Polygamy is the practice of being married to and living with multiple spouses at the same time. There are specific cultures and religions around the world where this is accepted and the common practice. You can see how these families live by watching reality TV shows like Sister Wives and Big Love, which are on the air in the U.S. The families seen in these shows practice Fundamentalist Mormonism, an early version of the Mormon religion that allows polygamy.
The Mormon religion of today, which goes by the name The Church of Jesus Christ of LDS does not allow its members to practice polygamy. The LDS church disavows these fundamentalist beliefs and does what it can to distance itself from the stigma associated with polygamy.
The groups getting the most attention are patriarchal, religious-based heterosexuals. In general, the women practicing polygamy are only allowed to have sex with their shared husband. They live as a family with their other “sister wives” who are also married to their husband. You also hear polygamy referred to as “plural marriage.” The women in these groups are usually subservient with very few, if any rights. People living this way often do so secretly because they’re afraid of being thought of as deviant.
In many countries across the world and in various religions polygamy is perfectly legal, but in the United States polygamy is a crime.
Polyamory is where people have multiple loving relationships, which may or may not be sexual. This is not necessarily associated with any religion and has nothing to do with marriage per se, although some participants are married or have undergone a formal commitment ceremony to make their relationships official. Where polyamory differs from polygamy is that the women and men in these relationships have equal status and value open honest communication. In most cases, everyone involved knows about everyone else in these relationships and their participation is free of any duress or pressure.
People participating in polyamorous relationships might be viewed as having an “open relationship” or be considered “swingers.” However, swingers are usually married couples that have agreed that the husband and wife are each is free to enjoy sexual relations with other people. Polyamorous people place more importance on the love rather than the sexual aspect of the relationship. What defines them is their ability to simultaneously maintain loving relationships with multiple people. In many cases, polyamorous people emphasize the importance of being honest all the way around and sincerely caring about everyone’s feelings. People who consider themselves polyamorous usually only date people who are also poly.
People choose open relationships over monogamy for many different reasons. During the feminist movement in the 1970s, lesbians often regarded marriage and monogamy as basically patriarchal. Being open to having loving relationships with multiple people simultaneously was considered radical at the time, truly feminist and counter-culture. Some individuals believe that it’s unrealistic to think that one person could fulfill all their needs so they openly choose to have multiple partners. The term polyamory is also used to describe relationships where three or more people all have a relationship with each other.
In the U.S. and other western countries and cultures, polygamy is patriarchal and often practiced as part of a religion. Polyamory is not associated with any religion, but associated with the feminist counter-culture movement and practiced by radical lesbians and those who consider themselves bisexual.