LEARNING THE LINGO
This glossary is meant to be a quick guide for many of the terms that I may mention here on my blog or you may hear out in the polyamorous community. This is a somewhat brief list. I offer links to other more extensive links at the bottom of this page if you wish to dive in more deeply. I have compiled this list from many other sources, as there is no sense re-inventing the wheel here, and I could not have stated it any better.
BDSM – A composite acronym for Bondage and Discipline (B&D), Dominance and Submission (D&S), and Sadomaschism (S&M). Used to refer to any consensual activities or lifestyles between adults which include some or all of these things. Click here for more BDSM terms.
Bisexual – A person who is sexually attracted to or sexually active with partners of both sexes, male and female.
Bigamy – the act of entering into a marriage with one person while still legally married to another. Bigamy is a crime in most western countries, and when it occurs in this context often neither the first nor second spouse is aware of the other.
Cheating – In a relationship, any activity that violates the rules or agreements of that relationship, whether tacit or explicit. In traditional monogamous relationships, any sexual activity with anyone outside that relationship is generally viewed as cheating. In a polyamorous or swinging relationship, sexual activity with people outside the relationship may or may not be seen as cheating, depending on the context of that sexual activity and whether or not it violates the agreements of the people in that relationship. Even in such relationships, most commonly sexual activity without the knowledge and explicit consent of the other members of the relationship is likely to be viewed as cheating.
Closed Relationship – Any romantic relationship, such as a conventional monogamous relationship or a polyfidelitous relationship, that specifically excludes the possibility of sexual or romantic connections outside that relationship.
Compersion – A feeling of joy when a partner invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship. Compersion can be thought of as the opposite of “jealousy;” it is a positive emotional reaction to a lover’s other relationship. The term was coined by the Kerista Commune.
Condom Contract – A formal agreement within a relationship to confine exchange of bodily fluids and barrier-free sexual contact to the people in that relationship, each of whom has previously been screened for sexually transmitted diseases. Condom contracts may specify under what conditions a member of that group may exchange body fluids or have sexual contact without barriers with a new partner, or may specify that such contact is not permissible with any new partner.
Couple privilege – The presumption that socially sanctioned pair-bond relationships involving only two people (such as marriage, long-term boyfriend/girlfriend, or other forms of conventional intimate/life partnerships) are inherently more important, “real” and valid than other types of intimate, romantic or sexual relationships.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) – A relationship structure in which a person who is partnered is permitted to have additional sexual or romantic relationships on the condition that his or her partner does not know anything about those additional relationships and does not meet any of those other people. Many people in the polyamorous community frown on don’t ask, don’t tell relationships, and choose not to become involved in such relationships. There are many dangers in such relationships, including the idea that a person who claims to be involved in such a relationship may simply be cheating (as the relationship often provides no mechanism by which that person’s partner may be contacted to confirm that the relationship permits other relationships); the fact that many people choose DADT relationships as a way of avoiding and not dealing with emotional issues such as jealousy; and the fact that DADT relationships are built on a foundation of lack of communication within the existing relationship.
Ethical Non-monogamy – Any relationship that is not sexually and/or emotionally exclusive by the explicit agreement and with the full knowledge of all the parties involved. Responsible / Ethical non-monogamy can take several forms, the two most common of which are polyamory and swinging, and is distinct from cheating in that everyone involved knows about and agrees to the activity. Responsible non-monogamy often explicitly spells out the conditions under which it is permissible for one person to take on additional partners, and often includes some form of safer-sex agreement such as a condom contract as well.
Fluid Bonding – Sexual practices which involve the exchange of bodily fluids, such as barrier-free sexual intercourse and BDSM: blood play. See related condom contract.
Handfasting – A Pagan or Wiccan ceremony similar to marriage in the sense that it unites two people in a common bond, but dissimilar to a traditional Western marriage in that it does not necessarily convey sexual exclusivity and may not be intended to be permanent (some handfasting ceremonies last “for a year and a day,” others for “as long as the love shall last”). A handfasting is not legally recognized as a marriage unless the person performing the handfasting is authorized to perform marriages in a particular jurisdiction (requirements for such authorization vary from place to place) and the other legal requirements of marriage are met. (Handfasting ceremonies are not directly related to polyamory; however, some people, particularly those involved with Wiccan or neo-Pagan spirituality or beliefs, may combine the two. While not all Pagans are polyamorous and not all polyamorous people are Pagan, there is enough overlap between the communities that some polyamorous people practice handfasting as an emotional or spiritual symbol of their relationships and commitment.)
Intentional Family – A family made up of people who have consciously and deliberately chosen to consider one another as a single family, as opposed to family that is the result of birth or marriage (i.e., family in law). Most often used to describe a family of three or more adults. Related terms: cluster marriage, polyamory, group marriage.
