What’s the Difference Between Swinging and Polyamory?

What’s the difference between swinging and polyamory? 

This is a question that I hear a lot, both from therapists who attend my classes and talks and from clients who are interested in exploring consensual non-monogamy. 

On the face of it, swinging and polyam have a lot in common. They’re both forms of consensual non-monogamy, and there is certainly overlap between people who practice polyamory and swinging. 

However, there are a few key differences between swinging and polyamory, both in the assumptions participants generally make about the nature of their relationships, and in how each relationship style actually looks in the real world. I’ve laid out some of the differences below–with the disclaimer that these are all generalizations, and there are exceptions to every rule. 

  1. Polyamory is based on the assumption that partners may form multiple romantic attachments. This is the major difference between polyamory and most other forms of consensual non-monogamy. Polyamory (‘many loves’) by definition includes the option to engage in multiple romantic and sexual relationships, where “romantic” and “sexual” are defined by the participants. In other open relationship structures, including swinging, there is generally an agreement that it is okay to have multiple sexual connections, but not to fall in love. Swinging is generally considered to be purely sexual–although of course sometimes swinging partners develop strong romantic feelings, and sometimes this leads to the development of a polyamorous relationship. 
  2. Swinging tends to attract a more conservative people. On the whole, the swinging demographic tends to be more conservative, more heterosexual, and more gender-normative than the polyam demographic. Polyamory, on the other hand, has a huge overlap with the LGBTQ and kinky communities.
  3. Swinging is a couple pursuit. Swingers are generally couples who meet up with other couples, often at events.  Sometimes connections form that result in couples deciding to meet up outside of formalized swinging events. Swingers might engage in swinging once or twice a year, or every week, but it is generally an activity a couple engages in together. 

There are infinite ways to practice consensual non-monogamy. Everyone who is interested in exploring consensual non-monogamies has to find their own path and their own style. Swinging works very well for some people, polyamory is perfect for other, and still others prefer other forms of consensual non-monogamy. 

That’s part of why I believe it’s so important to be aware that there is a vast menu of options available. No two relationships are the same, and finding the right relationship style for you and your partner(s) requires creativity, insight, flexibility, and negotiation. 

A Trend I Notice in Polyamory

Polyamory is part of the cultural conversation now, and at some point you’re going to have clients who are either practicing or considering it. In my last blog post, I described the primary/secondary structure, which has historically been the most common arrangement for polyamorous relationships (for more details, see this post). 

However, primary/secondary is not the only possibility by far. There are infinite possible relationship structures. In fact, in the last few years, I’ve seen more and more people creating polyam relationships with a non-hierarchical structure. 

So what does that mean? In a non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship, each participant evaluates their own situation and connections, and forms agreements according to the needs and preferences of all, without the expectation that any one particular relationship will take precedence over another. 

In practice, sometimes this doesn’t look much different from primary/secondary. For instance, there may be one relationship where there are a lot of shared responsibilities, like raising a family. In that case, the needs of the children and the family unit may tend to be more pressing, and therefore take precedence, over a less encumbered love affair, regardless of whether there is an assumed hierarchy between relationships.  

However, in non-hierarchical polyamorous structures, no one has veto power over their partner’s other connections, and partners assess situations in which different relationships conflict with one another on a case-by-case basis, rather than prioritizing one relationship as a rule. In some situations, this is a very significant distinction. This way of conducting relationships requires a lot of self-knowledge, emotional regulation, and differentiation of self, and it can be highly rewarding when those pieces are in place. 

The advent of the internet means that although polyam communities may be small and hard to find in the real world, polyamorous people around the globe can easily talk to each other, share experiences, and develop community norms and guidelines for managing relationships. As polyam culture continues to evolve, it’s an exciting time to be a therapist who works with polyamorous people. Each relationship is unique, definitions vary, and specific situations demand individual flexibility and creativity. Therefore, I recommend asking your clients what their polycule looks like, and what relational agreements are in place, in order to better understand the particular challenges and strengths of each family system.

Why Would Someone Want to Be A Secondary Partner?

Every now and then someone asks me: “Why on earth would anyone want to be a secondary partner in a polyamorous relationship?”

For some context, many polyam relationships have a primary-secondary structure. Generally, this refers to a situation in which there is a pair of partners, one of them has a relationship with another person, and part of their relationship agreement includes prioritizing the “primary” partnership over any other (“secondary”). 

This type of prioritizing might come down to choosing to end the secondary relationship rather than the primary one, if significant relationship struggles arise. Or it might look like staying home from a date when the primary partner is having a really rough day. It probably means the rules and agreements of the primary couple will not be up for discussion with the secondary partner. It may be that the primary couple is open about being in a relationship, while the secondary partner remains a secret. 

One reason this setup is fairly common is because many people move into polyamory from a monogamous partnership. They may be interested in exploring having new partners and forming new romantic connections, but not want to lose the commitment and security of their existing partnership. They may also have significant shared resources and responsibilities, like a home, family, finances, and legal partnership, which they don’t want to lose or destabilize. From this perspective, a primary-secondary structure makes a lot of sense.

Some people are very happy being secondary partners, and I’ve even known some secondary partners who prefer it, and are not interested in having a primary partner at all. However, a primary/secondary relationship structure can cause a lot of strain on secondary partners. Some feel less chosen, less important, or like their needs come last. Some may want more time, closeness, or commitment than their partner, or their partners’ partner, is willing to provide. Some feel left out of decision-making discussions about their own intimate relationship future. 

So, why would someone want to be a secondary partner? There are many reasons, and of course relationships are infinitely diverse, but here are three:

  • If they already have another relationship that fills a primary role in their life. This is one of the most common setups–two people who already have another relationship, perhaps with a shared home, family, legal marriage, significant commitments, etc., coming together with the understanding that their primary connections take precedence. In fact, in this type of situation, the stability of the primary relationships may be the foundation that enables polyamory to work. 
  • If they have another kind of commitment that takes up a lot of time in their life–for instance, a highly demanding job, a commitment to frequent travel, a beloved time-consuming hobby, or an absorbing spiritual practice–which would make it difficult to commit to an intense long-term primary relationship. Being a secondary partner can be a great solution for people who want to experience romantic connection, but who also highly value and prioritize other aspects of their life.
  • If they just love their alone time, or prefer to avoid the complexities of huge, absorbing relationships with the accompanying demands and expectations they can entail. 

People are very different from one another; they have very different interests, beliefs, desires, and needs. It just doesn’t make sense than any one type of relationship, or relationship role, would fit for everyone. Polyamory is just part of the diversity of ways people can relate to one another intimately. I love being part of an open dialogue about diverse relationship structures, because I have a huge soft spot in my heart for people whose dreams and desires don’t fit the traditional mold.