Let’s look at the definition of both terms according to the dictionary:
The philosophy or state of being in love or romantically involved with more than one person at the same time.
Slang. A person who engages in the exchanging of spouses for sexual activities
The difference is pretty obvious based on the definitions but we take a closer look on how the behaviors and thought process between the two are different.
Swinging Is To Sex as Poly Is To Relationships
This is the key distinction between the two. Swinging connections are based on sex as recreation. Typically, friendship is the deepest emotional attachment and it may not even be a necessary component. In polyamorous relationships, deep and meaningful connections or what we would call “love” exist between multiple people and sex is almost always enjoyed in the same way as if in a monogamous, one-on-one relationship. Falling in love with more than one person is non-threatening to these relationships. Conversely, falling in love would be considered threatening in most core couples that are in the swing lifestyle.
Swinging Is To Discretion as Poly is to Openness
More often than not, swinging is treated as something best conducted “behind closed doors” or, in other words, with discretion and respect for all partners privacy. Social stigma is a big factor for most swingers who often do not want to disclose to “vanilla” friends, family, co-workers, employers, etc. due to often conservative, negative judgments surrounding their lifestyle choice. Their events and interactions are usually arranged by other swinging couples or attended at private membership clubs, conventions or in other swinger friendly environments. Polyamorous people are usually in long-term relationships and seek to be as “out” as they possibly can be, in order to honor the connection between those that they love. Their partners usually spend time with them as they would if in a “traditional” relationship.
Monogamy vs. Non-monogamy
Though swinger couples are open sexually to multiple partners, on an emotional level, swingers are still monogamous. Love is only reserved for the core relationship, and falling in love outside with anyone else outside of your main partner would still be considered as cheating. Successful swinging relationships are non-threatening to the couple’s emotional relationships. In a polyamorous relationship, there is no such thing as a “core partner” or core relationship. Instead, each relationship is viewed as an individual coupling with none being more significant than the other.
It is very normal to find polyamorous couples that still swing, and swingers who are also open to mutually exclusive relationships. Some simply do not worry about terminologies and simply go with whatever works for their relationship. However the two practices, though with many commonalities are still quite different.