I've started writing a number of Poly101 articles for the blog; you may have already read my 101 on Jealousy. In this article, I'll be trying to distinguish Polyamory from other flavors of relationship and marital pluralism.
Many societies and religions perceive a monogamous connection a lifetime commitment. However, in modern practice this is rarely the case, especially in America: nearly half of documented marriages wind up in divorce. Thus for centuries it's been morally and socially acceptable to make a new monogamous commitments following the end of another. The practice of jumping from one committed relationship to another is referred to as serial monogamy. One commitment ends, another begins.
There are many different flavors of non-monogamy.
In an open relationship the participants agree to engage in sexual and romantic relationships outside of their monogamous commitment, and often with the full knowledge of both parties; swinging on the other hand is commonly perceived as an open relationship limited expressly to sexual activities. Both are mutually-agreed to arrangements - an understanding - and usually done in the auspices of social secrecy as to preserve social expectations.
Polyamory is a made-up word combining two Greek and Latin expressions: poly (many) amor (loves). It is the practice of engaging in multiple intimate relationships with the full consent and knowledge of all the parties involved.
Monogamy would look at infidelity as unacceptable but when it happens the act is referred as cheating. Cheating is an concealed and secret affair. Participants don't inform their committed, monogamous partners because the ramifications would potentially risk the dissolution of the union.
Polyamory isn't cheating. Relationships are conducted transparently, with the full knowledge and understanding of all parties. If a connection feels like cheating then it likely couldn't be described as polyamorous.
Further, polyamory isn't swinging (although some polyamorous also swing). Here's where I might ruffle a few feathers. Although there are plenty of swingers who enjoy recreational sex, there's a dark side to swinging which can take on a connotation of 'barter': an exchange of spouses for sexual access. Polyamory doesn't regard romantic or intimate access as an exchange - there's no quid quo pro. There's no explicit promise of access to other partners within polyamorous relationships. It's all free-will, baby, and the polyamorous would probably emphasize the emotional bond over the sexual act of swinging.
Monogamy generally refers to a single partner of either gender committed to another. Polygamy, on the other hand, reflects a situation where one party marries several spouses - polygyny for male, polyandry for the female - and polyfidelity is where multiple romantic relationships are restricted between members of a group. In all cases, a commitment exists between all parties to exclude others.
In all of these cases, these are exclusive relationships. Partners are forbidden to stray beyond their betrothed groupings. Generally speaking, polyamory isn't as exclusive as these models. Under polyamory, all partners have the ability to engage in romantic and intimate relationships with whomever they please.
Polyamory can manifest in a bunch of different configurations but the more common are triads (three people who're romantically involved) and quads (coupled couples). V's (where one person in a triad is the fulcrum between two who aren't romantically entangled) and N's (where a couple interconnects two unentangled individuals).
It's said that polyamory is about abundance. The polyamorous would suggest that love isn't finite and can only be shared with just one person at a time. Instead, there's an abundant amount of love; we're capable as a species to express love abundantly - to extend love and attention and affection to multiple people at once. Being poly is about abundance. If you believe that monogamy exists to reinforce a social order and suppresses a base nature to share love and intimacy abundantly (as therein lies the road to madness and social chaos), then you might see the polyamorous perspective as an anthropologic rather than a sociologic argument, as Ryan's 2010 Sex at Dawn book explores. "Heck, we're all Bonobos - why can't we all just get along?"
Polyamory is a taboo in our Western culture and really isn't anything new - for a brief while, I was even journaling on the blog about different polyamorous relationships throughout history; many, many, many people in your life could be polyamorous but wouldn't have a term for it, or, don't have a desire to divulge their relationship. But what is new is polyamory's newfound media attention. Like I said, it's a taboo, and new media extends an opportunity to talk about taboo subjects without the scrutiny of censorship or advertisers.
Finally, I think the last element to touch on here would be the question of why polyamory - at least, that is a question that's been asked of me by my parents - and to that end there are likely many different answers and perspectives.
I can say that, for me, polyamory is a practice of freedom, trust, and growth. I believe that not one person fulfills all of my needs or my spouses' needs, and within polyamory we've extended the freedom to each other to explore those connections. I trust her and our ability to maintain our relationship even within the context and pull of others. And I feel both of us will grow from our shared experiences. Growth will inevitably lead to more fulfillment, contentment, and actualization as individuals ... allowing me to love my wife - and the connections to whom we extend ourselves - even more.
Love is abundant.