In general, I'm not a fan of definitions. I think they are often used more to divide or judge, than actually define. But I do think a quick overview of the different types of ethical non-monogamy can help people considering jumping into the pool (c'mon in, the water's fine!). So I'm just listing a few general templates. Please know....you can make up any relationship structure you want, and call it whatever you want. But here are some possibilities to choose, or blend, or make your own however you want.
It's important before you take the step to open your relationship, or to launch a new ethically non-monogamous relationship, that you spend some time really thinking about what KIND of relationship do you want. Many people think about polyamory, because that's the word they've heard. But there are other types of non-monogamous relationships. And as any traveler can tell you...if you want to get to your destination, it's important to know where that destination IS!
The idea of polyamory is many loves....the freedom to have more than one loving relationship. But that's not what everyone wants. Maybe you want the freedom to have more than one SEXUAL relationship....but let's keep the love part to your primary partner. That's great if that's for you!. You get the excitement of different sexual partners, but the stability of just one love relationship. An important part of this, though, is being able to separate sex and love. If you are someone who tends to develop deep feels for your sexual partners, this may not work well for you.
Maybe you are more interested in swinging. This is where you and your partner find partners together...either other couples of the rare semi-mythical unicorn. This can add a lot of excitement to couple's sex lives, and can be something that becomes an exciting shared adventure.
Or, on the end of the spectrum, there's relationship anarchy. This is where there isn't any hierarchy among relationships. They are all equal, although definitely not the same. There is no assumption that one relationship is primary, and friendship relationships are no less important than sexual ones.
Credit Dan Savage for the great term monogamish. Think of this as sort of a hall-pass relationship. The couple is primarily monogamous, but every now and then, each can be sexual with someone else, or have a friend with benefits.
Somewhere in between, there are primary and secondary relationships. When you enter into relationships with new partners, the expectation is there that the primary relationship comes first. Some couples set that up by making Saturday nights special to them, while Friday nights may be with the secondary partner(s).
And hey, let's not forget good ol' monogamy. With all the buzz about polyamory and ethical non-monogamy it's easy to think of monogamy as a concept that's dead and gone. It's not,nor should it be. My experience is some people are hard-wired toward being monogamous or non-monogamous almost as much as research shows people are wired toward being gay or straight. And just as gender is not binary, neither is the polarity between non-monogamy and monogamy.
None of these choices is right or wrong. And there are worlds of possibilities somewhere between each concept I've laid out. They key is finding which one is right for YOU, and which one is right for YOUR partner. You may switch from one to another depending on what is going on in your life. Heck, you may invent something brand new. (In which case, please write me to let me know about it!)
Don't expect to get it all figured out right away. Feel your way along, and talk about it with your partner(s). Then, after you've talked about it....talk about it some more! Opening a relationship brings a lot of emotions to the forefront. That's not a bad thing, at all. But it can feel overwhelming in the moment. Be gentle with yourself, and with your loved ones. Think of it as an experiment, an adventurous search to find the life that is right for you.
Like I said, these are just templates. NO ONE gets to decide what your relationships look like except you. And you may find your mind and heart changing as you go along. It's a cliche...but it's a good one: it's about the journey not the destination. HAPPY EXPLORING!