The good news: You actually don’t need a special dictionary to talk about your own non-monogamous relationship, or to understand the different types of non-monogamy that your friends or lovers may practice. You just need to know a few basic terms and you’ll be well on your way.
Below, with the help of six polyamory educators, we put together a non-monogamy glossary. Scroll down to become a student of the increasingly popular relationship structure. (Note: We have chosen not to put the below terms in alphabetical order, opting instead to put them in an order that will maximize understanding.)
Common types of non-monogamy
Non-monogamy is an umbrella term for any relationship structure wherein people are allowed to, within the agreements of their relationship(s), form romantic and/or sexual connections with multiple people.
There are a number of non-monogamous relationship agreements and designs that fall under the non-monogamous catch-all. To name just a few: Having one-night stands, hooking up with random people when outside of a certain zip code, being monogamish, swinging, relationship anarchy, hierarchical non-monogamy, polyamory, and polyfidelity (more on each below).
ENM and CNM
These are acronyms for ethical non-monogamy (ENM) and consensual non-monogamy (CNM), respectively. Both of these terms are synonyms for non-monogamy and are both becoming less common in favor of non-monogamy (sans any additional descriptor).
Historically, the term ethical non-monogamy was used to separate non-monogamy from, well, unethical cheating. However, many non-monogamists are pushing to move away from this term as non-monogamy is not non-monogamy if it is not ethical. Plus, the term ethical is hard to define and ambiguous, notes polyamory educator Jase Lindgren, co-host of Multiamory Podcast and co-author of Multiamory: Essential Tools for Modern Relationships.
Generally, “the term consensual non-monogamy is an accepted umbrella term for relationships that are not monogamous where everyone involved is aware and fully consenting,” says Lindgren. “It’s also the standard term used in research for things like polyamory, swinging, open relationships, and the lifestyle,” he says. But it too is falling out of practice due to the fact that non-consensual non-monogamy isn’t non-monogamy at all, but cheating.
Polyamory literally translates to many (poly) loves (amory). “Polyamory is a form of non-monogamy where the people involved acknowledge the capacity for, are willing to engage with, and/or have multiple loving relationships at one time,” says polyamorous educator Jessica Levity Daylover, the creator behind the Remodeled Love Instagram and Remodeled Love podcast.
Polyamorous relationships are relationships wherein people are able to have committed, ongoing, emotional, intimate, and/or sexual relationships with more than one person.
Open relationships are a form of non-monogamy. While, by definition, polyamory centers love, open relationships (typically) center more on physical and/or sexual connections.
No doubt, some people in open relationships also name and acknowledge to crush on and be in love with additional people. However, typically people in open relationships prioritize the emotional stability, soundness, and security of just one partner, while still allowing extra-relationship physical connections.
Relationship orientation refers to an individual’s inherent inclination or preference regarding the type of romantic or interpersonal relationships they are attracted to or seek. Some people who practice polyamory feel that their capacity to love many people is as innate a part of their human fibers as their sexual orientation (or, what gender(s), if any, they have the capacity to have romantic and/or sexual feelings for), or eye color.
Other people who practice polyamory do not see it as an orientation, but rather a structural or lifestyle choice that they are making, due to things like personal values, community, and resources.
While understanding the differences can be useful and validating to the polyamory practitioners, as well as the polyam-curious, Daylover notes that it ultimately doesn’t change the validity of the relationship. “Whether polyamory is something someone is or something someone does doesn’t matter, so much as the fact that you are accepting of it,” she says.
Someone is ambiamorous when they report a level of comfortability in both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, says polyamory educator Emily Matlack, co-host of Multiamory Podcast and co-author of Multiamory: Essential Tools for Modern Relationships. “Being in one or the other doesn’t cause them any sort of emotional distress, and it is possible that they will go from polyamorous relationships to monogamous ones and back again throughout the course of their life,” she explains. (There is a great episode on the Multiamory podcast about ambiamory).
