing as being polyamorous, right? (Asking for a friend…)
Actually, while the two share some similar characteristics, they’re very different. “An open relationship is one where one or both partners have a desire for sexual relationships outside of each other, and polyamory is about having intimate, loving relationships with multiple people,” says Renee Divine, L.M.F.T., a sex and relationships therapist in Minneapolis, MN.
Both open and poly relationships are forms of consensual non-monogamy, and technically, polyamory can be a type of open relationship, but expectations tend to be different when it comes to these relationship styles.
Are You Looking For More Love Or More Sex?
Open relationships typically start with one partner or both partners wanting to be able to seek outside sexual relationships and satisfaction, while still having sex with and sharing an emotional connection with their partner.
“People are looking for different experiences and want to meet the needs that aren’t being met in the relationship,” says Divine. But there’s never an intention for feelings to get involved.
In polyamory, the whole point is to fall in love with multiple people, and there’s not necessarily any relationship hierarchy, says Divine. For example, someone could be solo poly (meaning they want and seek poly relationships whether or not they’re dating anyone), and they may enter into two separate relationships at the same time and view each as equal.
In their nature, poly relationships are open, since they involve more than two people. But not all poly groups are looking to add more people to the dynamic, and aren’t always actively dating. This is called closed poly, meaning the group includes multiple relationships, but there’s an expectation that no one involved is expanding the group.
What Kind Of Boundaries Do You Want To Set?
In open relationships, couples may talk with their primary partner about their outside relationships, or they might decide together that it’s best to keep those exploits to themselves, says Divine. They may have sexual encounters together, in the instance of swinging, or they may go out with other people on their own.
In polyamory, there tends to be more sharing between partners about other relationships as there are emotions involved. A poly group might consider themselves “kitchen-table poly,” which means the whole group could hang out together comfortably. Two poly people might also date the same person, or have a triad-style relationship, and that typically doesn’t happen in open relationships, says Divine.
Should You Go For It?
If monogamy feels a bit restrictive to you, and you crave flexibility, open relationships or polyamory could be a good option. Which path you follow depends on what you want out of the additional relationships.
“Open relationships tend to be more focused on having sex outside a main relationship, but keeping that primary, dyadic relationship as the first priority,” says Divine. “I have run into couples where one wants a poly relationship and one wants an open relationship, but that person was not comfortable with their partner having an emotional connection with anyone but them.”
People might go into this because they’ve developed different needs over a long-term relationship, or because their looking to add excitement and interest to their lives. “But it revolves around a two-way love,” says Divine.
People who want to be poly, “believe you can love multiple people,” says Divine. “They’re open to additional people in that way, and they want that emotional attachment. Plural love is the main focus.”
In either case, expectations need to be clear with any partners who are making a change with you. “In some couples, one wants to try something new, and the other is okay with that, without participating themselves,” says Divine. “The key is communication. These relationships styles are all about being upfront and honest about what you want and what your needs and boundaries are. The most successful ones are those where people are on the same page.”