Just like the word "polyamory" itself, there is a person who coined the term "solo poly" who is living* and yet most of the community debates the definition. We seem to like taking words and terms that exist for a purpose and changing them to suit our own preferences. Then we argue over what the words mean and get upset when people misunderstand our non-standard, unconventional, or unique use of the word.
When the term first came out, I had been an outspoken writer and activist in the poly community for many years. I came into the poly community as a single, bi-curious, woman-presenting person. I wasn't trying to "open up" some existing monogamous relationship. Which means that I was immediately beset upon by the unicorn hunters - poly sharks circling the waters after fresh meat. It's enough to put anyone off their feed, to mix my metaphors.
But I'm stubborn. And I'm very secure in who I am and what I want. And I'm also absolutely adamant about what I believe I am entitled to. Some of the things I believe I am entitled to are controlling my agency, being treated as an individual human being, being an equal partner in my relationships, and designing my relationships to suit the preferences of the people in them rather than forcing people to fit into a predetermined relationship mold. Apparently, I'm asking a lot. But I didn't flee the poly community after being treated like something to be consumed. I stuck around to fight back so that I could change the community into something that was more hostile towards those sharks and more welcoming towards swimmers like me, the people who, I had been led to believe, started the community in the first place.
Around 2012, the phrase "solo poly" started getting used, notably by one blogger in particular who is credited with coining the phrase. I became aware of her when we started interacting on Twitter because we seemed to share similar relationship preferences and a similar frustration with the broader poly community being resistant to and dismissive of our visions of respect for autonomy, agency, and living alone. I do not take any credit whatsoever in the coining of that phrase, but I was there in the beginning when it was coined and I had been publicly espousing what turned out to be its definition for more than a decade before its coining.
There were a few other terms floating around at the time and we were trying them all on to see what fit. While trying on several terms, I started the first ever solo poly group, and I put it on Facebook. I invited several phrase coiners to run the group with me, as we seemed to share the same visions and frustrations. Eventually the other terms dropped out of favor and we stuck with "solo poly".
But in my time defending this new phrase, I have discovered that lots of people use the term differently, including those of us who started the whole movement in the first place. As usual, this has caused some confusion. Today, I have come up with a breakdown of the three or four most common variations on the phrase that I think will help to bridge communication gaps when we all start throwing around this term and everyone starts arguing about what it can and can't include.
Before I get to that breakdown, though, there is one misconception that needs to be cleared up. The one thing that solo poly does *not* mean is "unpartnered". Solo polys *can* be without any romantic partners (for however they want to define "romantic partner") but that is most definitely not what the term *means*. Solo polys can and do have partners of all sorts, including deeply intimate, emotional, committed partners. We already had a word for people who don't have any partners - single. The term "solo poly" is intended to address a specific way that they "do" their relationships, not to indicate that they don't have any.
The most commonly cited explanation for "solo poly", in my observation, is the desire to live alone and be off the "relationship escalator". The "relationship escalator" is that culturally defined path that people in romantic relationships are supposed to take, with certain steps progressing in a particular order, all culminating in a particular relationship conclusion. In my culture, we start programming people from a very young age, notably with the children's rhyme "first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage!" There can be some variance in the steps, but in general, the "relationship escalator" involves two people always moving towards a destination that ends with life together, a marriage certificate, kids, a house, entangled finances, and a blending of the self into the relationship unit.
This can even play out in a microcosm of individual relationships, where even sex acts are ranked on an increasing scale of importance, to be done in a particular order in a particular time and imbued with meaning or significance related to its place on the escalator. But with respect to this element, the culmination of the relationship, it's symbol of "success", involves the intermingling of lives.
Many solo polys prefer to structure their lives, logistically, in alternate ways, with living alone or "independently" with housemates being a top priority. Many solo polys expend a lot of energy keeping their lives logistically, practically, disentangled from other people, regardless of the emotional connection they share with others.