Other types of relationship structures that fall under the non-monogamy umbrella
Swingers, sometimes known as people in The Lifestyle, are non-monogamous folks who prioritize sexual relationships with people outside their (usually, two-person) relationship, rather than emotional entwinements, says Matlack.
“Swinger couples often (but not always) consist of a heterosexual dyad who engages in sexual play with another couple,” she says. One example of this is something known as a partner swap, which involves two couples exchanging sexual partners for the night, usually in the same room. “Levels of entwinement from couple to couple vary based on personal comfortability and differing levels of emotional entanglement,” Matlack notes.
The word throuple is the love child of the words “couple” and “three,” The term refers to a balanced, intentional, and committed relationship between three people. Typically, the relationship between the three people is romantic and loving. (When three people have a purely sexual relationship, the term threesome or threeway is usually used instead).
The term throuple may be common in the media, but actually, most non-monogamous folks use the word triad to describe their three-person relationships instead.
A triad is a relationship that includes three people, says psychotherapist and sex and relationship expert Rachel Wright, LMFT, host of the podcast The Wright Conversations: A Podcast About Sex, Relationships, and Mental Health.
Most commonly, people use the term triad when all three people are romantically and/or sexually involved with each other. However, sometimes people use the word triad for different relationship shapes, too. For instance, people in a vee relationship (where one person is sexually and/or romantically involved with two people, but neither of those two people are sexually or romantically involved with one another) may use this term, too.
“A triad can be open or closed,” says Wright. “There are triads that also date and have sex outside of their relationship, and there are others that do not.”
Put simply, “a quad is a four-person relationship,” says certified sex coach Gigi Engle, ACS, CSE, CSC, author of All The F*cking Mistakes: a guide to sex, love, and life. Specifically, it’s a four-person relationship that is romantic and/or sexual. “It may be closed to the four people within the dynamic, or it may have space for other romantic and sexual partners,” she says.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT) is an open relationship agreement where one (or both) partners are free to engage in sex with other people… so long as they don’t tell their (primary) partner. “People in DADT relationships aren’t typically “dating” these other people—they’re just having casual sex with them,” says sex educator and writer, Zachary Zane, author of Boyslut: A Memoir and Manifesto and sex expert for Momentum Intimacy.
“DADT policies are only feasible when you are not having sex with a lot of people besides your primary partner,” he says. Or, if one partner travels a lot for work, or if you live separately. “If you’re constantly having sex with others, and then needing to lie about what you did and where you were to your partner, it’s likely that your relationship will explode rather quickly,” he explains. Makes sense.
Hierarchical polyamory is a polyamorous relationship wherein there is an (often, explicit) ranking system amongst an individual’s romantic and/or sexual partnerships. Typically, these partners are denoted as primary, seconds, tertiary, and so on.
Usually, the primary partners in hierarchical relationships get priority over a person’s time, resources, and emotional capacity. Often, the primary partner is also allowed to set boundaries around what kind of sex their partner can have with their second and tertiary partners, as well as what activities they can do together, and how deep the emotions can get.
Many polyamory educators encourage people practicing this brand of polyamory to make sure they are not removing agency from non-primary partners. You can learn more about this by following Gab Alexa on Instagram and TikTok, as well as by reading The Ethical Slut, Opening Up, and Building Open Relationships.
As the term anarchy suggests, relationship anarchy (RA) is a relationship model that rejects traditional relationship norms. Coined by Andie Nordgren in 2006 the publication of The short instructional manifesto for relationship anarchy, RA is a style where there are no rules, expectations, or limitations beyond what the people in the relationship explicitly decide on. As you may guess, communication, communication, and more communication are the foundation on which anarchist relationships are built.
Garden Party Polyamory
Garden Party Polyamory (GPP) names the type of relationship that an individual’s other partners (metamours) have. GPP is essentially a softened version of Kitchen Table Polyam (KTP), though neither option is universally better, or more evolved than the other. Here, “the non-romantic partners in a polycule [a network or interconnected group of people who are involved in polyamorous relationships with one another] aren’t super close,” says Engle. “You still like and respect one another, but aren’t necessarily friends,” she says.
