What’s the Difference Between Polyamory & an Open Relationship?

a selection of venn diagrams
Image by patchtok / CC BY

Hi Page,

I have been thinking of something for the past week or so, and it has been scratching at my mind and I’m not really sure why because I don’t really care about labels.

Is there technically a difference between open relationships and polyamory? Or does it depend on the people involved and what their personal belief is regarding those?

I’ve done some reading (obviously), and I’m getting mixed reviews. Some sources say that open relationships strictly mean that both partners agree to have sex with other people BUT no emotional attachment, whereas others say that having an open relationship is just an umbrella term for all things ethical non-monogamy, such as swinging, polyamory, etc.,

Can you be polyamorous AND in an open relationship? If you are in an open relationship, does that mean you’re not polyamorous or does it make you LESS polyamorous?

Why I am asking this is because I have a female partner and she sees us as in an open relationship, she has other partners and from what I’ve gathered, they are not just sexual partners, but emotional ones too. So I’m a little confused if open relationship is the right label due to a lot of people believing that open relationships you can only have sexual partners.

I would love to hear your viewpoint on this

Thanks in advance.

Yes, There’s Definitely a Bit of Confusion — and Here’s Why

It’s definitely understandable that you’re getting mixed answers when you try to explore this.

When you talk about “open relationships,” there are a couple of ways of looking at it. In one view, “open” is a modifier of relationship, explaining whether the people involved are allowed to have additional partners. So in a certain sense, all relationships are either open or closed.

Polyamory (except for polyfidelity, a form of non-monogamy where people have more than one partner but can’t seek new ones) is a form of relationship that is open.

So polyamory is a form of open relationship.

However, “open relationship” is also used as a phrase colloquially by some people to describe relationships that are sexually open but not emotionally open.

I think that’s where the difference comes from. Just in how the labels are conceived of and used. Polyamorous relationships are open so can credibly be called “open” relationships (aside from ones where there is polyfidelity, as I mentioned before).

But not all people who are saying that they’re in “open relationships” are polyamorous. Which might make it so polyamorous people could find it less helpful to identify themselves as being in an open relationship (although in a technical sense they are, since their relationships aren’t closed).

Descriptive Versus Prescriptive Labeling

In general, I take the stance that there isn’t necessarily objectively one right label to use in any given situation. Instead, the right label is a matter of who you’re talking with and what you’re trying to communicate to them. This is known in linguistics as being descriptive about labeling rather than prescriptive.

If you’re worried that by identifying as being in an open relationship, you’d be sending the wrong message, then I think it’s fine to avoid it as a label. If you don’t care about a potential mixup, I say you’d be fine to identify that way.

Since I’m from the descriptive school of labeling when it comes to relationships (and just in general), I think labels can be helpful for communication and understanding one another (especially if we’re able to take a second and clarify or convey our own operational definition to another person). Words are there to describe concepts. To serve reality rather than the other way around.

What gets me a little concerned is when people tend to get prescriptive with their labels — i.e., they say that because something is identified using a certain word that it always has to behave within a small set of parameters. I typically find that an unhelpful and unrealistic approach to communication, trying to shoehorn reality to make it fit into the definition of a word, rather than letting labels describe the reality that exists.

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