Polyamory and Polygamy: Understanding the Difference

Michelle Overman, Author
Updated on November 15, 2022

There are many different types of relationships. Most people are familiar with monogamy which is the practice of being married to one person at a time. Beyond monogamy, there are different types of relationships that people sometimes misidentify. Two other types of relationships that can be confused with one another are polyamory and polygamy. These two types of relationships do share some similarities in meaning. While some might see them as the same, there are distinct differences, most notably that polygamy describes being married to multiple partners, while polyamory refers to having multiple relationships that are not within the framework of a marriage.

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In a literal sense, polyamory means many or several loves. It is described as a form of consensual non-monogamy. It involves people engaging in emotional, romantic, and sometimes sexual relationships with more than one person at a time. Sometimes it can include triads or quads which mean three or four people, respectively, engaging in relationships with one another.

Most polyamorous relationships involve pairs of people and not group relationships. Polyamory is not all about sexual intimacy. It is important to note that it is also about emotional intimacy with more than one person at the same time. In polyamorous relationships, awareness and consent are provided by all involved.


The Greek translation of polygamy means married to many spouses. It describes one person married to multiple people. In most instances of polygamy today, an individual is only legally married to one person, while emotionally or spiritually “married” to the other partners. Bigamy is the unlawful crime of being legally married to more than one person.

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There are other terms that fall under polygamy, including polygyny and polyandry. Polygyny involves one man being married to more than one woman and polyandry involves one woman being married to more than one man. Under the umbrella of polygamy, polygyny is more commonly practiced than polyandry.

How Are They Different?

There are a couple major distinctions between polyamory and polygamy. The easiest distinction to make is within the context of marriage. Polyamorous people can be married but that is not part of the definition. Polygamous relationships do involve marriage. While less common in today than in the past, there are people who practice polygamy for religious reasons. The religious component is not typically a part of polyamorous relationships.

The other major distinction involves sexuality and gender. The umbrella term polygamy and the terms that fall beneath it are typically referring to heterosexual people who fall under the gender binary. Polyamory appears to be more inclusive of gender and sexuality differences. Polygamy means one person having multiple partners whereas polyamory can include multiple people having multiple partners. In general, polyamory is open to different types of relationships amongst genders.

Both polygamy and polyamory are less common forms of relationships and tend to be marginalized in society. While there are pockets of places around the world where these types of relationships are more common and even accepted, they are typically rare to find. Because these relationships are unconventional in modern societies, it can be easy to be misinformed about them and even misidentify them. It is important to understand the distinctions between the different types of relationships and become more informed overall, thereby showing greater respect and tolerance to the cultures and religions where they are more common.


Michelle Overman, Author

Michelle is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families.

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