Have you noticed that these last few months the media has REALLY been paying attention to consensual nonmonogamy (CNM), the practice of having multiple sexual or romantic relationships at the same time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved?

From The New Yorker’s How Did Polyamory Become so Popular? to The Wall Street Journal’s Polyamory: Lots of Sex, Even More Scheduling, and New York Magazine’s January cover story devoted to Polyamory: A Practical Guide for the Curious Couple, nonmonogamy seems to be everywhere. 

But there’s a weird hiccup in this coverage: It ALL centers around polyamory, a form of partnered nonmonogamy involving multiple committed romantic relationships at the same time.

Reading all the coverage, you might believe that polyamory is the main or even only way to do nonmonogamy. This is simply not true. 

Polyamory is one of a number of possible forms of CNM. Most importantly: It is neither the most popular nor the most widely-desired form!

Conflating polyamory with the entire landscape of nonmonogamy positions a relatively uncommon (and particularly challenging to navigate) form of consensual nonmonogamy as the de-facto option for those who might want to practice CNM!

On one hand, it’s great to see all this relatively positive coverage: It normalizes the concept of nonmonogamy and reduces the long-standing stigma for all of us.

But for those just beginning their exploration of the ethical options beyond “one-size-fits-all” monogamy, this is misleading at best…and potentially harmful at worst.

Nonmonogamy Is Getting Popular

There’s no doubt that more people are interested in exploring some form of nonmonogamy than ever before. And interest is growing with the younger generations. 

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A 2023 YouGov poll of a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults in 2023 found that:

  • 34% of all Americans (and about 50% of Gen Z’s and Millennials!) said their ideal relationship is something other than complete monogamy; 
  • an additional 11% weren’t sure what their ideal was; 
  • only 55% of all Americans (and only about 40% of Gen Z’s and Millennials) wanted complete monogamy.

That’s a lot of people who no longer see monogamy as their only option or their ideal relationship structure, especially among those who are still in their peak relationships-forming years. 

Let’s look at what exactly they’re interested in and what their options are.

Curious about what type of relationship is best suited to you? Click here to take the LoveSmarter™ Ideal Relationship quiz…then keep an eye out for the follow-up email packed with deeper context about your results. 

Polyamory ≠ Nonmonogamy 

Remember how in high school geometry, we learned that a square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not a square? Well polyamory is like that: it’s the square, and consensual nonmonogamy is the (much larger!) rectangle.

In addition to polyamory, there are two other main ways of doing nonmonogamy:

  • Open monogamy is a form of partnered nonmonogamy involving one committed relationship and multiple sexual partners
  • Singledom is a form of unpartnered nonmonogamy involving no committed relationships, only casual sexual partners. 

We don’t currently have representative data that indicate what percentage of nonmonogamous folks are in polyamorous relationships compared to other relationship structures. 

But we do have data indicating what kind of relationship structure folks would ideally like to be in, and polyamory is NOT the structure that appeals to most people interested in some form of nonmonogamy.

In January 2022, I teamed up with Ashley Madison, the world’s largest married dating site, to conduct a survey about ideal relationship types. We used a nationally-representative sample of the U.S. adult population obtained through the independent surveying service YouGov. 

As you can see in the graph below, only 5% of women and 7% of men chose polyamory as their ideal relationship type

Idealrel Yougov 3.02

(Just to be clear, this was not a survey of Ashley Madison (AM) members or in any way influenced by AM’s employees: I wrote the questions, YouGov conducted the survey, AM paid for it.
Read more about our findings from that national survey in
this report.)

While that’s not a negligible percentage (it’s slightly higher than the percentage of people who identify as LGBT, for example), that number was lower than the number of people who chose both open monogamy and singledom as their ideal.

In short, polyamory is NOT the relationship type that appeals to most people interested in some form of nonmonogamy, or even to most people interested in partnered nonmonogamy

Giving the impression that the only or main alternative to monogamy is polyamory limits  their options substantially and pushes them in the direction of an alternative they are less likely to be interested in, and that might not work for them.

Conflating Polyamory with Nonmonogamy Can Be Harmful

Making people think that all nonmonogamy, or even all partnered nonmonogamy, equals polyamory is not only misleading, it can be actively harmful. 

While polyamory and open monogamy both involve at least one committed partnership that’s sexually nonexclusive, navigating multiple concurrent committed relationships at the same time is very different from navigating one sexually open committed relationship. It’s one thing when you and your partner have sex with other people in a relatively casual setting. It’s a whole different ball game when you fall in love and seriously date multiple people. Multiple love connections add a level of complexity unmatched by any other relationship feature. They require significantly more time, energy, bandwidth, emotional stability, and a different set of individual and relationship tools to navigate them safely and ethically.

