healthy polyamory

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.  

Two Kinds of Boundaries in Relationships

Two Kinds of Boundaries in Relationships | Relationship Boundaries

I've gotten lots of questions in my Ask me Anything column lately related to healthy boundaries in relationships so I thought I'd spend a little time writing more about healthy relationship boundaries for a bit to help clear up a few common misconceptions.  

Before Diving in below, you might want to read the first two installments in this series:

Ten Common Myths About Boundaries

Boundaries Aren't Permanent

Two Essential Kinds of Boundaries

When I work with people to clarify and respect boundaries I find boundaries most often fall into one of two camps.  When we're envisioning them, boundaries either seem to be Hard Lines or Negotiables.  

Hard Line Boundaries

Hard lines are the kind of boundaries that feel especially important and/or tender to us.  They are the ones we'll react most strongly to if crossed.  

Hard line boundaries appear to be absolute or unmoveable.  We can't imagine they will ever shift.

Often these come up in initial conversations with words like never or always attached.  Here are some examples of hard line boundaries I've heard:

"If you cheat on me I will end this relationship."

"I'm vegan."

"I can't imagine I will ever want to be tied up."

"I don't like anal sex."

All of these examples are specific to behaviors and appear absolute or unchanging.  Trying to negotiate with these will risk annoying the person sharing their boundary.

There are several pros and cons to consider when using a hard line boundary:

Pros

Hard line boundaries are usually very clear.  The more clarity the easier to be sure you and a partner are on the same page.

Hard line boundaries can seem simpler to live by.  Often hard lines have an either-or kind of feel (see the first example above).

Cons

Hard line boundaries don't take into account the personal growth and relationship development that happens over time.  Even hard line boundaries will need revisiting in time.

It can be really easy to assume these boundaries are fixed- forever.  I've seen many individuals in the couples I work with feel blindsided when their partner wants to revisit a hard line boundary.  

For example, I've seen many people who thought they would end a relationship after an affair decide to repair and stay together.  Most of those folks would never have predicted they'd stay.

Flexible or Negotiable Boundaries

Flexible or negotiable boundaries are the gray area between an absolute yes or no to a specific behavior or context. There are many pros and cons to using flexible/negotiable boundaries.

Here are some examples from real relationships:

"I like rope play, but I don't like to bottom in group spaces. Let's talk about when and where we want to play."

This boundary is negotiable depending on location-specific behavior. I like this here but not there.  

"Sometimes I get really triggered when sexual content comes on tv.  If that happens I'll let you know by_____ and you could support me by _______."

This boundary might not even look like a boundary to most people- but boundaries are really about asking for what you need and setting expectations.  The part that is negotiable or flexible is the "sometimes" and "if" part of this boundary conversation.  There's room for it to flex and change depending on the situation (in this case tv content or stress I'm feeling).

"I like flirting with you via text but this week I have a huge project at work so I'm not going to be available to respond like I usually am."

This boundary is time-sensitive (the project is happening this week).  It's clear we may renegotiate in a week or shift back to our previous texting behaviors.

Pros

Negotiable boundaries can grow, change, and flex with you and your relationship over time.

Cons

Some people think negotiable boundaries don't deserve the same kind of care and respect.  Thinking because they're flexible negotiable boundary violations don't cause the same kind of harm.  This is just completely untrue.  All boundaries deserve respect and care.

Because they are more conscious of the grey area between absolute yes or no, it can be more difficult to be clear about negotiable boundaries.

You need to be willing to keep a conversation going about boundaries- and some people don't want to invest that much energy in relationship maintenance.

Questions to ask about Hard Line and Flexible/Negotiable Boundaries in Relationships

If you're not sure what kind of boundary you want to set ask yourself a few questions to find more clarity:

Is this boundary time-sensetive?

Is this boundary specific to a location or situation?

How might this boundary change as we get to know each other?

When will I be open to talking about this boundary again?

If you want any help clarifying or communicating boundaries, I'm happy to talk with you in a free consultation.  I love chatting about boundaries!


gina senarighi | boundaries in relationships | relationship boundary

Gina Senarighi offers non-judgmental sex-positive, gender-affirming, LGBTQ relationship support online and in the Pacific Northwest. 

She often says, “I love love, in all its forms!”

She’s helped thousands of couples deepen their sexual connection, repair trust, and build sustainable lasting partnerships.

She uses her multi-disciplinary professional training to teach communication skills and help her clients handle conflict with compassion.

Gina has supported many couples experimenting with open relationships based in trust and integrity. If you’re considering polyamory you should check out her online resources here.

Although most of her couples are experimenting with less traditional relationship structures, even her more mainstream clients appreciate her open-minded non-judgmental approach and diverse expertise.

If you’re interested in taking this work further contact her for a free consultation.

Boundaries Aren't Permament

Healthy Boundaries | Boundaries in Relationships

I've gotten lots of questions in my Ask me Anything column lately related to healthy boundaries in relationships so I thought I'd spend a little time writing more about healthy relationship boundaries for a bit to help clear up a few common misconceptions.  

Before diving in below, you might want to read the first installment in this series:

Ten Common Myths About Boundaries

A Common Misunderstanding: Boundaries Aren't Forever

The first thing most people misunderstand is that boundaries aren't permanent. They are always temporary and always shifting.  

For example, when you go on a first date you might have certain boundaries (no kissing, no sex, no talking about religion/money/politics) but over time these boundaries will shift or change depending on how the date goes.  

If your date goes well and you build trust you might want more affection and will likely talk about deeper more meaningful topics.  The boundaries you set on the first date will soften. 

If that same date goes poorly or trust isn't built your boundaries might grow or harden (don't call me anymore, blocking them on facebook, avoiding them at work = more rigid boundaries).

Or you might have one boundary in a specific context that is different in other settings.  For example, I hug my very close friends hello (and often goodbye) but I don't hug my clients or colleagues hello/goodbye.  Or the way I greet someone at a Pride Parade is different than the way I might at a professional conference.  

You can probably come up with some great examples of your own changing boundaries depending on the comfort you feel with an individual person and the context where you meet them.

So boundaries shift over time and between contexts.  But often when we talk about them we try to think in absolute terms.  

We want to think they're a binding contract we'll never need to revisit.  But since boundaries change we have to be willing to renegotiate them.  

Why am I telling you this?

Knowing that boundaries change can help your relationship in a couple significant ways:

1) You can be more aware of the different contexts, times, and trust levels that soften or harden your boundaries. 

2) You might be able to tell people what kinds of behaviors and contexts increase your sense of trust and safety (softening your boundaries) in order to improve relationships.

3) You can practice more self-compassion knowing it is completely normal to have boundaries change, grow, and shift.  There's nothing wrong with you.  

4) You might be able to communicate when and where your boundaries harden with folks around you so you both know what to expect and what you need.

5) If someone has a hard boundary and it's a challenge for you consider (or even better, ask) what might help them feel safer, more trusting or comfortable in that situation, act, or space with you.  I'm not saying try to convince them or wait it out, but use that boundary as a way to connect and get to know them better.  There's likely some great learning in there for you.  

Having trouble with changing boundaries in relationships?

If you're struggling with this don't worry- lots of people have trouble with boundaries growing and changing over time.  Shifting boundaries don't have to be the end of your relationship, but it can be really hard to see a way out if you're on your own.  

Please do call me or connect with another professional who has lots of experience with relationships like yours for help.  We can usually find a new way forward for the two of you that doesn't entail breaking up.  


Polyamory Counselor Portland | Portland Polyamory

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).