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.  

Before you talk about opening your relationship talk about this

open relationship | prepare for open relatoinship

Every nearly-non-monogamous couple I've worked with has missed this one critical step and I just can't go one without addressing it.  

We can't start a conversation about non-monogamy without understanding monogamy. 

I know you think you understand it.  Almost every couple I work with thinks they have a working definition of monogamy.  But so far, NONE of my couples have ever talked about specifically what monogamy means in their relationship.  

None.  Zero.  Zip. 

We walk through life in partnerships with this (pretty big) gap in clarity about what we expect from each other.  This is a problem.  

Most of us assume we mean the same thing when we say we're monogamous- but all too often we don't.  Here are some of the many areas I have seen people face extreme misunderstandings about monogamy.  

What does "monogamy" mean to you?

Check out the questions below to start examining your own working definition of monogamy.  If you haven't talked about these things in your relationship, please do before talking about opening things up.


Plenty of folks will say kissing other people is off limits.  But many of them make exceptions for same-sex kissing (if they are straight) r opposite-sex kissing (when they are gay).  They tell me it "doesn't count."

There are also plenty of cultures where kissing is the norm.  Not just international cultures, but friend circles, families, and spaces based on tradition can be the norm.  Kissing cheeks, hands, faces, or lips... it "doesn't count" because it's not erotic.  

Which may be the case, but how do you know when kissing is and isn't erotic for someone?  When is kissing okay in your relationship?  When do you share it with others?


This is the big one where I see people get into trouble.  Some of my couples don't touch other adults- ever.  But most hug friends, or might hold hands with friends.  

Some even snuggle with people they care about and I've seen it become a problem for partners- when it hasn't been discussed.

I'm always surprised when I bring up dancing with other people.  Some folks are very sensitive about sharing intimate dancing with others.  Others love to grind on a dance floor with strangers but would never dream of slow dancing with anyone but their partner.  

If you've never talked about what monogamous touch means to you, now's a great time to start.

Emotional Intimacy

Are there special secrets you share with others?  Do you have certain closeness or fondness for people outside your romantic relationship?  What do you do when those feelings and friendships arise?  

Are there certain pieces of information you want to keep private between you and your partner?  Odds are, there's something they know about you that you'd prefer kept between you.  How can they meet your privacy expectations if you don't tell them?

Spacial Intimacy

Many of the monogamous couples I work with have unsaid expectations about spaces they share with people outside their relationship.  Do you enter a bedroom alone with a friend's spouse?  Will you travel alone with people your partner might find threatening?  

If we're not clear about what kinds of spaces or behaviors indicate intimacy with our partners it becomes very easy for them to misstep.  

Sex with other people

This seems like the most obvious topic to cover, and is usually where people begin to define non-monogamy.  But many of the people I've worked with have sex with other people and still define their relationships as monogamous. 

Some of them have shared partners and experiences.  I once had a client say, "If we're all present, then it's within the confines of our marriage bed."  

And similar to kissing (above) many of them have caveats for non-emotive sex, or sex with people of other genders.  I've had many straight couples tell me they don't view lesbian sex as threatening or "real sex" and therefore it "doesn't count."

I'm not suggesting one definition of monogamy should (or could) work for everyone here.  But I am certain clarity about your own and your partner's definitions is a helpful discussion to have before exploring non-monogamy.  

gina senarighi | poly counselor portland | polyamory portland

Gina Senarighi, MS, MA, CPC is a sex educator and relationship coach specializing in polyamory, open relationships, jealousy, LGBTQ issues and infidelity.  

She can help you:

  • rediscover passion in long-term relationships
  • repair trust after infidelity or dishonesty
  • move past jealousy, insecurity or codependent patterns
  • open your relationship or practice polyamory with care
  • resolve sexual dysfunction and disconnect
  • break unhealthy communication patterns in your relationship

Contact her for a free consultation to see if working with her is right for you.

Click here to download her free guides to strengthen your relationship (monogamous or not).