It’s not impossible to do polyamory well, and I’ve seen it done many times. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen it implode even more often because it’s difficult to pull off. 

Based on everything I’ve learned in almost two decades of practicing, studying, and consulting on sex and relationships, most nonmonogamy-curious people are not only less interested in doing polyamory (as our Ashley Madison-YouGov survey suggested), they just don’t have the necessary tools to do it well when they first enter the world of nonmonogamy. 

That’s not to say people can’t acquire the tools they need. They certainly can and I encourage (implore?) anyone attempting polyamory to really make sure they have what it takes to do it well! 

In either case, a lot of the pain and suffering people experience while exploring  partnered nonmonogamy happens because they’re mixing up which of those two main relationship structures–polyamory or open monogamy–they’re trying to navigate. And the media’s almost exclusive focus on polyamory is really not helping. 

You can’t win the open monogamy game playing by polyamory rules, and you can’t win the polyamory game playing by open monogamy rules. If you’re going to succeed at either, you have to know which game you’re playing, understand the rules of that game, and have a partner who shares your commitment to following those rules. 

Of course, things can get messy even when you’re doing your best to stay within the rules, but at least you’re not actively creating problems by playing a completely different game.

Conflating polyamory with other forms of nonmonogamy, especially in these still early days of nontraditional relationship options, confuses people about what kind of relationships they’re trying to design, leading them to fail at whichever option they try.

Understanding the Nonmonogamy Spectrum

Given the increased interest in nonmonogamous relationship structures, and the critical importance of knowing how to navigate them successfully, we have to better understand the spectrum of available options and organize them in a way that makes sense without getting overwhelmed by too many alternatives. 

The broadest and biggest umbrella term is nonmonogamy, which means having multiple sexual and/or romantic partners over the same or a short period of time. The type of nonmonogamy someone is doing is determined by the combination of the number of partners of each category (sexual vs romantic), the way partners engage with them, and the way they go about disclosing (or not) to each other about their other partners. 

At its most basic, nonmonogamy can be divided into unpartnered nonmonogamy and partnered nonmonogamy. 

  • Unpartnered nonmonogamy refers to situations when a person has multiple short-term casual sexual or dating partners but no long-term committed romantic partners (i.e. when one is single). You can read more about unpartnered nonmonogamy in this post.
  • Partnered nonmonogamy refers to relationship situations where a person has at least one long-term committed romantic relationship, as well as additional sexual and/or romantic partners.

There are many ways to do partnered nonmonogamy, but all of them fall into one of two main conceptual categories: Open monogamy (one romantic partner, multiple casual sexual partners), or Polyamory (multiple committed romantic partners). 

While there are some similarities between these two, there are also some major differences that require us to treat them as two separate “countries” on the relationship landscape.

Types Nm

Let’s look at each of the two main forms of partnered nonmonogamy in turn.

Open Monogamy: Monogamish, Swinging, and Open Relationships

Although most people think monogamy means complete romantic and sexual exclusivity, “open monogamy” is not a contradiction in terms. “Monogamy” literally means a single marriage (monos – one; gamous – marriage), not a single sexual partner. When you extend the concept of marriage beyond modern humans who like to sign marriage certificates, and apply it to premodern humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, monogamy simply means having one long-term romantic relationship. To use the terms typically used in psychology and evolutionary biology, monogamy means one attachment bond or one pairbond.

Having a single attachment bond doesn’t say anything about the sexual exclusivity of that bond – a romantically monogamous relationship can be sexually exclusive–think of traditional closed monogamy–or it can be sexually nonexclusive, as in the variations of open monogamy. (In fact, most animal species that form single pairbonds are not sexually exclusive: At least 80% of monogamously pairbonding mammalian species “cheat on” each other, as do most species of monogamously pairbonding birds.)

Many open couples look indistinguishable from traditionally monogamous couples on the surface. They have a strong romantic bond with each other, typically will escalate their relationship from dating, to living together, to getting married and having kids, including things like buying a home together, joint bank accounts, etc. What makes them different is they sometimes have sex with other people with the knowledge and consent, (and possibly the presence) of the other person. 

The key feature of open monogamy is that these other people are casual sexual partners, they are “side pieces,” as comedian Allie Wong joked in her remarkably honest and utterly hilarious Netflix special Don Wong

While the “casualness” of casual partners can range from one-night stands with someone whose name you barely know to years-long lovers or friends-with-benefits, they never turn into serious committed romantic-love based relationships.

