The media, and people in general, tend to get polyamorous and open relationships confused in their minds. They tend to identify both types of relationship with the swinging scene, or with total sexual freedom, whereas in practice neither of these things is correct. In this feature, I look at some differences between polyamorous and open relationships and show that they are entirely different things. However, like all things there are shades of grey in their boundaries.
The main difference between poly and open relationships is that poly relationships are shared between a discrete set, or group, of partners. There is no limit to the number of partners who may take part in a polyamorous relationship but there is an understanding that the relationship will be limited to those partners, and those alone. Whether there are three, six or ninety people involved in a poly relationship, that number is the size of the group with whom members will share an intimate or sexual relationship with.
In an open relationship, there is no real limit to the number of partners that a person may have. They may have intimacy with hundreds of sexual partners in their open relationship. However, these will not be partners that the person will have a deeper relationship with other than a passing sexual encounter. Some people consider that open relationships are actually more complicated than this, and that people do frequently form attachments, and arrangements, with people outside of their core relationship.
In a poly relationship the limits of who one is intimate with, and who one has sex with, are set by the boundaries of the group. The poly group will have to act responsibly, and communicate, to make sure that jealously or possessiveness does not happen.
In an open relationship, there are not the same issues around defining who one is intimate with. There is knowledge that the partners are free to have intimacy with as many partners as they like. However, there will still have to be a discussion between partners in an open relationship as to the boundaries of those encounters. It would not be unreasonable, for example, for a couple to agree that although their relationship is open that they should not develop intimacy with mutual friends. That could get messy.
In a poly relationship, the time that is spent with members of the relationship is usually extensive. People may even live together as a poly-household. They may take part in activities together and may share sexual, and other, interests. Poly relationships are marked by frequent contact between members.
In an open relationship, although a person may spend some time with their core partner they may have only fleeting encounters with the people they are intimate with. They may not develop relationships with these other people, and may not even see them on a regular basis.
Whatever your sexuality, and whether you pursue an open, poly, or monogamous relationship, not putting people into categories is very important. It may be that there is a certain moral superiority associated with poly relationships as they seem to be based on ideas of sexual responsibility (towards more than one, rather than one individual) and care for the other parties in the relationship. However, for some people, open relationships feel more natural and allow them to enjoy their sexuality in a libertarian sense. It may also, help the picture to state that it is better to think of relationship types as a continuum. In practice, everyone’s relationships are complex. At the heart of things, communication and enjoyment are key to any relationship that works.
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