The next most commonly cited description that I, personally, see is the elevation of the self as "primary". This is more abstract and involves prioritizing the self over others, usually in terms of self-care and emotional labor. People who use this description will often refer to themselves as their own "primary" and everyone else comes "secondary" to the self. This does not preclude any depth to an emotional connection between the solo poly and others. This is all about priority - who comes first in a conflict of competing priorities (which is usually the alternate definition of "hierarchy" that so often leads us into circular argument over whether hierarchy can be "ethical" or not, where people confuse "priority" for "power" and attach ranking terms to priorities instead of centers of power). No matter how much one cares about another, sometimes priorities conflict and that's just the way of things - just ask anyone with two or more kids who have extra-curricular activities or who have had accidents at the same time. Prioritizing one's own self as "primary" sets the baseline precedent for how to resolve those conflicts.
In practice, many solo polys are fairly adept at what I call "interdependence" - the balancing of priorities so that each person in a relationship can feel secure that their emotional needs will be cared for and that their partners and romantic networks can provide a safety net for them to fall back on when needed. Yet many tend to emphasize the importance of putting the self first in conversation about priorities, so it often sounds like they stray into "selfish" territory (which I have defined in some long-ago blog post as being different from self-interested, where "selfish" is about prioritizing the self to the detriment of anyone else and is inherently a negative trait).
In my opinion and experience, I think some of this emphasis comes as a reaction to abuse. One of the red flags of abuse is in the loss of individual identity and subsuming one's identity into the relationship - in making the relationship itself more important than the people in the relationship. Lots and lots and lots of people see the melding of individuals into a single unit as "romantic" and don't see the danger inherent in losing one's identity separate from the relationship. Because of that, lots of people engage in fundamentally abusive practices without even realizing it (which is where the whole power issue of hierarchy comes in), and in polyamory, the people who feel the pressure and consequent explosion first and most often tend to be people who are not entangled in escalator-like relationships.
In other words, even though losing one's identity into a relationship in an abusive situation hurts everyone, the most visible collateral damage in these situations tends to be the "secondary" brought into an existing dyadic relationship. These "secondaries" are treated as disposable, as crutches to shore up damaged couples, as sex toys, as nannies, as need-fulfillment machines. Even when they aren't supposed to be "secondaries" and are instead supposed to be equal "thirds" to existing dyads, their purpose tends to remain the same - a person is "hired" to fulfill a role for a couple and when it all goes to hell, that third person often ends up with the most visible scars.
So I believe that many solo polys are gun-shy, so to speak, of getting sucked back into these kinds of toxic relationships or have seen the explosions on the poly battlefield and want to avoid being yet another statistic themselves. I might fall into that camp. Many may also be unable to articulate the difference between priority and power, and fearing a power imbalance, they emphasize their priority for themselves. I think a lot of solo polys, even though they are quite capable of building interdependent relationships and may even be practiced at it in their existing relationships, I think a lot of solo polys tend to emphasize their self as "primary" to try and explain the concepts of autonomy and independence to an audience that often sees *any* separation or individuality as a threat to their control over the outcome of the relationship.
I am not at all, in any way, suggesting that solo polys do not feel the way they claim to feel about being their own primaries. I'm suggesting to people who think that these claims mean that solo polys are callous and selfish and unable to care deeply about other people or even work together to form mutually beneficial partnerships that those people misunderstand the importance of the concepts, possibly because of a lack of understanding of that power imbalance and of how deep the threads of abuse go into our collective understandings of relationships where "abuse" and "romantic" become interchangeable.
Closely related to the "self as the primary" but some may view as distinct, is the prioritization of the concepts of "autonomy", "agency", and "independence". This can also be related to abuse. First and foremost, abuse is about control. The way one controls another is by removing their agency - their ability to operate as an autonomous individual. Many solo polys cite "agency" as their motivation, or their priority. Much of what I said in the previous element can be applied here, especially the parts about reacting to abuse, where some solo polys are aware of and concerned about abuse and emphasize the language of "agency" in their descriptions such that people who don't understand the importance can misinterpret solo polys as being "selfish", "afraid of commitment", or unwilling / unable to work together in interdependent partnerships.