The Flavors of Open Monogamy

There are a few different ways to organize open monogamy.

Flavor Open Mono

Depending on whether partners decide to see other people together or separately, open can be done by: 

  • Playing with others together as a couple by going to sex or kink parties together and/or organizing private group play (like threesomes and foursomes). This is what’s often practiced by those in the swingers lifestyle
  • Playing with others separately by going on separate dates, meeting others when they’re traveling separately, or other ways of seeing other people without the partner present. This is what many simply call an open relationship
  • Doing a mix of both, sometimes playing together, sometimes playing separately.

Depending on how frequently partners indulge in their openness or how “far” they decide to go with other people, open can be done:

  • “Full on,” as something that happens on a fairly regular basis, places few sexual restrictions, and often becomes part of their individual and couple identity (e.g. “we’re swingers”).
  • “In part,” as something that happens in much more minor or less frequent ways, like the very occasional “birthday” threesome, or the agreement that it’s ok to sometimes flirt and kiss other people but not do anything more than that. This “mostly monogamous with a little bit of open” format is what sex columnist Dan Savage coined in the early 2000’s as “monogamish.”

Regardless of how exactly partners go about their openness, the key feature of the various flavors of open monogamy is that they all include a sexual component, but not a romantic or attachment-based one

Which brings us to polyamory, the media’s recent darling.

Polyamory: (Sex + Love)n

Polyamory, or poly for short, is a relationship format where individuals have multiple committed romantic relationships at the same time. Like open monogamy, polyamory is sexually nonexclusive. But, unlike open monogamy, it goes further by also allowing romantic nonexclusivity

Where a casual relationship ends and a committed romantic one begins can sometimes be a bit blurry (and keeping the two separate is one of the greatest challenges of playing the partnered nonmonogamy game). Generally speaking, things turn toward polyamory when people start to catch feelings for each other and start working toward an attachment-based relationship. 

A lot of people wonder how it’s possible to love and be in a committed relationship with more than one person. To that, polyamorous people often say “love is infinite” (even though time and energy is not). Just like one can love and care for multiple children, or siblings, or friends, one can also love and care for multiple romantic partners.

The (Many) Flavors of Polyamory

There is a dizzying array of ways to do polyamory across a number of different dimensions (more than any other relationship format!), including level and mutuality of openness, exclusivity, mode of dating, type of hierarchy, and metamour relationships.

Flavors Poly

Based on the level of openness:

  • Some poly folks only see other people they share an emotional connection with (effectively doing poly only). 
  • Others have some committed partners but they also have some casual sexual partners (effectively doing a poly/open mix).  

Based on the level of exclusivity:

  • Some poly configurations are open, meaning members are allowed to date or have sex with people outside of that configuration (i.e. nonexclusive). 
  • Others are closed to any additional sexual and/or romantic partners (i.e. exclusive).

Based on the mode of dating:

  • Most poly dyads (dyad means a relationship between two people; couples is not always appropriate to use in this context) date others separately, forming different types of structures:
    • Vs (a group of three where one member of a couple has two partners who are not each other’s partners), 
    • Ns (a group of four where both members of a couple have their own separate partners), 
    • Ws (a group of five where three people have two partners each and the other two have one partner each),
    • Polycules: other larger relational units which can take all sorts of shapes.

Dating Separately

  • More rarely, poly people date others together, forming structures like
    • triads (also called throuples, where all three people date each other forming a triangle), or
    • quads (where four people all date each other, typically formed when one couple starts dating another couple).
    • Larger polycules where everyone dates everyone else exist, but are exceedingly rare.

Dating Together

Based on the type of hierarchy:

One of the most important distinctions in polyamorous relationships relates to the level of priority or importance (in other words, hierarchy) that is given to the multiple relationships. 

  • Hierarchical polyamory: Most poly folks will consider one person their primary partner (the relationship that is prioritized when making decisions and commitments), with all other partners being secondary or tertiary. 
    These are often (though not always) the relationships that have lasted the longest, and may include formal marriage, shared household, and children.
  • Nonhierarchical polyamory: Other poly folks consider all their partners as equally (as possible) important, and everyone in the relationship works together to make big decisions. There are no primary and secondary partners.
  • Solo polyamory: These folks consider themselves as their own primary partner, and treat all their relationships as secondary (even if these are more than casual, long-lasting, and may rise to the level of attachment bonds relationships). They sit at the border between unpartnered and partnered nonmonogamy

Based on the metamour relationships:

Finally, because polyamory involves multiple ongoing serious relationships, poly folks who date separately further need to decide how to navigate the types of interactions they will have with their metamours (or “meta” for short, defined as someone who is a partner of your partner).