Jealousy – An emotion, and the word typically refers to the negative thoughts and feelings of insecurity, fear, and anxiety over an anticipated loss of something of great personal value, particularly in reference to a human connection. Jealousy often consists of a combination of emotions such as anger, resentment, inadequacy, helplessness and disgust. In its original meaning, jealousy is distinct from envy, though the two terms have popularly become synonymous in the English language, with jealousy now also taking on the definition originally used for envy alone. Jealousy is a typical experience in human relationships.
Kink – In human sexuality, kinkiness or kinky, is a colloquial term used to describe unconventional sexual concepts or practices. The term derives from the idea of a “bend” (a “kink”) in one’s sexual behaviour, to contrast such behaviour with “straight” or “vanilla” sexual mores and proclivities. The term “kink” has been claimed by some who practice sexual fetishism as a term or synonym for their practices. Kink sexual practices go beyond what are considered conventional sexual practices as a means of heightening the intimacy between sexual partners.
LBGT – Acryonym for Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender. The acronym is intended to emphasize a diversity of sexuality and gender identity-based cultures and is sometimes used to refer to anyone who is non-heterosexual or non-cisgender instead of exclusively to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Metamour – (Literally, meta with; about + amor love): The partner of one’s partner, with whom one does not share a direct sexual or loving relationship.
Monogamy – (Literally, mono one + gamos marriage) Formally, the state or practice of having only one wedded spouse. Informally, the state or practice of having only one wedded spouse at a time, or more generally, having only one sexual partner or only one romantic relationship at a time. Monogamous: of or related to the practice of monogamy, as in monogamous relationship: a relationship permitting one and only one romantic or sexual partner.
Monosexual Polyamory – Engaging in sex with only one partner, but loving emotions for more than one. Most often this occurs in the BDSM community where D/s relationships are very real. For example, someone has a serious non-kinky boyfriend and a serious Daddy/Dominant – and only has sex with the boyfriend but has intense feelings for both partners. Another form of it occurs when people have other non-sexual relationships… like long term make-out buddies or emotional-only committed relationships.
NRE (New Relationship Energy) – A strong, almost giddy feeling of excitement and infatuation common in the beginning of any new romantic relationship. While similar in some ways to limerence, new relationship energy is distinct in that it often follows the beginning of a relationship (as opposed to desire for a relationship), and can last as long as several years. (Some researchers believe that new relationship energy is the result of the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, which are released by the brain during the start of a new relationship and after a mother gives birth and are believed to have a role in emotional bonding and in the feelings of happiness and well-being that often accompany the start of a new relationship.)
Open Approval – A type of relationship agreement where you need to ask PERMISSION from your partners BEFORE any sex happens with new partners. If the answer is no, well then it is no and you are agreeing to honor their decision (or at the very least agreeing to have an in depth discussion about why they are asking you to not go down that particular sexy path). There is a lot of discussion about veto power in the poly community. Many people do not agree with the concept. Open Approval is more or less agreeing that veto power is on the table for your partners to use.
Open Awareness – A type of relationship agreement where if you have sex with a new partner, you are agreeing to make your other partners aware of it as soon as it is convenient, as well as before you have sex with your other partners again. That is “open” in the sense that you make your other partners AWARE of your behavior. You don’t need to ask permission. You date who you want, and have sex when you want, but you are obliged to disclose this behavior to your other intimates. In contrast, if you keep the sex with the new partner a secret, that is cheating.
Open Marriage – Any marriage whose structures or arrangements permit one or both of the members involved to have outside sexual relationships, outside romantic relationships, or both. The term open marriage is a catchall for marriages that are not emotionally or sexually monogamous, and may include such activities as polyamory or swinging. The term “open marriage” is sometimes used as a synonym for polyamory, though this is not necessarily the case; some relationships may be open but not polyamorous (as in some swinging relationships that explicitly ban emotional entanglement with anyone outside the relationship), and some relationships may be polyamorous but not open (as in polyfidelitious relationships).
Open Relationship – 1. Any relationship that is not sexually monogamous. 2. Any relationship that permits “outside” sexual entanglements, but not loving or romantic relationships. Some folks use the term open relationship as a synonym for polyamory. To other people, the term excludes polyamory, and is used specifically to describe relationships that are sexually non-monogamous but that still expect that the people involved will not fall in love or engage in romantic relationships outside the couple, as for example with many swinging relationships. It’s important to be careful when using this term, as it may carry very different connotations for different people.
Oxytocin – A naturally occuring hormone produced in the hypothalamus and secreted from the pituitary gland. Oxytocin is produced both by men and women, and in women is known to play a role in uterine contraction during childbirth and in milk production. Production of this hormone increases during the early stages of a new relationship and during sex, and it is believed to be partly responsible for mediating the processes involved in emotional intimacy. New relationship energy is thought to be a result in part of oxytocin production.