Sometimes the people who are most sensitive to a loss of agency or autonomy are part of oppressed categories and understand the loss of agency from a cultural oppression perspective. Many solo polys are drawn to the label because of their closely held beliefs in the importance of autonomy and they seek to build relationships that honor and respect autonomy and agency above everything else, where all the other elements of relationships, such as support and intimacy, exist to serve and protect the partners' respective agency. Some solo polys believe that intimacy and connection can't exist without recognizing and acknowledging agency, because it is only by relating to an autonomous individual can we truly build intimate connections in the first place. Not recognizing the essential agency of our partners is considered a roadblock to intimacy because the participants are not really in relationships with each other, but are in relationships with models of people that exist in one's imagination that are *based* on real people.
There are also a lot of motivations for people who value independence. I'm not going to go into a deep dive over the how and why of this. Some people were raised to be independent. Some people were harmed by being too dependent and learned independence as a survival skill. Some people had bad experiences with codependent partners in the past. Some people are just that way and who knows why? And probably there are even more reasons.
Our culture tends to give us conflicting messages. On the one hand, we're supposed to "pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps" and be a "self-made man" and not take "handouts". On the other hand, romantic relationships are culturally designed to erode that sense of independence. There is also a gender power influence here, where men who have housewives raising the kids and managing the home are still considered "self-made" who become "successful" with "nobody's help" but women who have partners are considered to need help. If she works and he stays home with the kids, he is "helping out with the kids" so that she can pursue her career. But if he works and she stays home, she's not "helping out", she's doing her job and he still built his career "on his own" because it's the charity or handouts or assistance of others that "count" as "help".
The gender differential and power dynamic in relationships is a big enough topic that some people can actually build entire careers out of studying it so I'm going to stop here before I go off on a rant about it. Back to independence, we are taught to be "independent" but that doesn't apply in relationships. In relationships, we are taught to entangle ourselves with other people. It's even written into the law in some places, such as shared property laws where, even if you maintain separate joint checking accounts, legally speaking each spouse is entitled to half of the other's money. Some people, for a variety of reasons, prefer to retain their independence even within romantic relationships, regardless of how much they care about their partner.
The fourth element is about introversion and privacy. Many people who gravitate towards solo poly are introverts. First of all, "introversion" has nothing at all to do with social skills, shyness, or misanthropy. Introversion and extroversion are jungian psychological theories that describe how people feel "energized", or engaged, active, and happy. Introversion and extroversion are also not binary states; they are on spectrums. Everyone has some of both, so I don't want to hear any of this "I'm an ambivert" or "those tests never guess me right because I do both" bullshit in my comments. Everyone does both to some degree and boxing you into a single category is not the purpose of the system. But personality type systems and the public's collective misunderstanding of them is a rant for another time.
Back to the point - introversion is where people feel that they lose "energy" by interacting with some people and they need to "recharge" by being alone. Extroversion is the opposite - people feel that they lose "energy" by being alone and need social contact with others to feel better. Many introverts enjoy social activity, some of us enjoy it a great deal. It's just that we feel tired after the event and it takes some time being alone to start to feel better. Introversion can be a difficult state to adequately care for when someone lives with other people, so polys who are strong introverts often enjoy living alone to care for their introversion. No matter how much an introvert loves someone else, and no matter what they feel or believe about entangling finances or other relationship escalator steps, an introvert still needs a way to get "alone time". So they may be open to such entangled arrangements, but only if they can configure them in the right way. The difficulty of finding such a balance when one is also poly can lead to people identifying as "solo poly".
And then there is privacy. Again, like independence above, there are a wide variety of reasons why people value privacy, ranging from healthy to unhealthy, from "nature" to "nurture" (i.e. being inherent in the personality vs. a reaction to past experiences), and which slide around on the intensity scale. It is much more difficult to maintain one's privacy from within a relationship that is riding the escalator. When people cohabit, especially if they don't have a room of their own, when they share finances, when they share email and online accounts, when they entangle their lives with other people, it becomes extremely difficult to have privacy. This isn't about keeping secrets (and I'm not going to entertain comments about what "counts" as a "secret"). Every mother I know has made jokes about not knowing what it's like to pee without an audience for the first 5 years of a child's life (longer if one has multiple kids within 5 years of age). Some people value privacy more than they value entanglement and these people are often attracted to the label "solo poly".
