Poly or Open: What’s the Difference?

I love how my relationship sparks conversations amongst strangers.

A friend of mine had a conversation with a woman in line at Subway, and somehow the conversation turned to polyamory. He briefly described my relationship, and she said, “Oh, that’s not poly, that’s an open relationship. Poly is when you are seeing more than one person, and don’t see anyone else outside those relationships.” (In other words, polyfidelity).

Thanks for clarifying, total stranger.

Though her comment was obviously short-sighted, and perhaps described HER version of poly, it did make me think about the definitions we use. For me, polyamory is essentially having an open relationship (meaning we sleep with people outside of our relationship), but that the possibility of more is fully accepted.

Do I think people in an open relationship aren’t open to more than just sex? No. They will define their relationship in whatever way they choose, and it’s become quite clear that there is no wrong way to do poly. There are plenty of wrong ways to do relationships, of course, such as lying or not being honest with your feelings, or pursuing a poly lifestyle for the wrong reasons, but if your head is screwed on straight, how you define your relationship should be up to you.

Just for shits and giggles, let’s look at how Wiki defines these terms:

An open relationship is a relationship in which the participants are free to have emotional and/or physical relationships with other partners, often within mutually agreed limits.

Polyamory is the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

Everyone has their own definition. Some think an open relationship is more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, kind of like what you’d do on a vacation. Some think open relationships mean you just have sex with other people, and don’t have the option of developing deeper connections. The Subway girl believes my relationship is “open,” until I close it – if I close it with one person it’s monogamy, and if I close it with more than one person, then I can say it’s polyamorous. Until I’m commited, I’m “just open.” So says Subway Girl.

I do notice that the words I choose solicit a different response. “I’m in an open relationship” usually gets more negative responses, like people thinking our needs aren’t being met, or that Luke and I don’t really like each other – that somehow the relationship is flawed. “I’m in a polyamorous relationship” usually elicits more questions – people tend to recognize the love part of the relationship more easily.

On the flip side, if we were in an open relationship because our needs weren’t being met, or because we were unhappy and didn’t know how to leave, or any other lame reason, I probably wouldn’t say “We’re polyamorous.” So in a sense, I can see why people might equate open with flawed.

So many terms. So many labels. I hate being labeled, as we all do. But the words we choose tell people things about our relationships. The problem is, no matter what you say, people are going to make up their own definitions anyway.

So what’s yours? Let’s pretend that it’s up to you to define these relationship terms. When someone says they’re in an open relationship, what’s your first reaction, versus if they say they’re polyamorous?

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