If you’re new to polyamory — whether you’re just curious about non-monogamy or you’re actually in your first poly relationship — you may find there’s a whole new set of vocabulary words to get used to. For example, you may be familiar with many common varying relationship terms — f*ck buddy, FWB, cohabitation, life partner, LDR, etc. — but less so with more specific terms such as “compersion,” “metamour,” and “nesting partner.” Moreover, the ways in which we talk about polyamory are constantly evolving and may mean different things within different communities.
“It's important to know what type of polyamory someone is practicing because there are a lot of different ways to do it — hierarchical or not, open or closed, kitchen table or parallel, and so on,” Leanne Yau, a polyamorous content creator, educator, and sex-positive advocate, tells Bustle. “Polyamorous people love to communicate using precise language so everyone is on the same page.”
Since there are several different poly relationship types, as well as words that are used to describe or talk about polyamory, it’s helpful to begin with some of the most frequently used ones. So, if you’re ready to explore non-monogamy, or you’re staying mono for now but could use some translations for when you’re around your poly friends, here are 13 polyamory terms to get you started.
1. Ethical Non-Monogamy
The practice of engaging in multiple sexual or romantic relationships simultaneously, with the consent and knowledge of all parties, is known as ethical non-monogamy — as opposed to unethical non-monogamy, aka cheating. An umbrella term that encompasses polyamory, open relationships, swinging, solo poly, relationship anarchy, and poly-fi relationships, ENM is sometimes referred to as “consensual” or “responsible” non-monogamy. Sexologist Carol Queen recommends The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy as a primer to begin exploring the concept.
2. Polyamory (Poly)
Like ENM, poly also describes the practice of engaging in multiple romantic relationships simultaneously with the consent and knowledge of all parties. Poly means “many,” and amory means “love,” which may or may not include sexual activity. “This term has also come to signify a community that coheres around people who engage in poly practices,” says Queen, and can help people “get support and information” as they navigate poly communities.
There are different ways to structure poly relationships, such as hierarchical versus non-hierarchical, open versus closed, or solo poly versus a more “relationship escalator”-oriented approach.
Choosing to not use barrier protection during sex with a partner, usually with an agreement about safer sex with other people (ideally after appropriate STI testing), is called fluid-bonding. “In addition to protecting self and partners from STIs, in a poly context, fluid-bonding can also be a decision that demarcates connected relationships from more casual ones,” explains Queen. It’s possible to fluid-bond with more than one person in poly relationships, but when it comes to safety and testing, it may require a little extra communication between each partner.
If you’re “monogamish,” a term attributed to sex columnist Dan Savage, that means you and your partner have agreed that while you don’t necessarily identify as poly, you aren’t 100% closed to other partners, either. It helps describe the gray area of being together while not strictly adhering to monogamy. Queen describes it as “an open relationship variant ... a mostly-monogamous relationship that’s flexible enough to admit occasional play with others, or a ‘pass’ when someone goes on vacation.” It can be a good way to dip your toe in non-monogamy if you’re curious.
What is a metamour, you might ask? This one is simple. In a poly relationship, a metamour is “your partner's other partner who you are not dating,” Yau says. Whether or not you know or come in contact with that person is up to the boundaries you and your partner establish together.
Considered the opposite of jealousy, compersion describes the feeling of experiencing joy because another is experiencing joy. In the poly community, compersion usually refers to feeling happy when a partner is happy about their metamour. According to Queen, compersion can be “a strong bonding element and source of support in poly relationships, and a powerful tool to manage jealousy.”
Just because a person has practiced polyamory before doesn’t necessarily mean they always will, and the same goes for monogamy. In fact, you can be comfortable with pursuing both. “A person is ambiamorous if they are comfortable being in a monogamous or polyamorous relationship,” Yau says. “This is not to be confused with someone who is happy to date multiple people casually until they pick their favorite for a monogamous relationship — that's just regular dating.”
8. Anchor Partner
There are some people who are tied to each other, so to speak, in poly relationships, and that’s where anchor partners come in. “An anchor partner is broadly defined in two different ways in the community,” Yau says. “It can either mean a partner you are practically or logistically enmeshed with, such as a person you are living with, married to, or have children with (or someone who you are planning on doing these things with), or someone who emotionally grounds you and is someone you rely on for long-term partnership.”
9. Hierarchical Versus Non-Hierarchical Relationships
Hierarchical relationships usually refer to situations where some poly relationships are considered more important than others (e.g., “my husband will always come before anyone else”). However, in some cases it’s more of a descriptor used to describe levels of commitment (e.g., “my wife gets a majority of my resources because we live and are raising children together, but that doesn’t mean I love or consider her more important than my other partners”).
Prescriptive hierarchical relationships are controversial in the poly community, seen by many as inherently unethical. “I think these hierarchies have to be disclosed upfront to potential partners to give them an idea of how much time and energy you can commit to the relationship,” Yau says. “Then there are imposed hierarchies that can be toxic and even abusive in some situations if not handled carefully.”
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. “In non-hierarchical polyamory, it’s not that you have to treat everyone equally, but that each relationship is allowed to grow organically without any rules imposed on it by a third party,” Yau explains. “Everyone has equal opportunity to negotiate the terms of the relationship without outside influence.”
10. Primary/Secondary Partner(s) Versus Nesting Partner(s)
Hierarchical relationships tend to use the terms primary, secondary, and sometimes tertiary to describe various levels of importance and commitment. Again, these terms can either be 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 cohabitate. “It's useful to think of these language options as a way to avoid — or at least recognize — hierarchy and relational assumptions,” says Queen.
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.
A triad is a poly 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. It’s also known as a “delta,” “triangle” triad, or “throuple.” These relationships can be either open or closed.
Poly triad can also refer to “vee” relationships, where two people are both dating one person (known as “the hinge”) but not each other. Queen notes that this can also be a synonym for “threesome” when it has “more of a sex-as-play connotation,” such as a setup involving “unicorns” (used to refer to the third partner involved in the hookup).
Queen defines polycule as “a grouping consisting of poly partners and their partners” akin to “an extended poly family.” It’s almost like a mini poly community that establishes its own rules of engagement and can necessitate communication, from scheduling arrangements to STI testing to childcare, says Queen. The relationships within the polycule can vary as well: For example, Queen explains, members of a polycule can decide if the group is closed to its participants or open to playing or having relationships outside of it. If sex and romance is confined to the people in the polycule, this is also known as polyfidelity, says Queen.
13. Relationship Anarchy
A term that has its roots in political anarchism, relationship anarchy describes a philosophy of viewing open relationships and polyamory “without accepting hierarchy or socially-derived rules about what a relationship ‘should’ be,” explains Queen. “It is an extremely useful poly term for those who are charting their own path, and it helps focus in on the involved partners and their autonomy and emphasizes that they must make and consent to their relationships’ rules,” she says.
Carol Queen, staff sexologist at Good Vibrations
Leanne Yau, polyamorous content creator, educator, and sex-positive advocate
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