These four elements - living alone, the self as the primary, autonomy / agency / independence, and introversion / privacy, are not mutually exclusive. Most solo polys I know desire a mix of the four elements. But I would say that each solo poly person has their own blend of these four elements, with certain elements being more important than others. And that is what, I think, causes a lot of confusion. Someone asks "what is solo poly?" and someone with a blend that prioritizes element #1 gives their answer, but then someone who really feels and believes that element #3 describes them but doesn't much care about #1 thinks that they are not solo poly because their blend is different and they're not aware of all these different elements.
My personal stance on this, the position I have always held since I started fighting with hierarchical polys almost 20 years ago that led to me collaborating with those bloggers who started coining all these poly sub-group terms, my opinion is that the first element - the logistics of living alone - is not necessary but is extremely difficult to maintain the others without it. I am of the "autonomy and agency" flavor of solo poly. I believe that maintaining one's individuality and independence, and respecting the autonomy and agency of each person, and prioritizing the autonomy and agency of each individual above the relationship are of the utmost importance and how we reduce abusive structures in relationships.
I have always held that the idea of autonomy is what makes one "solo poly", even before we had the terms to use. I have also always held that maintaining one's autonomy is possible even in relationships that look "primary-like", but that couple privilege is a subtle, insidious thing that takes conscious and deliberate effort to undermine so that people in "primary-like" relationships or escalator relationships would have to intentionally structure their relationships to make space for autonomy.
I tend to see the autonomy / agency element of solo poly as being integral to the definition and the other elements as being either expressions of that element or supportive of that element but not necessarily requirements of solo polyamory.
So when you're talking to solo polys or if you're wondering if you "qualify" as solo poly, keep these elements in mind. Maybe three of them really hit you personally but you couldn't give a shit about living alone, or perhaps you're disabled and need to live with caregivers. You could still be solo poly. Or perhaps you really need to maintain your own money "just in case" and you're opposed to legal marriage because screw the government getting up in your business but you still want to build deeply connected, intimate relationships. You could still be solo poly. Or maybe everything about this sounds awesome except that you want to do it in a commune with two dozen other people who all live in their own huts but on the same property walking distance from each other or in the same apartment complex and you socialize with everyone all the time in the common spaces like the kitchen because you're extroverted. You could still be solo poly.
If you're legally married, live with only one partner, share finances, and co-parent, I think there is still room for you under the label if you hold the other values, but I do think you will be challenged more often because I think it's more difficult to see one's internal values of autonomy and agency when one's life is structured to more closely resemble a system of dependence. If you only date together, have veto power or approval power, access to each other's emails and phone or text conversations (especially if no one outside of your dyad has the same access to these things of yours), have a hierarchy, or otherwise have difficulty separating out where you end and your partner begins, I think I would question your commitment to values of autonomy, independence, privacy, etc.
In my opinion, as long as you value yourself, your partners, *and your metamours* as independent agents and you arrange your relationships to support and encourage that, the rest of it all is more like flavor, or color, shading your own version of solo polyamory to reflect your uniqueness and individuality. Others may disagree, but as one of the earliest pioneers of this style of polyamory regardless of what it's called, this is what I was fighting for from the beginning. Treat people like independent, individual human beings who are more important than the relationship, discourage couple privilege, and separate out the culturally appointed markers of "romantic relationships" from the emotional connection or value that each relationship has for the participants.
This is a work in progress, which is why it's so long. I hope to refine it to a more digestible description in the future.
*Morning Glory Zell is responsible for coining the phrase "polyamory", being the first person to use the phrase "poly-amorous" in print and all other publicly available derivations of the term came later. She died in 2014 but was alive and available to clarify her intent with coining the phrase for the time period in which the definition was being debated and determined. Her intentions were often ignored when people wanted to use the term differently or dismissed under the excuse that another person was the "real" coiner of the phrase even though it was used 2 years later, simply because that other person had the first internet reach. "Who said it first" is an argument for another time.