< Back to article list

The ABCs of Relationship Orientations

written by Erin Garwood, M.A.

You may have heard some terms about relationships that have confused you such as poly, partners, monogamous, or aromantic. These terms all explain different types of relationship orientations, which means the way in which people construct and engage in intimate relationships. Understanding more about the variety of relationship orientations may help you to better understand your own relationship and the expectations you have for yourself and your partner or partners.


*It is important to note that all relationships are based on communication, understanding, and trust. Regardless of the style of relationship you are in, communicating with your partner or partners about your expectations is crucial.




Primary Relationship: In relationships with a hierarchical structure this is often the closest relationship with the highest level of intimacy that may involve the most time and energy from the partner.


Secondary Relationship: A close relationship type that may take less time and energy than the primary relationship and may still include physical, romantic, and/or sexual components.


Aromantic: Experiencing little to no romantic attraction to others. This exists on a spectrum and does not determine the lifestyle of people who identify as aromatic. For some people who are aromantic they may decide to be in relationships.


Monogamous: A relationship orientation that includes both partners being involved exclusively with only one another. This can include commitment of physical, romantic, emotional and/or sexual aspects of the relationship.


Consensual Nonmonogamy: An umbrella term for relationships in which all partners involved have the option of engaging in multiple relationships in various ways (e.g., sexually, romantically, emotionally, etc.) simultaneously using whatever boundaries and rules all partners agree on. 


Open relationship: A relationship in which all partners have agreed to have sexual, romantic, and/or emotional interactions with other people. This can look like having a primary relationship in addition to having one or more secondary relationships.


Polyamorous: An umbrella term describing relationship orientations that allows for each partner to have the option to pursue other relationships. This can include relationships that are physical, emotional, romantic, and/or sexual. These relationships may or may not be in a hierarchical structure.

            Poly: Short for polyamorous


Polygamy: Relationship characterized as a type of marriage consisting of three or more partners. This type of relationship is often based in religious identity and the most common form is a marriage of one husband and multiple wives. 


Partner: Gender inclusive term that refers to someone involved in a relationship. Partners can refer to someone in a relationship that is romantic, sexual, physical, and/or emotional. A partner can also be in a relationship based on parental roles such as a parenting partner.


It is important to remember that all relationship orientations are valuable and choosing a relationship style for yourself does not mean you can choose one for others. You and your partner or partners need to have ongoing and frequent communication about your boundaries and expectations for your relationship. Counseling can be an excellent support for you and your partner or partners to help create healthy relationship boundaries. Finding a partner or partners who match your style can take time but can also be incredibly rewarding! Try to allow yourself some grace as you work towards understanding yourself and your preferred style of relationship.



If you would like to talk more about how to integrate these terms in your vocabulary, join us for Mind Matters on February 4th at noon. Student Wellness will host a brief discussion with Dr. Tori E. Stephens on the subject. See the event details here