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Even though “polycule” sounds like the name of an experimental UTI antibiotic, it’s a broad term used to describe all the interconnected partners in the same polyamorous network. Think of it like a clique—but in this clique, most of the folks have slept together (or at the very least, shared a sexual partner).
Take my polycule, for example. My boyfriend sits firmly at the center of the thing—but as an ethically nonmonogamous couple, we both see other people. So my polycule unit consists of me, my boyfriend, and each of our separate, secondary partners.
No, we don’t all share a bedroom, nor do we all gather around the same dinner table to eat vats of Sunday pasta sauce. In fact, I haven’t actually met any of my partner’s second-degree partners IRL. But still, there are key romantic threads that connect us. We exist under the same “intimacy umbrella” purely because we have a partner in common.
So for folks looking to get their toes wet re: nonmonogamy or for those of you who just want to know more about the term, here’s what certified experts across the polyamory space have to say.
Polycule meaning and definition
More formally, polycule is an umbrella term that “connects romantic and intimate partners,” says Keely Kolmes, PsyD, a Bay Area–based psychologist who specializes in working with clients who practice consensual nonmonogamy. It’s the mashing of the words “polyamorous” and “molecule.”
The word is used to describe the larger polyamorous network you belong to, even if plenty of the folks in your unit are only second-degree (or third-degree) connections. This means you do not need to be dating everyone in your polycule for them to still be a part of it.
There’s also no limit to how large a polycule can grow. For example, if my partner, let’s call him Tom, has a secondary partner, and they have another primary partner, we’re all in the same polycule. And that web of connectivity can stretch to, well, infinity and beyond.
Janet W. Hardy, coauthor of what’s often referred to as the OG nonmonogamy bible, The Ethical Slut, says that in her polycule, many of the consenting individuals have held shifting roles in her life.
“Take my coauthor, for example,” she shares. “She’s been part of my polycule for over a decade. Sometimes our relationship is romantic, and sometimes it looks more like friendship—and that changes over time as the shape of my polycule shifts accordingly.”
Do you need to establish a hierarchy to be a part of a polycule?
Not necessarily. “It’s entirely possible to have multiple partners without establishing a hierarchy or labeling any of them as primary, secondary, or so on,” says Hardy.
But for some people, it can be helpful to organize by “drawing out a diagram to better visualize all the different webs and shapes and connecting lines that make up the polycule,” says clinical psychologist Akhila Kolesar, PhD.
“It’s common for parties of three in a polycule to organize themselves around a V shape, where one person serves as the primary connecting link between the other parties,” she explains. Unsurprisingly, this is called a vee.
There are also some groups of three who all participate in the same romantic relationship together, which would be called a triad or a trouple.
In situations where one couple is super established—like if they live together or they’re raising a kid together, you might call them primary partners or nesting partners.
In other situations, like mine, for instance, you have a primary partner (your person), and each of you brings a secondary romantic partner into the picture. So in short, there are no rules. It’s your party, so you call the shots so long as everyone is consenting.
It’s not at all weird or uncommon for multiple members of a polycule to share homes or finances or an HBO Max account—and hierarchy isn’t necessary unless you want it.
What questions should you ask before joining a polycule with someone?
Entering any relationship at all requires a whole lot of question-asking or negotiating. There are tons of important questions you’ll have to address as a group to ensure you’re all on the same page.
According to Ward, if you’re not in a throuple or similarly equilateral relationship, you’ll need to decide whether you want to meet your partner’s partners. “Talk about what kinds of relationships you want to have with everyone else in the polycule. That’s how you’ll all establish your group dynamic in a way that feels comfortable for everyone,” she says.
Personally, I like hearing about my boyfriend’s secondary romantic partners, but I don’t feel the need to build relationships with them on my own. For our version of nonmonogamy to work, we needed to establish that from the get-go. But for plenty of other folks, the beauty of the whole polycule model has something to do with shared intimacy or group dynamics.
“Transparency is such a big part of being in a polycule,” adds Kolmes. “So make sure you’re frank with one another about how often you’d like to see each other, how often you’d like to hang out in a group versus one on one, and what parts of your relationship should be purely sexual versus classically romantic.”
What role does a metamour play in a polycule?
“Metamour” is a term used to describe your partner’s partner. They are not your partner. But the relationship you want with this person is entirely up to you.
“For some, a metamour is a person you’ll never meet, and for others, it’s a person you’re friendly with, but either way, they’re one degree removed from you in the polycule,” says Kolesar.
In my case, my boyfriend could refer to any of my romantic partners (besides him) as his metamours. But it’s up to him to decide what kind of metamour relationship he’d like to have.
What does “compersion” mean to people in polycules?
Start a conversation about polyamory with any nonmonogamous friend of yours and the word “compersion” will probably come up. Generally defined as “the opposite of jealousy,” the term is used to describe the complex, messy, hard-to-describe feeling that comes from loving your partner for yourself and loving the act of sharing them.
It’s about appreciating and even celebrating the happiness your partner feels with other partners (rather than, say, spiraling into pits of jealousy and Instagram-stalking said secondary partners for hours on end).
“If your partner discovered something that they loved, you’d think, Wow, it’s really nice to see them feel happy. In that way, we all know what compersion feels like,” Hardy explains. “It’s entirely possible to feel confusion and jealousy and insecurity while also feeling genuine, sympathetic happiness for your partner.”
For Kolmes, compersion can even operate in tandem with a certain sense of relief. “It can be soothing to realize you’re no longer pressured to be everything to a partner. It’s okay for different needs to be fulfilled by different partners,” she says.
And at bottom, there’s something fundamentally freeing about giving someone else both the bliss and the burden of catering to your partner’s needs in ways that you can’t or simply don’t want to.
Resources for those in a polycule or interested in joining one
If you’re interested in learning more about polycules, ethical nonmonogamy, or polyamorous relationships in general, you can start by reading books like The Ethical Slut and listening to podcasts like Multiamory, Normalizing Non-Monogamy, and Swinging Down Under.
You can also join Facebook groups, sift through Reddit threads about ethical nonmonogamy, and search the #Polyamorous, #ENM, and #EthicalNonmonogamy hashtags on other socials like Twitter and TikTok.
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