Out On The Couch
Polyamorous Relationship Structures
By Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT
Polyamory is the combination of the Greek word for “many” and the Latin word for “love.” Combined, polyamory means “many loves” or “more than one love” (Anapol, 2010; Klesse 2006). To be more specific, polyamory is a relationship style centered on the belief that it is possible to love more than one person. Polyamorous relationships often involve having more than one romantic relationship simultaneously, with full knowledge and consent of all the partners involved. Polyamory is not cheating, and should not be confused with affairs or infidelity. It also differs from polygamy, which is a religious-based form of non-monogamy. It is estimated that there are somewhere between 1.2 to 9.8 million polyamorous people living in the United States (Sheff, 2014).
Every polyamorous relationship has different structures, as there are often more than two people involved in a romantic relationship. However, there are some basic labels to categorize the different kinds of relationships that polyamorous people form.
Vee: A vee relationship is made up of three partners and gets its name from the letter “V,” in which one person acts as the “hinge” or “pivot” partner dating two people. The other two people are not romantically or sexually involved with each other. These two people are known as “metamours” to one another (metamours are two people who are dating the same person, but are not actively dating each other). Metamours in a vee relationship may not know one another, may be vague acquaintances, or may be very good friends. In some cases, metamours may even live with one another, with or without their partner.
Triad: A triad is also made up of three partners, but is a relationship in which all three partners are romantically and/or sexually involved with each other. Triads may be formed when an existing couple opens their relationship and finds a third partner who is interested in them both, and whom they are both also interested in. They may also be formed when two metamours in a vee relationship begin to date, changing the form of the relationship from a vee to a triad. A triad may also form when three very close friends begin dating each other at the same time.
Quad: A quad is made up of four partners who are intimately connected in some way, whether romantically or sexually. A quad can be formed in a multitude of ways, such as a triad adding another partner. However, quads are often formed when two swinging couples connect and begin dating, forming the quad.
While these labels are descriptive of some of the kinds of relationships that can form, this list is by no means exhaustive. Every person’s relationship landscape will look different. Someone who is part of a vee relationship may also be part of a different, separate triad. They may also simply be dating one other person, or no one at all. The people involved in these relationship structures may be referred to as an individual’s polycule, which is a term used to discuss collectively all of the people who are in a relationship with one or more members of a polyamorous group. This term was created by combining the words “polyamory” and “molecule.”
There are also added layers to the way people in polyamorous relationships experience their relationships. A popular notion in the polyamorous community is “You can have unlimited love, but you do not have unlimited time.” Therefore, each individual has to make a choice about how they prioritize their time and emotional energy, and how to define the importance of each relationship.
Hierarchical Polyamory: Individuals who practice hierarchical polyamory place more importance on one relationship above other relationships (Easton & Hardy, 2009). The partner that this person shares finances with, lives with, or co-parents with will likely be considered the primary partner. This person may be prioritized above other relationships in regards to time commitments, vacations and holidays, going to family functions, and other important events as well. Other partners may be considered secondary or tertiary. Secondary or tertiary partners may not be taken into account when big decisions are being made, and if the individual is not “out” as polyamorous, could even be kept hidden from friends and family.
Non-Hierarchical Polyamory: In non-hierarchical polyamory, individuals within the relationship do not prioritize one relationship above all others. This does not necessarily mean that time is split equally between two or more partners, nor does it mean that all the partners live together. It does mean that every partner is considered when making big decisions. It may also mean that each partner has the ability to go on vacations with the individual. Within non-hierarchical polyamory, there is generally a belief that one partner does not hold importance over another, and each relationship is important in its own way.
Solo Polyamory (also referred to as “sopo”): A solo polyamorist is someone who does not have any desire to be considered part of a “coupled” relationship. In solo polyamory, an individual may not live with or share finances with anyone else, and does not have the desire to work toward those things. Some solo polyamorists may live with different partners throughout the year and prefer a nomadic lifestyle. They often consider their partners when making big decisions, but do not allow their partners to dictate their choices. For some people, solo polyamory is an option to pursue for a limited time, perhaps while raising their children or when an individual is focused on their career and has no desire to build a home with another person. For others, solo polyamory is a lifelong pursuit, and often consider themselves their own primary relationship (Winston, 2017). This can allow the solo polyamorist to make decisions based on what makes themselves and their relationships strong and happy. Although solo polyamorists usually do not live with their partner(s), this does not mean that they do not have one or more deeply committed and intimate relationships.
Relationship Anarchy: A person who practices relationship anarchy may differ a bit from other polyamorists, but they still often fall within the spectrum of polyamory. Relationship anarchy is a relatively new term to refer to individuals who believe that all interpersonal relationships are equally important (Winston, 2017). A relationship anarchist might have multiple romantic relationships simultaneously, but may also avoid making special distinctions between relationships that are romantic, sexual, platonic, or familial. They often avoid putting relationships into categories or having expectations in their relationships. Instead, they allow their relationships to take any form and have any level of commitment that the participants decide to have. For example, a relationship anarchist may choose to buy a house with their best friend, rather than their romantic partner of ten years.
Again, this list is not exhaustive by any means. Every individual navigating a polyamorous relationship will structure their relationships differently, and may identify with certain aspects of these polyamorous structures but not with others. This list is merely intended as an introduction to understanding how many polyamorous relationships form and develop. Any of these relationship structures can be done in a healthy way or in an unhealthy way; it is up to the participants to ensure they are practicing the different forms of polyamory ethically.
In any relationship, whether it is monogamous or a consensual non-monogamous relationship, there is the possibility that someone with get their feelings hurt, experience jealousy, and experience arguments and disagreements. Therefore, it is imperative for an individual in any relationship to consider the needs of each of their partners, their boundaries, and their expectations for the relationship. It is also important to consider your own needs, boundaries, and expectations within relationships, and to learn to communicate these things safely and considerately. Educating yourself about the polyamorous community, ethical and non-ethical relationships, and healthy communication techniques can all help you navigate happy and healthy relationships with your partners.
Learn More From Stephanie M. Sullivan
Anapol, D. (2010). Polyamory in the 21st century: Love and intimacy with multiple partners. Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Easton, D., & Hardy, J. W. (2009). The ethical slut: A practical guide to polyamory, open relationship, &
other adventures (2nd ed.). Berkley, CA: Celestial Arts.
Sheff, E. (2014). The polyamorists next door: Inside multiple-partner relationships and families. Lanham,
MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Winston, D. (2017). The smart girl’s guide to polyamory: Everything you need to know about open relationships, non-monogamy, and alternative love. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.