Kinds of Open Fidelity

The relationship structures of the people I have interviewed can be fitted into four models. They illustrate four different ways in which you can go about honest nonmonogamy. Different models work best for different people, and there is some overlap between them. It is possible to change from one model to another over time.

The first model is a committed couple who allow each other just sex outside their relationship. For a couple like this, the primary relationship is solid and the relationships with other lovers are of much lesser importance. The ‘flings’ or one-night stands outside the primary relationship give a buzz, a bit of fun, some relief of potential boredom, or just a change.

This first model includes couples who go together to sex parties and swinger’s clubs. Or it might be that one or other of them goes to such events, while the other isn’t interested (but knows about their partner going).

A second model is a couple who are committed primary partners but also have secondary partners. The secondary relationships are romantic and loving and ongoing, but the secondary partners do not share the everyday things in life to the same extent that primary partners do. Everyone knows that the primary relationship always comes first. Sometimes, two people who both have primary partners can be secondary partners to each other.

A third model is a triad or a larger group, in which three or more people form a committed, loving relationship. In these groups, no one couple-relationship is more important than the other couple-relationships. The group usually live together, share their everyday lives and feel committed to stay together as a group.

And the fourth model is an individual who doesn’t have a primary partner but instead has a network of partners with whom they share parts of their lives. This can be like conventional dating, with new lovers coming and going, one-night stands or flings lasting weeks or months, and perhaps some ongoing long-distance lovers. The difference from conventional singles is that the person openly has more than one lover and tells all their lovers this (though they don’t necessarily give details of each lover to the others).

There are many possible variations and combinations of these models. I have come across examples of:

  • two committed primary partners who are generally monogamous but to open up their relationship just once and a specific circumstances
  • two primary opposite-sex couples where each man is also a secondary partner with each woman from the other couple
  • a polyamorous network of partners and lovers where some people have two equal primary partners as well as several secondaries and where friendship and romantic relationships blend into one another
  • a committed triad who allow each other casual lovers (as in the first model) or secondary partners (as in their second model)
  • a married couple who are searching for a woman to form a triad with (this seems to be very common, though stable triads that form in this way are much rarer)
  • a quad in which all members were primary partners to all other members.

Sometimes one kind of set-up will evolve into another: for instance if a secondary partner of one of a couple turns into an equal partner in a triad with both of them. Or a relationship starts off monogamous, then the couple explore opening it up but with strict rules to ensure that any ‘outside sex’ is only casual, and after a while they relax the rules and perhaps meet someone who becomes a secondary partner or form a triad.

Following on from my post on promises, it is important when making promises to work out between you which model of open relationship you would find acceptable and which you are sure you want to rule out. Remember that you and your relationship will evolve and your promises might need to reflect that possibility.

3 Responses to “Kinds of Open Fidelity”

  1. This is an interesting thing, and something I struggle with with my poly husband, who is type 4 of your definition, an open network person who doesn’t think of anyone as primary. You’ve said elsewhere that part of your definition of fidelity is putting your partner first, and that’s what I, as a hardwired monogamous person, want most from my husband. But as a type 4 person, he of course doesn’t put me first, because all his partners are equal in his own mind. He looks at each situation and does his best to put whoever first that he judges most needs to be put first in that particular situation. That leaves me feeling deeply unloved. As a monogamous person, I want to be put first every time, by default, unless I myself agree to waive my “firstness” out of consideration for the other people in the situation. For me, being put first by default is what commitment means, by definition. For me, love implies devotion, not just warm feelings, and commitment implies prioritization.

    In addition, I feel it’s deeply disrespectful and highly controlling for my husband to decide who is going to be his priority in any given situation, without me (or the other women involved) having anything to say about it. For me, such behavior would show that he has no fidelity or commitment to any of us.

    What’s your take on reconciling type 4 people with your definition of fidelity?

  2. Hi Anna,

    Just found your blog and find it very interesting. I’m involved in an even more complicated model; if you know anyone who has written about the kind of network I’ll describe, do let me know where to find them!

    My husband and I are involved with two other couples; one of the other men is my BF and his wife is my husband’s GF. They have a similar relationship with the third couple, and I have started developing a relationship with that fellow, and my husband and his wife are interested in each other as well. And, (if this weren’t enough) all three of us women are at least a little bi and are somewhat involved with each other, though that hasn’t gone very far yet.

    Mostly it feels great, but sometimes it feels very complicated and hard to balance. Suggestions of resources would be great. Most poly books and sites I’ve looked at seem to be about the first and second models, or occasionally triads.


  3. Hi Kim

    Wow, that’s an interesting arrangement! I haven’t heard of anything similar, no, and I haven’t seen it written about. Having said that, I would think that the main principles still apply, so any of the books I recommend on the right would still be useful. Anthony Ravenscroft’s “Polyamory: Roadmaps for the clueless and hopeful” has a lot of detailed discussion for people who are already in poly relationships, so that might be the most appropriate book.

    Hope that helps, and good luck in managing the complications!