7 Poly Terms Everyone Should Know, Whether You're New To Polyamory Or Monogamous

During a recent trip to Seattle, my nesting partner and I were out at a bar on Capitol Hill and sang some (ridiculously awful) karaoke. Afterwards, a Hot Bi Babe came up to us and started flirting. While a guest star in the bedroom wasn't an option that evening, I was amused (and flattered!) at being reverse unicorn-hunted at a bar which was so perfectly named "the Unicorn." Giddy, I shared the experience with a few friends and was immediately asked: what’s a unicorn?

If you're a poly newb or more monogamously-oriented, there were probably a few phrases in that paragraph that you were unfamiliar with, too. It’s easy to get wrapped in our own little communities and forget that we have our own jargon. A lot of words commonly used in the poly community — f*ck buddy, FWB, co-habitate, life partner, LDR, etc — are more general and widely used, but we have a lot of really specific words, such as “compersion” and “nesting partner,” to describe all of the various ways poly relationships can look as well as the experiences poly folk have.

While the practice of polyamory isn't new, the identity and jargon surrounding those communities, and in many cases, the communities themselves, are much more recent, and because of that, these terms are constantly evolving and may mean different things within different poly communities. The definitions I used are the most common ones in both my local community and the online world of poly folk as well, but some there is still some disagreement around some of these words.

Whether you're new to the poly community, curious about ethical non-monogamy, or mono and just need some translations for when you're around your poly friends, here are seven terms you should know.

1. Ethical Non-Monogamy

The practice of engaging in multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships simultaneously with the consent and knowledge of all parties, as opposed to unethical non-monogamy, aka cheating. This is generally regarded as an umbrella term that includes polyamory, open relationships, swinging, solo poly, relationship anarchy, and poly-fi relationships, similar to how queer is the umbrella term that covers gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, etc. Sometimes also called "consensual" or "responsible" non-monogamy.

2. Polyamory (Poly)

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The practice of engaging in multiple romantic relationships simultaneously with the consent and knowledge of all parties. Poly means many, and amory means love, so this type of ethical non-monogamy usually focuses on having multiple loving relationships, which may or may not include sexual activity.

This is not to be confused with polygamy, like on Big Love, which is the practice of having multiple spouses and tends to be more gender normative/heteronormative and closely tied to religion. There are different ways to structure poly relationships, such as hierarchical versus non-hierarchical, open versus closed, and solo poly versus a more "relationship escalator" oriented approach.

3. Fluid-bonding

Choosing to not use barrier protection during sex with a partner, usually with an agreement about safer sex with other people (and hopefully after appropriate STI testing). Mono folks fluid-bond, too, but I'd never heard the term before becoming part of the poly community. It's possible to fluid-bond with more than one person in poly relationships, it's just a bit more complicated.

4. Compersion

Considered the opposite of jealousy, compersion is the feeling of experiencing joy because another is experiencing joy. While we usually use it in reference to feeling joy when a partner is happy about a metamour (aka your partner's partner), compersion is really the antonym for jealous in any context. That feeling of joy you get when you see a toddler get really excited and joyful? Compersion.

5. Triad & Quad

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A triad is a polyamorous relationship between three people. Usually, this refers to a relationship where all three people are actively involved with each other (A is dating B, B is dating C, and A is dating C), also known as a "delta" or "triangle" triad or the more recent "throuple." However, the term can also refer to "vee" relationships, where two people are both dating one person (the hinge) but not each other. These relationships can be either open or closed/poly-fi.

A quad is the same as a triad, only with four people instead of three.

6. Hierarchical Versus Non-Hierarchical Relationships

Hierarchical relationships usually refers to when some relationships are considered more important than others (ex: "my husband will always come before anyone else"), although in some cases it's more of a descriptor, used to describe levels of commitments (ex: "my husband gets a majority of my resources because we live and are raising children together, but that doesn't mean I love or consider him more important than my other partners"). Prescriptive hierarchical relationships are controversial in the poly community, seen by many as inherently unethical.

Non-hierarchical relationships come in various forms, but the factor that ties them together is that no one relationship holds more power than others by default.

7. Primary/Secondary Partner(s) Versus Nesting Partner(s)

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Hierarchical relationships tend to use the terms primary, secondary, and sometimes tertiary, describing various levels of importance and commitment. Again, these terms can be either prescriptive ("she is my primary partner, so she will always come before my secondary partner") or descriptive ("I raise children and share finances with my wife, so she is my primary partner, and my girlfriend and I don't have those entanglements, so she is my secondary partner"). Primary partners may or may not co-habitate.

A nesting partner, on the other hand, is a live-in partner (or partners). This person may or may not be a primary partner, as well, but nesting partner is often used to replace the term primary partner while still describing a higher level of entanglement in order to avoid hierarchical language.

If you're still curious about poly relationships, check out these misconceptions about polyamory.

Images: Fotolia; Giphy (5)