The Differences between Polyamory & Polygamy


There are many different types of relationships. Most people are familiar with monogamy which is the practice of being married to or with 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 for the other 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 to note.


When translated, 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 less group relations. Polyamory is not all about sexual intimacy and secrecy. 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 means married to many spouses. It describes one person married to multiple people. In most cases, the individual is only legal married to one person, leaving them emotionally or spiritually “married” to the other partners. Bigamy includes being legally married to more than one person which is illegal in most parts of the world. There are other terms that fall under polygamy which includes 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 under the context of marriage. Polyamorous people can be married but that is not part of the definition. Polygamous relationships do involve marriage. These marriages can be an encouragement from certain religious backgrounds. While less common in modern society, 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, these relationships are typically infrequent. Because these relationships are less common, 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.

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Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.
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