Polyamory Definitions: Learn what these poly terms mean

By on July 4, 2017

Polyamory Definitions

What do all of these polyamory terms mean? These polyamory definitions will help you better understand what polyamorists are talking about.


A person who is asexual either does not experience sexual desire or, experiences them, but they don’t have a “target”. When we talk about sexual orientation it is often in terms of a target for attraction. So, a lesbian is a woman who is attracted to other women (the other women, in this case, are the target). Some asexual people do experience a desire for sex but it’s not really associated with a particular target.

Some people who are asexual can experience physical sexual arousal and pleasure from sex, but typically they do not experience that initial sexual attraction.

Asexual is not the same as Aromantic. Asexual people can (and many do) still experience romantic desire and attraction, and many find great fulfillment in intimate, romantic relationships.


A person who is bisexual is attracted to people of their same gender and other genders.

Traditionally this has referred to cisgender people who are attracted to folks of their same gender and the “opposite” gender (i.e., a cisgender man who is attracted to both men and women).

As we have socially and scientifically come to understand gender as a spectrum instead of a binary, this term has been embraced by myriad people to mean attraction to people whose gender identity is the same as theirs and people whose gender identity is not.

(See related polyamory definitions: pansexual, polysexual).


Cheating refers to a type of unethical non-monogamy where a person has multiple sexual or romantic partners that do not all know about each other, or where someone deceptively breaks the rules or agreements of their relationship.

Ex: Jim is engaged in a monogamous relationship with John and sleeps with Janet behind his back. Jim is cheating on John (even if Janet knows about John).

Ex: Sally is engaged in a polyamorous relationship with Sarah and has agreed to use safer-sex barriers (e.g. condoms, dental dams) with new partners. Sally secretly has sex with Steven and doesn’t use a condom. Sally is cheating on Sarah.

(See related polyamory definitions: Emotional Fidelity; Fidelity)


Compersion refers to feeling joy at seeing your partner experience joy.

While it is sometimes described as the “opposite” of jealousy compersion is not exactly the opposite of jealousy, because someone can absolutely feel both emotions at the same time.

Ex: Andrea’s wife, Alana has a date with a new hunk named Aaron. Andrea, seeing Alana happy, excited, and confident in her new romance, feels compersion in response to her wife’s joy. Alana is spending a lot of time with Aaron and this also makes Andrea feel a bit jealous.


See: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell



A person who is demisexual feels limited and, typically, context dependent sexual attraction.

Demi means “halfway” between asexual and sexual.

Often, people who are demisexual describe their attraction as contingent upon getting to know certain details about their partner, establishing a certain amount of mutual compatibility, or forming a strong emotional connection first.

Ex: Lorin is demisexual. They really prefer to date someone for a while and get to know them. Often times, Lorin won’t begin to find someone sexually attractive until they’ve been dating for quite some time and they feel super comfortable with them.


D/s is part of the BDSM umbrella. ‘D’ stands for Dominant, ‘s’ stands for submissive (the capital ‘D’ and lowercase ‘s’ symbolically represent the roles of each person in the relationship).

D/s is a negotiated, consensual, power exchange relationship between two people (though not necessarily monogamous). The submissive partner consensually agrees to submit to the power of the Dominant partner. This exchange of power can be sexual, but it can also apply to other domains of life.

People who live in a power exchange dynamic that encompasses many aspects of their life may be involved in what is known as ‘24/7 D/s’.

Ex: Robert and Rachel are in a long-distance D/s relationship. Rachel is Robert’s Domme (female Dominant), and he is her submissive. They have negotiated a number of rules between them. For example, Robert must text Rachel every morning when he wakes up to check in, he must keep track of how often he drinks water and exercises in a spreadsheet they both have access to, and he must ask Her first before he masturbates or has an orgasm.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) is a version of ethical non-monogamy where the people involved have agreed to open the relationship, but don’t want the details of their partner’s interactions with other lovers.

This can vary a bit from couple to couple, but it typically involves some mutual agreement to keep the details to a minimum unless asked (See related polyamory definition: monogamish).

Ex: Eric and Emily have been married for a few years, and they’ve decided to open the relationship. They both like the idea of being open, but neither one of them want to think about their partner getting down-and-dirty with someone new. They decide that as long as everyone is using protection and nobody brings someone into their shared bed without permission, they would be most comfortable not knowing the particulars unless one of them asks a direct question about what’s going on. This is a version of DADT.


Another word for couple. Means “two.” So, two people in a relationship are in a dyad, or dyadic relationship.


A situation or relationship that is fair, equitable, and in which all parties have equal power. (Read one woman’s journey from hierarchical polyamory to egalitarian polyamory.)

Emotional Fidelity

An agreement to be emotionally faithful. Can be between two people (dyad) or between many people in a group. Emotional fidelity can mean different things for different people and should be negotiated clearly and with all parties involved.

Ex: Ted and Thomas have agreed to open their relationship, but only sexually. They want to be able to have hookups, but they’ve agreed not to form romantic connections with other people. They’ve decided this includes some forms of sexting, going on dates, or calling sex partners ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’. They feel that violating this agreement would be ‘Emotional Cheating.’ (See Related polyamory definitions: Cheating; Fidelity)

Ethical Non-monogamy

Ethical Non-monogamy is a form of non-monogamy in which every person involved understands and has agreed to non-monogamy.

This can take a number of forms (e.g., swinging, monogamish, DADT, relationship anarchy, polyamory, etc.) and should be negotiated clearly and often for it to remain ethical.

The ‘ethical’ part refers to making and keeping agreements, and being open and honest within the terms of those negotiated agreements.

(Resources: More Than Two, another great site to find polyamory defintions, by F. Veaux and E. Rickert; The Ethical Slut by D. Easton and J. Hardy)

Fluid Bonded

This refers to the pre-negotiated exchange of bodily fluids during sexual activity; aka: sexual contact without safer sex barriers. This term is frequently used in non-monogamous communities to identify partners with whom one does and does not use safer sex barriers (e.g., traditional condoms, gloves, dental damns, internal condoms). Typically, when people have decided to become fluid bonded it is after they’ve both been tested for STIs and HIV infections and made decisions about contraception/birth control. Exchange of bodily fluids comes is riskiest when there are no barriers in place, so it is safest when people can be open about with their other sexual partners if they are fluid bonded with someone.

Ex: Marcia has 3 partners, Mike, Melissa, and Mitchell. She is fluid bonded with Melissa, so they do not use any barriers for their sexual activity. She is not fluid bonded with Mike or Mitchell, so she still uses condoms and, sometimes, gloves, when she has sexual activity with them. They have all also agreed to use barriers with their other partners, and if any of them become fluid bonded with anyone else, they’ve agreed to tell each other about this change.


Fidelity is emotional or sexual faithfulness to one’s partner(s). Fidelity can happen in a dyad (i.e., monogamy) or in a large group. The terms of fidelity should be negotiated and discussed openly between all parties involved. Making assumptions about what fidelity means in your relationship can be a recipe for disaster. (See Related polyamory definitions: Emotional Fidelity; Ethical Non-monogamy; Cheating).


A hierarchy is a system where the people involved are ranked according to status. Hierarchical relationships are those in which some partnerships take priority over others. If a couple decides to open their marriage but has agreed that they will each take priority over any new partners they become each other’s “Primary” partners and new partners become “Secondaries.”


Your partner’s partner.

Ex: Nancy is married to Ned. Ned is dating Natasha. Nancy and Natasha are metamours.

Mono/Poly Relationship

A relationship in which one member of the partnership is monogamous and the other is polyamorous. The polyamorous person may continue to form multiple romantic and sexual connections, even if the monogamous partners never does.

Ex: Bob is monogamous and he is in a long-term relationship with Bobbie, who is polyamorous. Bobbie is also in a relationship with Ben, who is polyamorous, and Brenda who is monogamous. Brenda and Bob only date Bobbie, even though Bobbie dates all of them and Ben also dates other people.


Couples who consider themselves monogamish may be in a committed partnership that is socially pair-bonded, but have an agreement that one or both may engage in some level of outside sexual activity.

(Watch Sexologist Dr. Jess O’Reilly‘s Monogamish TED Talk)


This refers to a relationship style where two people have agreed to be only sexually or romantically involved with each other.

New Relationship Energy

This refers to the rush of hormones many people experience at the start of a new relationship. When humans first connect sexually or romantically with a new partner, they can experience an increase in dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline, and other fun neurotransmitters that have an effect that is sometimes described as a high. This is that twitterpated, passionate, butterflies-in-the-stomach, can’t-stop-thinking-about-you-to-the-point-of-obsession, phase of the relationship. Not everyone experiences this and not every relationship has this phase, but many do. This feeling can last anywhere from 6 months to 3 years, may inhibit impulse control and/or cause people to say and do things they later regret, so buyer beware.


This refers to multiple, often simultaneous sexual and/or romantic relationships (e.g., serial monogamy, polyamory, DADT, relationship anarchy); may or may not be ethical (e.g., cheating).


See new relationship energy.

One Penis Policy

This refers to a type of non-monogamy where the penis having partner (often a cisgender male, but not always) has decided that the relationship can be open, but only to girls, making their penis the only penis in the relationship. (See related polyamory definition: Unicorn hunters)


See one penis policy.

Open Relationship

A type of ethical non-monogamy. This term can have various meanings depending on who is using it. (See Related polyamory definitions: Polyamory; Non-monogamy; Ethical non-monogamy; DADT).


See other significant other.

Other Significant Other

This one is fairly straightforward.

Ex: Wendy and Wallace are engaged. Wendy is also dating Wanda. Wallace is Wendy’s SO (significant other) and Wanda is Wendy’s OSO (Other Significant Other).


A person who is pansexual has the capacity to be attracted to any human regardless of their gender. Pansexual people often describe their sexual orientation as being “attracted to people, not parts”. This does not mean that a pansexual person is attracted to EVERYONE or wants to sleep with everyone (how exhausting!). Also, some people who use the term bisexual may also mean that they are pansexual but might prefer that term for one reason or another (and vice versa) but they are not always interchangeable.


Another word for lover or partner; traditionally this word is used to refer to an illicit partner like a mistress, but not always.


Typically this refers to a relationship that is not romantic or sexual, like a friend. In some cases, a person may become sexually involved with a friend (FWB – friends with benefits) and still refer to the relationship as platonic. This can also refer to the nature of one person’s attraction to another.

Ex: Randy told Rhon he was in love with them, but Rhon’s feelings for Randy are platonic, so they asked if the two could remain friends.


Literally means many loves (poly = many, amory = loves). This refers to a type of ethical non-monogamy in which people have multiple loving, romantic relationships. These may or may not also be sexual.


A form of ethical non-monogamy in which one woman has more than multiple husbands or male partners.


Sometimes used to describe the network of a non-monogamous person’s romantic relationships. The term is a portmanteau of “poly” and “molecule” due to the resemblance to a molecule when mapped out. Ex:


A closed, ethically non-monogamous relationship.

Ex: Gina, Geri, and Gal are in a polyfidelitous triad. They are all in a romantic and sexual relationship with each other and they have agreed not to date openly outside of that relationship.


A type of ethical non-monogamy where one man has many wives or female partners. This often has religious roots, like in the case of Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) Mormons who often practice polygamy.


A polysexual is someone who is attracted to many genders, but not necessarily all genders. (See also: pansexual)


A type of ethical non-monogamy relationship that includes four people who are all in a relationship with each other. Their polycule would look like a square.

Relationship Anarchy

A type of relationship (typically ethical non-monogamy), where the people involved are not bound to the relationship by any particular rules, but rather by agreements they have mutually negotiated. Relationship Anarchists also do not “rank” their relationships by type. Meaning that all their intimate relationships are equally valid and important, whether they be with romantic partners, close friends, or family members.

Secondary Significant Other

A term used in hierarchical non-monogamy to describe partners that are not one’s “Primary” significant other.

Significant Other

Traditionally describes a person one is in a romantic or sexual relationship with. Some folks also use this term to describe close friends.


See significant other.



See secondary significant other.


A term from the BDSM/kink community describing someone who is comfortable as both a Dominant and a submissive and prefers to switch back and forth between the roles depending on the context (e.g., different scenes; different partners).


A term used in hierarchical non-monogamy to describe partners that are not one’s “Primary” or “Secondary” significant other.

Ex: Paul and Peter are married and live together and consider each to be the other’s “Primary.” Paul is also dating Patricia and has been for several years. She stays over often and they see each other frequently, but she doesn’t live with Paul and Peter. Paul considers her to be his “Secondary.” Paul has just started dating Priscilla. He hopes they will be together for a while, but he’s still not sure about it yet. Paul considers his relationship with Priscilla to be “tertiary” to his other relationships.


A type of ethically non-monogamous relationship that includes three people who are all in a relationship with each other.

Ex: Chris, Cassie, and Carl are all romantically involved with each other; they are in a Triad. Frank is dating Fiona, and he’s also dating Fred, but Fred and Fiona are not romantically or sexually involved with one another; they are in a Vee.


The meaning of this word can vary by region or culture. Some folks use ‘tribe’ instead of ‘polycule’ to describe their polyamorous family or network (all the people connected to each other through their poly/non-monogamous relationships). Some people use ‘tribe’ to describe like-minded folks and, thusly, mean all people who practice poly. For example, someone might say, “Don’t date outside the tribe,” and what they mean is, “Don’t date people who aren’t already polyamorous.” Some people use ‘tribe’ to describe only the people directly involved in their poly relationship (i.e., group marriage, triad, group relationship).


This is component of hierarchical non-monogamy where two partners, usually the “Primary Couple,” exercise an amount of control over who one another can date. If one partner is dating someone the other partner disapproves of in some way, the disapproving partner can “veto” the relationship, meaning that the other partner would have to end their relationship with the new (“Secondary”) person. This is also sometimes referred to as an aspect of “Couple’s Privilege.”

Ex: Vicki and Vivian are Primaries. Vivian met Vince last month and they have been spending a TON of time together. Vicki feels threatened by this, so she “vetoes” their relationship and demands that Vivian break up with Vince. Vivian and Vince are sad.

(See Related Polyamory Definitions: Egalitarian Polyamory, Hierarchical Polyamory


Another word for Threesome; a group of three.


A Unicorn is a term for a bisexual, polyamorous person who may be open to having sex or becoming romantically involved with both men and women (sometimes men AND women). Often this specifically refers to a bisexual, single, polyamorous woman, but this term can apply to males as well. The “hot bi babe.” Why? Because bisexual people are magical, like unicorns. ?

This term also refers to a particular phenomenon in non-monogamous communities. Sometimes when married couples decide to open their relationship, they will start by looking for a sexy “third” to have some playtime with. Some couples believe this will be the least threatening configuration to their existing relationship, especially if the couple is a straight man and bisexual woman (as is often the case). Some couples can get into a trap of coming up with a wishlist or predetermined set of demands for this “third.”

For example: She must be pretty, but not too pretty so as to threaten the wife. She must be willing to have sex with both of them and love them equally and not try to pull their attention away from each other. She must also be willing to agree to not have any relationships outside of the one she has with the two of them. Bonus points if she’s willing to stay over at their place a lot, watch their kids, and clean their house. (You get the idea.)

Because these lists can become unrealistic, the person they are describing is sometimes jokingly referred to by more experienced folks in non-monogamous communities as a “unicorn” because, like unicorns, this person is mythical.

This can also make bisexual women (and men) feel like targets, or prey, so the practice of a couple seeking a “third” in this manner is frequently referred to as “unicorn hunting.”


Unicorn Hunters

See unicorn


Unicorn Hunting

See unicorn

About These Polyamory Definitions

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Professor Sex for providing these polyamory definitions for these commonly used terms in the poly community.

Please let us know if you would like for us to add a polyamory definition for a polyamory word or phrase you would like to better understand or that you think would be a useful addition to this list.

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