What is a Polycule? | Get to Know the Basics of Polyamory

What is a Polycule? | Get to Know the Basics of Polyamory

What is a Polycule? | Get to Know the Basics of Polyamory

If you’ve ever been curious about the world of polyamory, you may have come across a term unfamiliar to most: “polycule.” But what exactly is it? To help demystify the subject for those who are just getting started – or those simply looking for more information – let’s explore everything from the basics of polyamory to what a polycule consists of. We’ll also dive into some ways people approach and practice their relationships within each structure, as well as answer common terms that can arise when exploring relationships outside traditional monogamy.

The concept of polyamorous relationships can be confusing for those unfamiliar, but the reality is that there are many forms of love and no one-size fits all approach. By gaining a better understanding of what a polycule is (a clever portmanteau of ‘polyamory’ and ‘molecule’, used to describe individuals connected through multiple romantic relationships) and how it works, we can open ourselves up to greater possibilities for affection and connection.

Monogamy is a choice

Not surprisingly, a lot of people are taken aback, even triggered, by the concept that monogamy is a choice. This is because most people have no recollection of choosing to be monogamous. It is so deeply woven into our culture and society, that sometimes we forget that it doesn’t have to be the default. People refer to monogamy as ‘normal’, in the same way they refer to heterosexuality as ‘normal’ because it’s the cultural expectation. But just because something is traditional or expected does not mean that it’s appropriate or comfortable for everyone. Luckily one person’s choice to be non-monogamous has no bearing on a monogamous person’s choice to have a more traditional relationship. 

Polycule is kind of a blanket term

One of the greatest differences between monogamous and non-monogamous relationships is that in the non-monogamous world, relationship structures and the roles within them are defined by the people involved, not by social standards. Not surprisingly, this means that there are many, many permutations and combinations of people, emotions, intimacy, and trust. Ethical non-monogamy, also known as ENM, is an umbrella term for a number of different relationship styles that do not conform to traditional monogamy. Polycule is a term based on polyamory, a subset of ENM, but it’s used more widely. Under ENM you will also find:


A term coined by Dan Savage to describe a somewhat flexible state of monogamy, a monogamish relationship is when a duo/couple are emotionally monogamous, and mostly physically monogamous, but in certain (pre-negotiated) situations, they can have a ‘free pass’ to have sexual experiences with other people. This might be acceptable when they are at an event or a play party, or when one of them is out of town, for example. It might also include cuckoldry and/or HotWifing. These extra-curricular connections are not romantic relationships, and not connections that are pursued beyond the specific circumstances. 

Open Relationships

The term open relationship is very context specific and the definition often depends on who you ask. For some people an open relationship simply means that their relationship is not monogamous in one way or another. For others open relationships look a lot like polyamory but don’t involve emotions or love. For others an open relationship is a don’t ask/don’t tell situation where they agree to see other people, but not to share the details. Like so much of the non-monogamy discourse, it’s important to take what works for you, and leave the rest. How you and your partner(s) define the structures of your relationship(s) is up to you, and you can call it whatever makes sense for you.


Referring to ‘many loves’, polyamory is a common blanket term for non-monogamy, however it is specific in the fact that polyamorous relationships are almost always romantic and emotional as well as sexual. The term ‘polycule’ comes from the open and consenting nature of polyamory whereby everyone is encouraged to love who they love, however they love them. This can make for complicated maps of intricate plural relationships that when drawn out, look sort of like illustrations of molecules. Hence the name!

Solo polyamory

Solo polyamory is an interesting position within the world of non-monogamy. A solo poly person experiences polyamory or non-monogamy as a single person. They do not have a Primary or Anchor Partner, they often live alone, and often have more casual or less committed relationships. The partners they have may also be solo, or they may have other connections, or be part of an unrelated hierarchy.

Hierarchical Polyamory

Hierarchical polyamory is based on a priority ranking system. In HP, it’s common for people to refer to one of their partners as their Primary partner. This is often, but not always, the partner they were with  before other people got involved, but there is no set criteria for what makes a primary partner or a secondary partner. The opposite of hierarchical polyamory is non-hierarchical where partners are not referred to in ranking order and are viewed as equals.

Relationship Anarchy

Relationship Anarchy refers to an attitude towards human connections that defies social and cultural labels and boundaries. Relationship anarchists tend not to delineate between platonic friendships, romances, sexual interactions, etc. To them, people are people and connections are connections; the structure is less important than the interaction.


