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3 Ways That a Couple Can Be Polyamorous

Why some will only accept "hierarchical polyamory."

Key points

  • Some people structure their consensually nonmonogamous relationships around a primary couple with other partners.
  • The most common couple-focused CNM types are swinging, monogamish, and hierarchical polyamorous relationships.
  • Couple-focused relationships can work really well for some people and tend to be happiest when everyone agrees the couple is the center.
Source: DMCA/Pexels

This post is the second in a series. The first examined how some consensually nonmonogamous (CNM) relationships are focused on individuals. Another way that people organize their CNM relationships is around couples. This is especially true for swinging, monogamish relationships, and hierarchical polyamory. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is important for readers to understand that these are not stages or exclusive categories; one relationship might transition through different categories across its lifespan or exist in more than one category simultaneously depending on how people structure their lives and boundaries.


The best-known and perhaps most widely practiced form of CNM in the United States is swinging, which tends to be focused on an established woman–man couple who includes others in their sex life. The line between swinging and polyamory is quite murky, with some swingers establishing deep and lasting emotional connections with other couples and spending lots of time together doing things besides having sex. The overlap between swinging and polyamory is so common that the term “swolly” has evolved to describe the emotionally intimate type of swinging or the sexuality-focused type of polyamory. In either case, swingers are generally clear that the couple is the priority and other relationships exist at the behest of the couple, not as equal to it.

Swinging often takes place in a specific setting, such as a club, cruise, hotel convention, or house party. Couples who already know each other or find each other online might create their own swapping arrangements, but of all the established forms of CNM swinging has the most official infrastructure and dedicated physical spaces.

Most swinging settings, especially in the United States, emphasize sex between cisgender women and men, with little room for sex between men or people outside of the cisgender binary like transgender or nonbinary folks. Sex between women is not only tolerated but celebrated in some swing settings, where men often like to watch women together. Men having sex with each other in swing settings is generally frowned upon and can get the men kicked out of the space. Very frequently, the only acceptable way for men who are swinging to engage in sexual activity simultaneously is for them to be having sex with the same woman.


Monogamish relationships have that same emphasis on the couple as the main event, but less concern with heterosexuality and more flexibility when it comes to emotional involvement. Again, the distinction between the relationship styles is quite fluid and overlapping, with some couples combining styles and labels in their idiosyncratic way to craft a degree of openness that works for them.

Monogamish relationships can run the gamut from a couple who dates others as a unit or allows its members “wiggle room” to flirt with others but not have sex, a “hall pass” that allows members of the couple to have sex with certain specified people, to long-term independent relationships with others outside of the couple that might appear indistinguishable from polyamory in every way except labels.

Some people in monogamish relationships call them “open” relationships, and others refuse labels in general and simply say that they see other people as well as their couple partner. The huge range of ways that people can engage in monogamish relationships makes them a challenge to define clearly, and, generally, people prefer to define them as they go. Monogamish relationships usually do not have the sense of community identity that comes with swinging and polyamory and instead tend to happen on a more individualized basis.

Hierarchical Polyamory

Hierarchical polyamory is when an established couple dates other people as well. Frequently, they characterize their couple partner as their primary and other partners as secondary or even tertiary. Primaries can mirror the larger cultural conception of a spouse and might even be legally married, often live together, may have children, and generally make major life decisions together.

Many polyamorous communities in the United States today are disgruntled with hierarchical polyamory because it brings a monogamous power imbalance into polyamorous community relationships against which some community members bristle. For instance, in some primary relationships, the main couple partner has “veto power” over their partner’s other relationships, meaning that if the primary partner feels threatened by someone outside of the couple then they can require their partner to break up with the other person.

Polyamorous folks who dislike hierarchy label attitudes that the couple is more important than other people and its needs should be prioritized if things get dicey as “couple’s privilege” cite cliché elements such as veto power or lopsided rules as key reasons why it is unacceptable to them. These polyamorous folks who value relationship equality or independence among all partners are more likely to engage in nonhierarchical polyamory or solo polyam, which I explained in the previous post.

While the general trend in polyamorous community discussion and writing is decidedly against nonhierarchical polyamory, the clear distinctions between primary and secondary work quite well for some relationships.

Research finds that primary partners often have higher levels of relationship satisfaction than do secondaries, spend more time together overall, and spend more time doing things other than having sex. Secondary partners have lower levels of relationship satisfaction, in part because they tend to have less power and are more likely to hear what the rules are rather than to have a hand in making the rules—which can lead to dissatisfaction when faced with rules that do not work for the secondary.

Generally, people are happiest in hierarchical polyamorous and other couple-focused relationships when all participants are fully agreed on the type of structure, and the people who are secondaries to each other prefer that type of relationship, perhaps because they already have another primary partner and more primaries will not work for them, or they really do not want a primary partner at all and having partners with other obligations frees them up to do their own thing.

Facebook image: Pressmaster/Shutterstock


Flicker, S. M., Sancier-Barbosa, F., Moors, A. C., & Browne, L. (2021). A closer look at relationship structures: relationship satisfaction and attachment among people who practice hierarchical and non-hierarchical polyamory. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(4), 1401–1417.

Balzarini, R. N., Dharma, C., Kohut, T., Campbell, L., Lehmiller, J. J., Harman, J. J., & Holmes, B. M. (2019). Comparing relationship quality across different types of romantic partners in polyamorous and monogamous relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48, 1749–1767.

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