Ethical non-monogamy is so mainstream that it’s basically basic. These days, it’s like, monogamy? One person for life? Now that is some hardcore kinky shit. But despite making its way to your Instagram discovery page through poly influencers and celeb gossip mags thanks to Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, there are levels to this game—even if you’ve described yourself as poly on dating apps. “Most of them have no fucking clue what poly really means or what they’re signing themselves up for,” says NYU professor of sexuality Zhana Vrangalova of many people she sees new to the scene.
While it’s fine to experiment with relationship formats, quite often people jump into the poly scene—often guys hard about the idea of having more than one girlfriend—and end up hurting themselves and their dating partners in the process. So, while labels aren’t required, if you, or you and your partner, are considering opening up, it can be handy to know what’s on the menu. “Knowing the general expectations and agreements that come with that particular label can be helpful,” Zhana says.
So we rounded up and explained 11 of the most fundamental forms of ethical non-monogamy, (ENM), the umbrella that encompasses the spectrum of open relationships. (Technically, there is an open relationship format that is not considered ethical non-monogamy, and that is called cheating. Some people do get off at the secrecy involved in cheating and prefer it to versions that require honesty and at times tough conversation. But we’re guessing we don’t have to explain that one.)
Polyamory is Ancient Greek for “many loves.” In this often-attempted relationship format, which genuinely does feel like coming home and works wonders for many proud poly people, you form romantic and sexual relationships with more than one partner. Many are called. Few can serve.
Hierarchical polyamory usually involves a couple. They’re each other’s number one, emergency contact, and “primary partner,” but they can see other people (secondary partners). And those second partners better know their place. Kidding! But really, hierarchical polyamory derives its name from the fact that there is a hierarchy of partners, and one comes first.
In solo poly, all partners are considered equal. Sure, there are differences in each connection, and every relationship is unique, but if a solo poly person must name anyone as their primary partner, they usually name themselves.
It’s called polyfidelity when three or more people have sex and date one another, so more than one person, but constrict the love to the group. Such a closed polycule may exist in the form of a throuple.
Screw your rules and reliance on romance. Relationship anarchists consider all their partnerships equally valid whether they bone or not. So, a relationship anarchist may have a spouse, a nesting partner (someone they live with), a girlfriend, a boyfriend, a platonic life partner, and whoever else they want, and they’re all equal, and they’re so much more punk than the pumpkin spice latte-sipping poly crowd.
A throuple, also called a triad, is a romantic and sexual relationship between three people. Get it? It’s just like a couple but with three people. Everyone has sex, sometimes all at once, other times one-on-one. Like any relationship format, all partners involved negotiate the specifics (and a therapist to help guide this can be handy). There are closed relationships (see: poly fidelity) and open ones.
The closed V is a polyamorous relationship in which two people share a romantic and sexual bond with the third but not with one another. The third, the center of attention, that lucky scoundrel, is called “the hinge” of the V. It’s a V and not a triangle because the two others don’t touch. While the two ends, or “metamours” (your partner’s partner), don’t have sex, the term closed V often assumes that they are otherwise close and connected.
“Open relationship” is sometimes used as an umbrella term to include all the other fine formats you’ve learned about here. However, on its own, an open relationship usually indicates that a couple is okay with sex with others but not love or anything that could topple their partnership. This differentiates it from polyamory. Sometimes, couples only play together, such as swingers, through threesomes, or even the infamous one-penis policy. Other times, each partner can play separately. For folks who experience more emotional than sexual jealousy, it’s a valiant effort that can work. The trouble is that even when we say that we’ll separate sex from love, our hearts and bodies don’t always listen. (Honestly, one should expect drama from any type of ethical non-monogamy, but isn’t the same true for monogamy? We are flawed humans and must try to live our truths the best we can with the minimum harm done.)
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
Sometimes couples want to share all the details. It might turn them on and make their sex life better as a result. Other people don’t want to hear it. The latter group prefers the slightly outdated, but still existing, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s self-explanatory—even if someone eventually usually does ask or tell.
Monogamish is a term coined by the sex writer Dan Savage. It refers to couples who are generally monogamous but have, let us say, a healthy understanding of human sexuality. Monogamish couples are usually devoted to one another but agree that occasional sex outside of the relationship isn’t the end of the world.
Unless you’re at the notorious Hedonism couple’s resort surrounded by horny boomers, swingers are, to be blunt, a dying species. Swinging, also known as the “Lifestyle,” traditionally refers to a couple who swaps or has sex with other couples. While plenty of Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z couples enjoy this lowercase “l” lifestyle, and couples have been porking other couples since antiquity, the use of the term “swingers” seems to be going out of fashion. (If you ask us, it’s time to give the good ole’ fashioned horny swingers a comeback bigger than square-toe shoes.)
Still curious? Read our glossary of open relationship terminology next.