Swingers really straddle the fence between monogamy and non-monogamy and have created impressive networks for finding each other. Generally speaking, swingers are emotionally monogamous couples who recreationally swap partners with other emotionally monogamous couples for sexual experiences (not romantic relationships). Sometimes that includes foursomes where everyone gets involved, and sometimes the couples split off and enjoy their alternate lover more privately.

Unicorn Hunting

People who seek experiences or relationships with an established couple are sometimes called Unicorns or Dragons, due to their near-mythic rarity. Couples who seek a Unicorn or Dragon are referred to as Unicorn/Dragon Hunters. This is often used with a negative connotation due to factors like power imbalance and the potential for exploitation of the Unicorn or Dragon. Like so many terms, they are context and person-specific. 

Polyamory versus Polygamy

While polyamory and polygamy do share the common trait of multiple partners, that’s basically where the similarities end. One could argue that polygamy is just as consensual as polyamory, based on the fact that in most polygamist marriages, the spouses all know about each other. However, the long and disturbing history of polygamy in religious circles and closed communities has put an indelible mark on the practice. The term refers to a situation where a man has multiple wives, something that is illegal in many places because historically these plural marriages have been coercive, misogynistic, and abusive. The opposite term is polygyny, wherein a woman has multiple husbands. While polygyny can be equally as toxic as polygamy, it is less common, and does not carry the same historical and religious stigma.

The Anatomy of a Polycule

So, what does a polycule actually look like? Some say it’s like a molecule, others think these relationship schematics look like circuit boards or constellations of stars. However you view your own (or someone else’s) polycule, there are some structural considerations when mapping it out.

Firstly, there’s no right or wrong way to illustrate your polycule. Travel and relationship writer, EL Byrne, does a great job of regularly sharing hers in Evolution of a Polycule. But is mapping out your polycule necessary? Not at all, but it can be helpful in the same way a family tree helps you navigate the relationships of your ancestors, it places everyone in relation to one another. Below is a fairly large polycule with some destinct relationship styles represented. These examples are not exhaustive and only represent the points of contact throughout the group. They do not express the nature of the relationships, the genders, sexual orientations, co-habitation, etc.

Polycule Examples

Person 1 is in one (duo) relationship with Person 2. Person 1 could be monogamous, or simply not be involved with anyone else.

Person 2 is in two relationships, a duo with Person 1 and a duo with Person 3.

Person 3 is in two relationships, involving three people; a duo with Person 2, and a Triad with Persons 4 and 5.

Person 4 is in a Triad with Persons 3 and 5, and they also have a connection with Person 9.

Person 5 is in a Triad with Persons 3 and 4, and they also have a connection with Person 10.

Persons 6, 7, 8, and 9 are all in a relationship together, called a Quad.

Person 6 also has a connection with Person 10.

Persons 7 and 8 are not dating outside their Quad.

Person 9 also has a connection with Person 4.

Person 10 has two connections, involving Persons 5 and 6. Since Persons 5 and 6 are in a Triad and Quad, respectively, it’s unlikely that their connection with Person 10 is Primary (if hierarchical), but possible.

The orange square highlights the relationship between Persons 1, 2, and 3. This style of relationship is called a “V”. The person at the centre of the V is called a Hinge. In a V the Hinge (Person 2) has a 1:1 relationship with each of the two other people, but they (Person 1 and Person 3) do not have a romantic or sexual relationship with each other. The term for people connected by a common lover in ENM, is ‘metamour’. For example: Person 1 and Person 3 are metamours because they are each involved with Person 2.

The green square highlights a Triad relationship. A Triad is like a V but each person is involved with both the others. Sometimes referred to as “three in the bed” triads can involve a hierarchy, but they don’t have to. Sometimes Triads form by three singles getting together simultaneously, others by a duo/couple including a third in their relationship.

The yellow square designates a Quad relationship. Like a Triad is three people who all co-mingle in any combination, a Quad is the same, but with 4. This is not the same as two couples who ‘swing’. Swingers tend to be emotionally monogamous but ‘trade’ partners for sex only. The four people in a Quad are all dating/in a relationship with each other.

The purple square highlights Person 10 as an example of Solo Polyamory. Solo is when the person has multiple relationships, but lives a single lifestyle. This often means not co-habitating with partners and not having, or being, a Primary or Anchor partner.

Each Polycule is Unique

With the world of relationships constantly evolving, it’s important to recognize and respect that each individual’s experience is unique. What works for some, might not work for others. Whether traditional or non-traditional, remember that most importantly connection thrives on honesty and respect – values we should all strive to uphold in any relationship dynamic we choose.

Let’s keep talking about what works best for us as individuals so that we can break free from norms and create our own version of happily ever after, however that may look! Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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