What the Heck is Polyamory: Part 3 – How (Structures)

Published: November 15, 2013 • Updated: June 21, 2016 • by rigel

This article is part of a four-part introduction to polyamory: Part 1  – WhatPart 2 – WhyPart 3 – How (Structures), and Part 4 – How (Getting Started).

While the first two parts of this series were time consuming, they were downright easy to write compared to trying to describe the basics of how to do polyamory in a blog post. I had intended on this being the last post in the series, but it was so long that the boss made me split it into two pieces. This portion will cover some of the forms polyamory can take, and the last portion (which is already written) will be posted in a couple of weeks and discuss getting started.

While people and relationships almost never fit into the neat little boxes defined by the terms below they do give you a place to start and a common way to talk about poly relationships.

Relationship Intensities

Primary Relationship – The relationship that you spend the majority of your time with. Often primary partners might live together, raise children together, or share finances or property.  Under this definition there can only be one primary relationship (though not necessarily one primary partner).

Secondary Relationship/s – Relationships you devote a significant amount of time and energy to, though less than the primary relationship.  Often poly people will have designated days/times to see their secondaries and keep in touch with them regularly. They might have met each others families and spend certain holidays together, and are someone you can still depend on if you need help or support.

Tertiary Relationship/s – While trying to describe a tertiary relationship I came across this definition from Franklin Veaux’s More Than Two website:

A person (or persons) in a relationship which is generally quite casual, expects little in the way of emotional or practical support, or is very limited with respect to time, energy, or priority in the lives of the people involved.

I have found tertiary relationships to be similar to what non-poly people would call “friends with benefits.”

Structures

A poly relationship can consist of some or all of the above intensities arranged in an almost infinite number of ways. A few of the more common types of poly relationships are named after the shapes they form:

 

Top (left to right)

V Relationship – One person is in a relationship with two people, who do not have a relationship with each other. This is often seen  commonly seen when one part of a couple is interested in kink,  bisexuality, polyamory, etc, and their partner has no desire to explore that interest but allows the first partner to pursue it. It may also be seen in certain kinds of power exchange relationships, such as a Dominant with two subs who do not interact with each other. (Remember, being the “Dominant” in a relationship does not give you carte blanche to add a new partner without negotiating with your existing partners!)

Triad Relationship – Three people in a relationship. Often seen when an existing couple adds a new partner.

Z Relationship – See the picture. While I think a Z is generally intended to depict a couple dating separate people, I don’t often see this structure because it depends on the “ends” of the Z not having any outside relationships. A web relationship is much more common (see below).

Bottom

Two Examples of Quad Relationships – Four people in a relationship, often formed through the merging of two existing couples. There is usually some form of a romantic relationship between all parties, but individual members may or may not be sexual with each other depending on the orientations of the people involved. A good example of the type of quad relationship depicted on the left can be found here.

Web Relationship

A web relationship is essentially any poly relationship that does not fall into one of the more easily defined structures, usually because of the number of people involved. It can consist of any number of people and configuration of romantic and sexual relationships. For the math geeks among you, this handy widget demonstrates the possible connections among a given number of people.

Now that you know the theory behind the terms, let me share what I’ve seen in practice::

  1. With the exception of a long-term couple who has other ties (a house, children, etc) the distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary relationships are often fuzzy.
  2. Some people do not desire a “primary” relationship and may be perfectly content as “secondaries” or “tertiaries,” though they will usually have multiple secondary and tertiary relationships.
  3. With the exception of closed Vs, triads, and quads, most poly relationships are web relationships.

Open vs Closed

Polyamorous relationships can be open or closed. A textbook open relationship (insomuch as there is such a thing) would be some variation on a web, with few restrictions on the sexual and romantic relationships of the parties involved. At the other end of the spectrum a closed (or polyfidelious) relationship is a form of polyamory where all members are considered equal partners and agree to be sexually active only with other members of the group.

In reality the majority poly relationships will fall in the middle. Open relationships often have restrictions based on things like sexual safety, the needs and approval of long-term partners, and time constraints. Polyfidelious groups who are into kink may allow play outside of the relationship, and play often has at least some sexual component.

Other Considerations

Here a few other factors that may come into play when considering the structure of a poly relationship.:

Orientations – The sexual orientations of the people involved are necessarily going to affect the relationship dynamics. A two male / two female quad where the males are both bisexual will have different interactions than one where both males are straight.

Kink, play and power dynamics (if applicable) – Two bottoms will interact differently than two switches, or a bottom and a top. If any of the people involved in the relationship practice power exchange that can have far reaching implications, with the primary one being that it is extremely difficult for a sub to be in service to more than one Dominant.

If you take one thing away from this post it should be that there are an infinite number of ways to structure a polyamorous relationship, and that there is no right way besides the one that works for the parties involved. Along the same lines, don’t forget that monogamy is also a perfectly valid relationship choice as long as it’s chosen based on the needs and wants of the people involved, and not out of societal expectations.

In closing I would like to leave you with a couple of graphics depicting some of the many possible types of relationships (though I do not condone the somewhat condescending “Unicorn” comments on the otherwise awesome Map of Non-Monogamy).

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