The term itself suggests that if your partner(s) were to host a garden party (or other party), you’d feel comfortable going and interacting with your partner, your partner’s other partners (your metamours), and your metamours other partners, Engle explains.
Kitchen Table Polyamory
“Kitchen Table Polyamory is the kind of polyamory most commonly represented in media and TV shows,” says Daylover.
It names a configuration wherein all (or any combination of) partners and metamours feel comfortable enough to hang out around the kitchen table, sharing a meal or a coffee, says Lindgren. “This doesn’t mean that they all live together (are nesting partners), but that there is a level of familiarity where everyone is comfortable hanging out with their partner, as well as the other people their partner is dating,” he says.
“The idea here is that a person may have multiple relationships and that those people know about the other’s existence, but that they don’t ever hang out or interact,” explains Lindgren. Though, this is rarely a hard and fast rule, but rather just a preference for how much the metamours’ lives intersect, he says. “For example, it is not uncommon in parallel polyamory for the metamours to have met, to be connected on social media, and/or to have each other’s phone numbers in case of emergency,” he says.
To be clear: Parallel polyamory is a valid preference and structure. “Sometimes people judge parallel polyamory, assuming that it’s less evolved than kitchen table polyamory,” says Daylover. “But that is not the case!” she says.
Other terms you’ll hear in polyamorous communities
“An anchor is a partner who you plan to have in your life with for a long, long time,” says Daylover. “Anchor partners consider one another when making major life decisions.” The connection between them is stable, and both (or all) feel secure that the relationship isn’t going anywhere, she adds.
A nesting partner, simply put, is a person you share a home with, says Daylover. “If you do not live with a partner you are not a nesting partner,” she says. While nesting partners are more than roommates, they are not necessarily romantic or sexual. It is possible for nesting partners to be platonic, she says.
“A comet refers to a romantic and/or sexual partner who you only see in person every so often,” says Lindgren. There are a wide variety of reasons you may not see this person regularly, such as relationship saturation, scheduling, or long distance, says Engle.
For the record, comet relationships don’t denote a lack of seriousness. “Often a comet is someone who you have very strong feelings for, but for whatever reason, they aren’t able to be in your life all the time,” she says. It is, for example, possible to have a comet partner who is also an anchor, says Daylover. “My husband has a comet partner who he doesn’t see regularly, but who is an anchor partner,” she says.
Your metamour is your partner(s)’ partner(s), who you are not also dating, says Daylover. “If you are also dating your partner’s partner, meaning, you are [both] dating the same person, you would not be metamours, you would just be partners,” she says.
Compersion is the experience of feeling joy in response to someone we care about feeling joy. People experience compersion toward their friends all the time, says Daylover, but the term is most commonly used in the world of polyamory for the feelings you get when your partner is engaging romantically and/or sexually with another person or another one of their partners.
Often, compersion is defined as the opposite of jealousy. While that is a good starting place for understanding the sensation, that actually isn’t fully accurate, says Daylover. “It’s possible to experience compersion and jealousy simultaneously,” she says.
Polyamorous folks believe love is an infinite resource, meaning, in theory, they could love an infinite amount of people. The term polysaturated acknowledges that while love may not be limited, time and energy are. “Someone is polysaturated when—due to other partners, kids, and other relationships—their time, emotional bandwidth, and energy levels are at capacity,” explains Daylover.
Navigating the world of non-monogamy can feel like exploring a foreign lexicon, with a plethora of terms and relationship structures that may initially seem overwhelming. However, it’s heartening to know that embracing and discussing non-monogamy doesn’t require an extensive dictionary. With a basic understanding of key terms, anyone can delve in. The significance of labels lies not in their definition but in the acceptance and understanding they bring to relationships.
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