  • Kitchen-table polyamory: Where all partners and metamours are close and comfortable enough to hang out around the proverbial kitchen table (or go out for dinner, or on a joint vacation, etc). 
  • Parallel polyamory: Where metamours are aware of each other’s existence, but have little to no contact with each other, creating concurrent relationships that never intersect, like a pair of railroad tracks. 
  • Garden party or birthday party polyamory: The middle ground, where metamours only spend time together at key events or celebrations. Metas will usually have a friendly connection with each other but with minimal interaction outside of these events.

Mutuality, Transparency and Acceptance in Nonmonogamy

Across almost all types of partnered nonmonogamy, there are three additional dimensions to consider that distinguish the way each type and subtype can be done: mutuality, disclosure, and acceptance.

Mutuality is about whether both members of a partnered dyad are “inhabiting the same relationship country” or if they have the conceptual equivalent of a “long-distance relationship”.

  • Many dyads are mutually open (open-open) or mutually poly (poly-poly). 
  • Others differ in the type of nonmonogamy they engage in, with one being open while the other one is poly (open-poly). 
  • And some agree on a structure where only one member of the dyad is nonmonogamous, while the other remains monogamous (open-mono).


Disclosure is about the amount of awareness and information different partners have about each other in types of nonmonogamy where partners see others separately.

  • Cheating: On one end of the spectrum, partners have no awareness and knowledge of their partner’s other sexual or romantic partner(s). In the partnered form of nonmonogamy, this qualifies as nonconsensual nonmonogamy, or cheating
  • “All-in”: On the other end of the disclosure spectrum is sharing “all the details,” providing complete awareness and knowledge about what one is doing with other partners. 
  • “Basics-only”: Between these extremes are a few different levels of awareness and knowledge. Many people choose to know “just the basics” about their partners’ other partners, instead of all the details.
  • DADT: And some people choose to know very little or have no specific information about their partner’s other partners, beyond the awareness that they exist and some pre-set agreements around how their partners would go about engaging with these additional partners. That’s what’s known as the “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell” variation of nonmonogamy.


Finally, there is the dimension of acceptance of a partner’s nonmonogamy. Awareness and information about a partner’s involvement with other people does not in and of itself equal embracing it fully, or even partially. That, like everything else, exists on a spectrum. 

  • Fully embracing: Some people, especially those identified with the various CNM lifestyles, wholeheartedly embrace and are happy about their partner’s nonmonogamy. 
  • Fully rejecting: Others find themselves on the other end of the spectrum, aware of their partner’s nonmonogamy but deeply unhappy with that reality (even if they choose to remain in the relationship).
  • Tolyamory: In between are different levels of ambivalence about and toleration of their partner’s nonmonogamy. True to his style, this is something sex columnist Dan Savage recently officially termed “tolyamory”, short for “tolerating polyamory” (or other forms of a partner’s nonmonogamy).


Winning the Nonmonogamy Game by Making Smarter Choices 

As you can see, there are MANY different ways to do partnered nonmonogamy.

Each relationship structure can be a really good option for some people and a really bad option for others. The same structure that was a really good option for some people at one point in their lives and relationships can be a really bad option for those same people at a different phase.

Furthermore, each relationship type can be done really well, causing a lot of joy and fulfillment for those involved, or can be done poorly, causing a lot of pain and suffering.

No relationship structure is inherently better or worse than any other one in and of itself. Better or worse depends on: 

  1. whether we’re the right fit for the relationship structure we’re in, given our unique personality and life circumstances, and 
  2. whether we have (and are using!) the tools and skills we need to navigate that relationship structure well, in a way that maximizes pleasure and minimizes suffering for everyone involved.

Which relationship configuration is right for us can and does change over time, as our needs, limitations, circumstances, partners, and other relevant factors change. 

But at any point in time, there are some relationship configurations that are a much better fit for us than others. If you want to be happy and fulfilled in your relationships, you need to find and learn how to do the one that is right for you well. It might be polyamory, or it might be one of the many other variations of CNM. 

Happy discovering!

How do you figure out which relationship type is right for you?
Take the LoveSmarter™ Ideal Relationship quiz and keep an eye out for the follow-up email packed with deeper context about your results!