Polygamy occurs when someone is married to more than one spouse. Polyamory involves having more than one romantic relationship at the same time.
What is the difference between polyamory and polygamy?
Marriage isn’t for everyone, but apparently, some people can’t get enough of it. Perhaps this is the case with polygamy, a noun that’s commonly confused with polyamory. The Word Counter covered polygamy in the past, and discovered how its ‘a practice of having more than one spouse simultaneously.’
Polyamory is not quite the opposite of polygamy, but it is an entirely different concept. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the noun polyamory is “the philosophy or state of being in love or romantically involved with more than one person at a time” (“Polyamory 1354).
Polyamory is different from polygamy because it’s not exclusive to marriage. No one needs to marry to have a polyamorous or “open relationship.” If a married couple has open, sexual relationships with other people, they are still polyamorous. A married couple is not in a polygamous marriage unless they have two or more spouses.
What does polygamy mean?
The noun polygamy is an umbrella term for any practice of having more than one spouse, and within this practice are two gender-specific terms:
- Polyandry (n.): when a woman has more than one husband.
- Polygyny (n.): when a man has more than one wife.
A polygamous (an adjective) relationship is the opposite of a monogamous relationship (a relationship with only one person). If someone says they’re in a “polygamous marriage,” they’re telling you they are married to one or more spouses.
- “The most common form of polygamy by far is polygyny, a marriage in which one man marries multiple women.’” — Elle
- “Their main focus is to help people leaving polygamous families and to educate the public.” — The New York Times
- Pumza Sixishe lives in South Africa, where some Christians, tribal traditionalists, and Muslims practice polygamy….” — The Salt Lake Tribune
- “Today, some fundamentalist Mormon polygamists believe plural marriage is necessary to reach the highest level of heaven.” — The Guardian
What does polyamory mean?
The noun polyamory is the practice of having romantic relationships with more than one person at the same time.
- “Many of the polyamorous families Dr. Sheff spoke during her research placed a higher value on chosen relationships than hierarchies… ” — Vice
- “Following their separation in 2019, the father became polyamorous and began seeing a woman…” — Coast Mountain News
- “Now a cottage industry of coaches and educators has cropped up to help polyamorous partners strive for compersion…” — The New York Times
- “The foundation of polyamory is based on the concept that love is not a finite resource.” — The Irish Times
Where do the words polygamy and polyamory come from?
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, the noun polygamy entered the English language in the 16th-century from French polygamie. The French term incorporates the Greek prefix polu- (‘much’ or ‘often’) and the suffix -gamos (‘marrying’).
French polygamie ultimately stems from Late Latin via Greek polugamia and polugamos for ‘often marrying,’ highlighting its main difference from the noun polyamory (Chantrell 386). Instead of referencing marriage with -gamos, polyamory pairs -poly with Latin amor for ‘love’ (1355).
Bigamy vs. deuterogamy vs. digamy
Polygamy is associated with terms like bigamy, deuterogamy, and digamy because they involve the practice of acquiring another spouse.
As noted by Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern English Usage, bigamy is “the act of marrying one person while being married to another” and is often a criminal act when committed knowingly (Garner 115–709).
In contrast, deuterogamy and digamy reference ‘a legal second marriage.’ Both deuterogamy and digamy occur after a divorce or the death of a spouse, but Garner warns how “digamy” is a needless variant that readers can easily confuse with bigamy (the illegal second marriage).
Garner also notes that while deuterogamy is more common than digamy, it’s generally more appropriate to use “second marriage” (115). In the United States especially, the phrase “second marriage” already implies that one is divorced or widowed.
Common misconceptions around polyamory
There are several ill-informed ideas around polyamory, such as that it’s an endless cycle of intimate relationships between other couples, marriages, and new partners. But while this might be a reality for some people, not all polyamorous relationships look the same.
Who can be polyamorous?
Polyamory is completely legal in the United States. Any consenting US adult can decide to be polyamorous if they believe it’s right for them.
Polyamorous relationships can take place between:
- Married and unmarried couples
- Two or more married couples
- One married/unmarried couple and other “single” individuals (without primary partners)
- One or more single people (without primary partners)
As mentioned above, people can engage in polyamory without a primary partner (aka solo or single poly) because they have zero interest in being in any monogamous or primary relationship. The practice of becoming one’s own “primary” is especially common for single parents who have more important relationships to focus on.
For those who are in a primary relationship or polyamorous marriage, their goals will also differ by the individual. Some polyamorous people place a premium on sexual activity, while others are more interested in emotional intimacy and/or loving relationships.
