Can people still cheat in polyamorous relationships?
This is like can abuse happen in BDSM?
The difference is consent.
So in BDSM, when we hit people, we do it in a way that they enjoy and in a way that we have agreed to do it with them and we have structures in place to let each other know if stuff is not working.
Plus, we work on aftercare.
Making sure that after we do these things that are intense, we have ways to take care of each other.
In polyamory, usually we have some sort of understanding with the people who are in our lives about what we are agreeing to do, what we are agreeing not to do, how we communicate about changes, and what will it mean if we end up breaking an agreement or doing something that goes against the agreements that we already had.
If you and your partner have an agreement to use barriers with other partners and one of you is having a real great time with someone and decided to like, “Fuck it! I don’t need a condom. It will be fine.”
You’ve broken an agreement.
That can be defined as cheating.
If you have an agreement that you’ll let each other know if you hook up with anybody new and one of you goes and fuck somebody and doesn’t tell the other person, congratulations you have cheated in polyamory.
So I think that where people get caught up here is they think like cheating is a thing for monogamy that like doing anything with anyone but your one person is what makes it cheating so in polyamory cheating doesn’t exist.
When cheating is actually about breaking of agreements, right?
When you have an agreement with someone and you break it, that is the kind of breach that cheating is.
We have a specific word for doing sex things or some people also call certain kinds of intimate emotional or social actions cheating as well, which I think is like real challenging to actually think of as cheating because it gets too messy so fast.
But regardless, the idea is that cheating is a specific version of betrayal.
It’s a specific subset of ways that people break agreements that they have with each other.
So if in a polyamorous relationship someone breaks the agreements that they have with their partner around sexual, romantic, intimate connections, absolutely that can be cheating.
I think that – there is often a recommend that if somebody cheats, they should just try non-monogamy, and like sometimes that is a good recommendation.
Sometimes this is somebody who just like doesn’t know how to communicate their needs and will do much better when they’re able to do things that they want to do.
The thing is, if you can’t communicate your needs, you are still going to struggle in polyamory because we communicate way more than the average monogamous person.
So like if what you’re thinking is, “I’m going to be polyamorous and then I can just fuck anybody I want with no consequences,” I mean probably not, probably not going to happen.
So yes, you can still cheat in polyamorous relationships.
The tools that you need to be successful in a monogamous relationship are the same that you need to be successful in polyamory.
It’s just you tend to find your points of growth much more quickly because there are more variables involved.
Please don’t cheat.
I mean OK.
So cheating – some people like getting away with things.
There’s a whole lot of reasons that may be.
I firmly believe that everybody is doing the best that they can with the tools that they have.
If the best that somebody can do is trying to get away with things behind somebody else’s back, to me that speaks to a lack of good tools.
That is somebody who needs way more help developing tools to either take care of themselves, to communicate, to set boundaries, whatever it is.
I think that there are also some people who cheat because they are desperate and they don’t know what else to do.
If you’ve read my book, if you’ve listened to me talk some places, you probably already know that when I was 23, I got married.
We separated when I was 26.
And the reason on the surface that that marriage ended was because I cheated on him.
I am not proud of having cheated.
And in fact, I cheated twice.
And after the first time, I felt so terrible about it that I wanted to rip my own guts out.
It was – I felt horrible about it.
I cheated because I was in an emotionally abusive relationship and I finally had somebody who saw me and was interested in me and listened to the things that I said and made me feel like a person worthy of affection and attention and attraction.
And that was something that I had not felt for so long that it was like I could breathe for the first time in years.
Cheating was not the right way to deal with that.
It was at the time the best that I could do because I – I’m 40 now. I turned 40 in October.
I have done a ton of work on myself over the last decade, decade and a half.
And the place that I was coming from was having grown up in an emotionally abusive household where there is no point trying to change how things are.
It is just how they are.
The best you can do is find some happiness behind the person’s back or try to do something that wouldn’t make them too upset or just like do what you have to do to survive and accept that it’s going to end up biting you in the ass at some point.
As a result, the tools that I had for dealing with someone being awful to me were not good tools.
And I started getting better tools as I went through graduate school and as I continued growing and maturing as a person and as a therapist and as an officer in the Army.
And as I learned, I got better tools but when I cheated, I was cheating because I didn’t know what else to do.
I could not imagine leaving my marriage.
I could not imagine him letting me leave.
I could not imagine having the strength to hold to it if he decided to try to convince me to return.
And that’s a big part of why I cheated the second time.
I knew that if I cheated again, he would leave and it would be done.
There would be no way he would try to convince me to come back.
It would be over over.
Some part of me knew that I needed that to get away.
That in order for me to get out of that relationship, I needed for him to have a reason to not convince me to stay.
And again, not a good choice. Sometimes all we have is shitty choices.
So when we talk about cheating, the thing that I try to remind people of is that people in general do things for a reason.
We may not understand the reason.
It may not make sense to us.
But there is a reason there.
And it behooves us to find some amount of curiosity about that reason if we want to stay connected to that person.
If cheating is a non-negotiable deal breaker for you, that is also completely OK.
You are never obligated to let somebody back in your life after they betray your trust.
That is never something you are owed.
If you do want to keep someone in your life after this kind of betrayal, I think it is important to undo this kind of polarizing binary that often forms after cheating of like, “I am the poor, helpless victim who got cheated on. I’m a good person and this bad thing happened to me that you did and you have to pay for and you are a terrible, evil villain who did the bad thing. It must be for bad reasons.”
And like that’s not helpful, right?
I don’t think that it is ever anybody’s fault that they were cheated on necessarily.
There are always odd cases that are exceptions.
But this is to say that having curiosity about why the person cheated is going to be super helpful in cutting out of that binary so that you can heal that connection if you want to stay in it, because you – there’s no good that comes of a connection that is predicated on, “I’m the good one who was hurt and you have to make it up to me until I feel like you’ve done enough.”
That is such a messy power dynamic and there is no good incentive for the person who was hurt to get over being hurt because getting over being hurt means losing that new power that they acquired.
And that’s not in like say, everybody is Machiavellian like plotting and scheming, that is just to say that we humans, we are not like these amazing, beautiful evolved creatures.
We are messing fucking apes.
We are like hairless apes we have brains that can do amazing things and they are also full of garbage.
And when we suddenly have power in a situation where we never had it before, that is hard to let go of whether we have it for good reasons or not good ones.
And so, finding curiosity if what you want to do is stay connected to that person can help you come out of that space of you’re a bad person who did this bad thing and instead look at this messy human being who is a real person just like you because you also are a messy human being.