Polyamory – (Literally, poly many + amor love) The state or practice of maintaining multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships simultaneously, with the full knowledge and consent of all the people involved. Polyamorous: of or related to the practice of polyamory, as in polyamorous relationship: a relationship involving more than two people, or open to involvement by more than two people; polyamorous person: a person who prefers or is open to romantic relationships with more than one partner simultaneously. Polyamory is not necessarily related directly to marriage or to polygamy; a person may have no spouse or only one spouse and still be polyamorous. In 1992, when the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary contacted Morning Glory Zell to ask for a formal definition and background of the word; part of her response was “The two essential ingredients of the concept of ‘polyamory’ are ‘more than one’ and ‘loving.’ That is, it is expected that the people in such relationships have a loving emotional bond, are involved in each other’s lives multi-dimensionally, and care for each other. This term is not intended to apply to merely casual recreational sex, anonymous orgies, one-night stands, pick-ups, prostitution, ‘cheating,’ serial monogamy, or the popular definition of swinging as ‘mate-swapping- parties.”
Polyandry – (Literally, poly many + andros man) The state or practice of having multiple wedded husbands at the same time.
Polycule – A romantic network, or a particular subset of relationships within a romantic network, whose members are closely connected. Also used to describe a sketch or visualization of a romantic network, as these drawings often resemble the depiction of molecules used in organic chemistry.
Poly Family – 1. A set of polyamorous people who live together and identify as part of the same family. 2. A polyamorous group whose members consider one another to be family, regardless of whether or not they share a home.
Polyfidelitous – (Literally, poly many + fidelitas faithfulness) A romantic or sexual relationship which involves more than two people, but which does not permit the members of that relationship to seek additional partners outside the relationship, at least without the approval and consent of all the existing members. Some polyfidelitous relationships may have a mechanism which permits adding new members to the relationship with mutual agreement and consent of the existing members; others may not permit any new members under any circumstances. The term polyfidelity was coined by the Kerista Commune.
Polyfidelit-ish – Similar to the term “monogam-ish” (or someone who is mostly monogamous, but has at least some leanings away from monogamy at the same time) but in a poly context. Someone who is leaning towards polyfidelity with their partners, but still wants the door at least cracked open to possibilities of other relationships or encounters.
Polyflexible – Someone not inherently monogamous or polyamorous. Your nature changes depending on your mood, the relationship you’re in, and the era of your life. You’re open to alternative relationship styles and traditional styles.
Polyfuckery – A coarse term sometimes used to describe people who call themselves “polyamorous” while engaging in a large number of sexual relationships which are short-lived or not emotionally intimate; as “Bob practices polyfuckery.” Almost always indicates derision of the activity or person so named. Almost always used only of people who self-describe as “polyamorous;” not used to describe, for example, people who identify as swingers.
Polygamy – (Literally, poly many + gamos marriage) The state or practice of having multiple wedded spouses at the same time, regardless of the sex of those spouses. Polygyny is the most common form of polygamy in most societies that permit multiple spouses. For that reason, many people confuse the two.
Polygyny – (Literally, poly many + gynos woman) The state or practice of having multiple wedded wives at the same time. According to some sociologists, polygynous societies represent the most common form of society, with 850 of the 1170 societies recorded in Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas being polygynous. Modern Muslim societies are polygynous, and certain religious traditions, including Fundamentalist Mormonism (FLDS) in the United States, advocate polygyny.
Polysaturated – Polyamorous, but not currently open to new relationships or new partners because of the number of existing partners, or because of time constraints that might make new relationships difficult. The point at which the thought of another relationship, or another hobby, leaves one feeling more exhausted than excited.
Polysexual – Of or related to relationships which are sexually non-monogamous but which are not emotionally intimate. Sometimes condescending or derogatory; as “Bill is not really polyamorous, but only polysexual.” Related to swinging.
Primary / Secondary – A polyamorous relationship structure in which a person has multiple partners who are not equal to one another in terms of interconnection, emotional intensity, intertwinement in practical or financial matters, or power within the relationship. A person in a primary/secondary relationship may have one (or occasionally, more than one) primary partner and one or more additional secondary or tertiary partners. A primary/secondary relationship may be “prescriptive” (that is, a primary couple consciously and deliberately creates a set of rules whereby any additional partners are secondary, often because this is seen as a mechanism which will protect the existing relationship from harm caused by additional relationships) or it may be “descriptive,” and emerge from the nature and the situation of the relationship. In practice, prescriptive primary/secondary relationships may create an environment where the people in those additional relationships feel unappreciated or insignificant, which is why some experienced polyamorous people do not construct their relationships along enforced primary/secondary lines.
