Sometimes, approaching polyamory can feel like entering a whole new culture, replete with traditions (board-games enthusiasts and polyamorous people are a strange and singular venn-diagram) and a funky new language. It can feel isolating with people casually throwing around terms like ‘compersion’, ‘polysaturation’ and ‘metamour’, and I sometimes worry that this is the sort of thing that can cause people to shy away from what is, in its essence, simply a way of exploring the world. So I’ve written a glossary. It’s by no means comprehensive – google ‘polyamory glossary’ and you’ll find others with far more terms – but I’ve kept it to the words that are most commonly used and the ones that have really helped me formalise thoughts and ideas.
Comet – Somebody in your life with whom you occasionally cross paths before going off on your separate trajectories once again: when the paths are crossed you have a fierce, passionate relationship, but ultimately you part ways. It’s a common misconception that comets are superficial relationships, but I reject this idea – the people in my life I would call my ‘comets’ hold a very special place in my heart and head (some of whom I’m in more consistent contact with, some of whom nearly disappear between meetings) and I would reject the idea that they are lesser to people who just happen to play a more consistent role in my life.
Compersion – To find joy in somebody else’s joy, like your partner’s joy in their new relationship. One of the most beautiful words in the English language.
Cheating – Overstepping agreed-upon relationship boundaries. In monogamy this tends to be pretty straight-forward, in polyamory it’s more complicated, but still very possible.
DADT (Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell) – In short, it’s a relationship agreement where one or both parties can date and/or sleep with others in accordance with established relationship boundaries as long as it’s never discussed in the partnership. I’ll discuss this in more detail when I write on jealousy.
Ethical Non-Monogamy – Engaging in multiple romantic and/or sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of everybody involved.
Fluid-bonding – Sex without barriers (e.g. condoms). This can be casual, but I also know several poly-people for whom this is an important symbol of commitment in a relationship.
Hierarchical Polyamory – Where individuals rank their romantic/sexual partners (‘primary’ as most-important, then ‘secondary’, ‘tertiary’ etc.).
Love Language – This one doesn’t often appear on glossaries but I think it’s important because it comes up quite a lot when talking with poly-people. It’s a model of how you best receive and give affection out of five options – ‘words of affirmation’; ‘acts of service’; ‘gifts’; ‘physical touch’ and ‘quality time’. Of course, you’ll usually use more than one – and likely all to some degree – to give and receive affection, but it can be useful to identify which ones are more important to you and your partner in order to understand what they need. A person who requires a lot of touch may feel unloved if a partner usually shows love with words of affirmation, for example.
For similar reasons, I would encourage that people (mono and poly alike) also familiarise themselves with attachment theory. I’ve found it so helpful to understand how I behave in relationships and how others respond, and it’s really helped me communicate my needs and boundaries and to understand the needs and boundaries of others.
Metamour – The person your partner is dating.
New Relationship Energy – That rushing butterfly-feeling of excitement you get at the beginning of a relationship, where everything and everyone is perfect. It’s like crack, bro.
Non-Hierarchical Polyamory – Unlike hierarchical polyamory, there’s no ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’, and there’s no expectation that one relationship will take precedence over another.
Old Relationship Energy – That warm, comfortable feeling you get with somebody you’re familiar with and you’ve been dating for a while. It’s also like crack, bro.
One-Penis Policy – A term I’ve only ever heard in the context of a heterosexual relationship. An open relationship where the woman can only sleep with other women. Honestly, I find this policy incredibly problematic – it’s misogynistic, it’s homophobic (the idea that woman-woman relationships are inherently less legitimate and so less threatening) and it’s transphobic (some women have penises, some men don’t).
Relationship Anarchy – Relationship Anarchy goes a step further than non-hierarchical polyamory: it rejects that any style of relationship should be placed above another. Where it seems to be expected that romantic relationships trump platonic friendships, relationship anarchists will allow all types of relationships to be valued as feels right between the two people, without regard to whether they’re platonic, romantic, sexual, etc.
Polycule – The web of relationships you and your partners are in. It can look like anything. It can just be you; it can be you-and-one-other-person. As my notion of ‘relationship’ has eroded over time I’ve added more and more people to my polycule who feel significant, even without any romantic or sexual attachments. It’s like looking in a drawer of old and tangled cables. I love it so much.
Polyfidelity – A relationship configuration with more than two individuals where all members agree to keep sexual interactions to only other members of the group.
Polysaturation – When you don’t have the emotional or physical capacity to date any more people. There are, after all, only so many hours in a week.
Solo Poly – I’m planning on writing a whole piece on this, so I’ll try not to write too much here. In short, people who identify as solo-poly eschew the relationship escalator: they tend to engage in relationships without intending to merge resources, or be moving towards a ‘primary-style’ relationship.
Triad/Throuple/Quad – Different formulations of a polyamorous set-up. In a triad/throuple, three people engage in a relationship together, such there are four relationships going on (A + B, B + C, C + A and A + B + C). Quad is the same, but with four people.
Unicorn – A bisexual, polyamorous person (usually woman) who wants to, or is willing to, join an existing couple.
Unicorn Hunting – A (usually heterosexual) couple seeking a bisexual, polyamorous person (usually woman) to enter their existing relationship. Although this may suit some people, it’s considered unethical by many polyamorous people because it nearly always privileges the existing couple and their goals over those of the ‘unicorn’. For more information on this, there’s a great article here that covers everything far more comprehensively than I can do here.
Veto Power – The ability to reject a metamour and have your partner stop dating them. This can happen in any relationship style, but it tends to accompany hierarchical poly-relationships more than non-hierarchical.
Right, that’s all for now, folks! Now that I’ve covered my own introduction and the key terms I’m going to start discussing more specific ideas in polyamory like jealousy and ‘coming out’. In the meantime, if you have any questions or ideas regarding polyamory that you’d like to be discussed in the coming months, please email me at [email protected] (I’m so sorry, yes, it’s a pun – Pollyanna was my favourite book as a child).
That’s right, this right here is getting interactive. Boom.