Many poly couples establish boundaries for their partner relationships, as well, such as
who they see and when, where, or how often they communicate with their other partners.
Other informative terms that help demystify non-monogamous practices include:
- Comparison: The ability to feel joy for another person (often your metamour) without feeling jealous.
- Egalitarian polyamory: the practice of simultaneous relationships without a primary or secondary hierarchy; all partners are equal.
- Kitchen table poly: a “poly family” or “polycule” or network of polyamorous relationships that are friendly with each other, even when certain individuals are not romantically involved.
- Metamour: A term of endearment for your partner’s other partner.
- Nesting relationship: the practice of intimate cohabitation that does not always involve someone’s primary partner.
Is polyamory a form of cheating?
Polyamory is not a form of “cheating,” which assumes that someone is unfaithful because they are hiding an affair from a monogamous partner or a polyamorous relationship. That’s right. Cheating can occur within “consensual nonmonogamy,” too.
Remember the rules mentioned above? If someone breaks the rules around their intimate relationships, their primary partner might consider that cheating.
This is precisely why a single person can be a polyamorist, but if they’re “playing” people, they are not participating in polyamory. If someone’s casual partners are not aware that they’re seeing other people (to the extent of deceit), that is not polyamory.
The trick to discerning polyamory is that it’s an open understanding between consenting adults. In this case, “open” does not just infer an opening to a relationship but the transparency necessary for partners to be healthy, safe, and loving.
Is polygamy and polyamory the same as swinging?
The noun “swinger” either references a ‘fashionable and social clubgoer’ or, as Lexico puts it: “a person who engages in group sex or the swapping of sexual partners.” Meanwhile, the Cambridge Dictionary extends this definition to mean “someone who is willing to have sex often with many different people.”
But while it’s easy to see how “swinger” intersects with the meaning of polygamy or polyamory, the consensus of the internet is that swinging (a verb) is more of a social event between a couple and other people, as opposed to one partner doing their own thing. Therefore, a polygamist or polyamorist might be a swinger, but a swinger is not always a polygamist/polyamorist.
Test how well you understand the difference between polygamy and polyamory with the following multiple-choice questions.
- True or false: A polycule consists of a network of monogamous people.
- ___________ is the practice of having more than one husband.
d. All of the above
- “Polygamous relationship” can mean ____________.
a. More than one wife
b. More than one husband
c. More than two more spouses
d. All of the above
- The antonym of polyamorist is ____________.
d. None of the above
- A network of friendly polyamourous relationships is called a ___________.
- Barrett-Ibarria, S. “What Happens to Polyamorous Relationships When One Partner Has Kids.” Vice, Vice.com, 23 Aug 2019.
- Burgum, B. “Polyamorous Relationships: A Definition Of Polyamory, How It Works And Why It’s Not All About Sex.” Elle, Elle.com, 7 Jun 2020.
- The Canadian Press. “COVID-19 rules in B.C. ‘fraught’ with ambiguity: judge in child custody case.” Coast Mountain News, 5 Jan 2021.
- Carlisle, N. “The Mormon polygamists who believe Missouri is the ‘promised land.'” The Guardian, TheGuardian.com, 7 Jan 2019.
- Chantrell, Glynnis, Ed. “Polygamy.” The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 386.
- Garner, B. “Bigamy; polygamy; deuterogamy.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 115.
- Garner, B. “Polygamy; polyandry; polygyny.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 709.
- “Ethical Hierarchical Polyamory…and is it for me??” Blackpolynationorg, Medium, 6 Feb 2020.
- “Glossary of Terms.” Polyammering.blog, n.d.
- Hines, A. “Polyamory Works for Them.” The New York Times, NYTimes.com, 3 Aug 2019.
- Hope, R. “Managing Metamours in Polyamorous Relationships.” Polyamory Today, Medium, 20 Nov 2019.
- Kavanagh, J. “Building bridges: How polyamory made me a better friend, lover and person.” The Irish Times, Irishtimes.com, 19 Sept 2020.
- Lee, F. R. “’Big Love’: Real Polygamists Look at HBO Polygamists and Find Sex.” The New York Times, NYTimes.com, 28 March 2006.
- “Polyamory,” “polyandry,” and “polygamy.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 1354–1355.
- “Polygamy.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
- Sheff, E.A. “Solo Polyamory, Singleish, Single & Poly.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 14 Oct 2013.
- “Swinger.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
- “Swinger.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
- Stack, P. F. “Polygamy lives on in LDS temples, spurring agony, angst and a key question…” The Salt Lake Tribune, Sltrib.com, 24 Nov 2019.