Primary Partner – In a primary/secondary relationship, the person (or persons) in the relationship with the highest degree of involvement or entanglement, or sometimes the person accorded the most importance. A person may be primary either as a natural consequence of the circumstance and nature of the relationship (because that person has the greatest degree of financial entanglement, for example), or as a deliberate consequence of the relationship structure and agreements (as in the case of an existing couple who set out to add additional partners only on the condition that those existing partners are seen as “less important” than the couple). (People who deliberately seek to construct a relationship along prescriptive primary/secondary lines typically designate one and only one relationship as the primary relationship. People who do not seek to construct a relationship along prescriptive primary/secondary lines may have more than one primary relationship; a relationship becomes primary when it reaches a certain point of emotional commitment, practical entanglement, or both.)
Relationship Anarchy – A philosophy or practice in which people are seen as free to engage in any relationships they choose. It is the practice of forming relationships which are not bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree on. It can be considered as one form of polyamory, but distinguishes itself by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between different types of sexual, romantic or platonic relationships. Relationship anarchists (RAs) look at each relationship (romantic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms such as ‘just friends’, ‘in a relationship’, ‘in an open relationship‘, etc.
Relationship Orientation – A preference for sexual or loving relationships of a particular form; as, for example, a preference for relationships that are monogamous, for relationships that are polyfidelitous, for relationships that are polyamorous, and so forth. Just as some people feel that their sexual orientation is fluid and a matter of choice where other people feel that their sexual orientation is fixed and not subject to choice, so do some people feel that their relationship orientation is subject to choice whereas others feel their relationship orientation is not a matter of choice.
Secondary Partner – In a primary/secondary relationship, the person (or persons) in the relationship who, either by intent or by circumstance, have a relationship that is given less in terms of time, energy, and priority in a person’s life than a primary relationship, and usually involves fewer ongoing commitments such as plans or financial/legal involvements. A secondary relationship may be secondary as a result of a conscious decision on the part of the primary partners, or simply as a result of circumstance or the natural development of the relationship.
Serial Monogamy – A relationship pattern in which a person has only one sexual or romantic partner at a time, but has multiple sexual or romantic partners in a lifetime, and may change partners frequently. Arguably the most common form of relationship in the United States, serial monogamy is predicated on the idea that a person can love more than one other person romantically in a lifetime, but not at the same time.
Significant Other (SO) – A romantic partner, thus someone “significant” in one’s life. The term significant other is intended to be free of assumptions about the gender of that partner.
Spouse – A person’s husband or wife.
Swinging – The practice of having multiple sexual partners outside of an existing romantic relationship, most often with the understanding that the focus of those relationships is primarily sexual rather than romantic or emotionally intimate. The common perception of swinging is that those who engage in this behavior have sex outside of their existing relationship purely for recreation, and that emotional bonds or emotional intimacy are specifically excluded. However, in practice swinging is much more nuanced, and people who self-identify as swingers can and sometimes do form close emotional relationships with their partners. Many people in both the swinging and polyamorous communities, though not all, see swinging and polyamory as two ends of a continuum, different in degree of intent, focus, and emphasis on romantic and emotional relationships rather than different in kind.
Tertiary Partner – A person (or persons) in a relationship that 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. A tertiary relationship may be very limited in scope or priority for many reasons, one of the most common of which is often distance.
Unicorn – Synonym for hot bi babe or HBB, often derogatory, condescending, or ironic. A bisexual person, usually though not always female, who is willing to join an existing couple, often with the presumption that this person will date and become sexually involved with both members of that couple, and not demand anything or do anything which might cause problems or inconvenience to that couple. The term is often used to be dismissive of a couple seen to be only superficially polyamorous. Because of the demands that this type of couple places on the woman (that she be single and not take on any additional partners, and become involved with both members of the couple equally, and often “complete” their family as a surrogate mother and housekeeper and/or breadwinner and not do anything that may threaten or disrupt the existing couple), many in the poly community call this type of woman a “unicorn”, as in mythical and not likely to be found, even though there are plenty of bi-poly women around.
Veto Power – A relationship agreement, most common in prescriptive primary/secondary relationships, which gives one person the power to end (or not allow to begin in the first place) another person’s additional relationships, or in some cases to disallow some specific activity, such as some specific sexual or BDSM-related activity. A veto may be absolute, in which one partner may reject another partner’s additional relationships unconditionally, or may be conditional and used more as a way to indicate a serious problem in a relationship. Not all polyamorous people recognize or permit veto power. Veto is most common in primary/secondary relationship configurations.
For a more thorough list of glossaries, more research, or as a footnote to where I found a number of the descriptions above, please visit: