Six Common Open Relationship Structures

how polyamorous relationships are structured | open relationship configurations

When you begin practicing consensual non-monogamy for the first time it can be difficult to imagine how these relationships are structured.  Most of us don't grow up with solid monogamous relationship role models, let alone non-monogamous ones. 

I'm going to try to outline some of the most common open relationship structures I've seen in ten years supporting polyamorous and consensually non-monogamous relationships here. 

If you have more to add I'd love to hear from you.

Six Possible Polyamorous Configurations

Polyamorous (Polya) Singles:

People who are not currently involved in any relationship, but believe in the concept of polyamory, and perhaps hope to incorporate it into any future relationships they may have.

Sometimes people use the term "solo-poly" to identify that they aren't looking to prioritize a relationship with another over their relationship with themselves.  They may date a number of other partners, or only themselves.  Some solo-poly folks also call themselves single, and some do not.

Polya Couples:

Committed couples that are open to having relationships outside of their own relationship. Some committed couples may choose to have relationships separately, or some may choose to both be involved in the same relationship.

I have worked closely with couples who date other couples, some who date, play, or sleep with one shared partner (or many individual partners), some who date or sleep with other partners separately, and others who date, sleep with, or play with people separate from their committed partner.

The base group in these relationship is two people.  And they are committed to each other, though those commitments can also be diverse.  Some of them share financial commitments (bank accounts, apartment lease, car loans, etc), spaces (homes, communities, or offices), legal agreements (marriage, business, or wills), familial or parental contracts, spiritual commitments (rituals, ceremonies, or marriages), or all of those.

Open Polya Groups/Marriage:

These are groups of 3 people or more committed to one another in some way, (functional, legal, financial, familial, or spiritual) and are also open to adding new partners to the relationship, either as a separate relationship between one partner and new people, or as an addition to the group.

Closed Polya Groups/Marriage:

In these groups of 3 or more, partners are committed to one another in some way, but have chosen not to add any new partners. This is commonly referred to as “polyfidelity”.

Often when people imagine these closed poly groups they imagine somehow all the relationships are somehow equal or the same. While some groups can achieve this kind of balance it is extremely rare. Though all partners share some forms of intimacy, each relationship is unique, some sharing emotional intimacy, some physical intimacy, some functional intimacy, and some all three.

Expanded or Intentional Family:

A relationship in which three or more partners consciously chose each other as family, partners may or may not live together, there is the potential for all family members to be sexual with each other if they mutually chose to do so but this is not a requirement for family membership.

Often this is what people describe as "kitchen table poly" meaning relationships so easy and trusting all partners can share a meal or celebration with each other.  

Similar to closed groups (above), typically not all relationships in these intentional families are the same, each has its own energy. Accepting this is critical to the success of the whole group relationship.

Intimate Network:

When people want friendship and perhaps sex with their lover’s and other friend’s they begin to form a web of varying connections within a social circle. They are informal webs of people with varying levels of interpersonal bonding and commitment who share a belief in open multilateral relationships.

Intimate Networks often develop around or among open marriages or open couples. People in Intimate Networks and other Polyamorous or polyamory relationships sometimes refer to the depth of their relationships as “Primary,” “Secondary,” and “Tertiary” to describe the varying levels of commitment involved.

Some of my clients have used the term "friends with benefits" to describe these relationships as they typically share a strong friendship with each partner, and sometimes with their original or primary partner as well. The difference being they are less formal in their commitments and relationships are often less defined.

There is no one right way to practice polyamory, and because it is a practice, most lasting non-monogamous relationships flow between different forms of polyamory and open relationships as years pass.

If you want support finding a form of non-monogamy that fits for you please give me a call, I'm happy to help you find a configuration that supports your desires and those of the people you care about.

Hi!  I'm glad you're reading.  Let me know if I can help you:

open relationship counselor | open marriage counselor | polyamory counselor
  • open your relationship & practice polyamory with integrity
  • move beyond jealousy, fear, and insecurity 
  • manage intense emotions that arise in conflicts
  • rebuild trust after infidelity or dishonesty
  • shift stuck communication & codependent relationship patterns

I lead couples retreats, host workshops, and see private clients online and in Portland, OR. Call me for a free consultation to rethink the way you do relationships.

Gina Senarighi, MS, MA, CPC is a communication consultant, sexuality counselor and certified relationship coach specializing in polyamory, open relationships, jealousy, and infidelity.