Polyamory might look like a romantic and sexual free-for-all from an outsider’s perspective. But, even if you’re in a non-monogamous arrangement, it’s totally still possible to cheat. What “cheating” means, though, can vary. It really depends from person to person, relationship to relationship, and on the agreements you make with those you’re seeing.
The myth that cheating doesn’t exist within poly relationship styles, in fact, can be blatantly at odds with the personal philosophies of people who practice polyamory.
“The idea that cheating does not exist in polyamorous relationships is ignorance at its worst,” Bear, 40, who practices polyamory, told VICE. “Polyamory is about love, but that love has to have a strong foundation. Our relationship is founded on: honesty, communication, trust, and respect.”
To understand more about how those in poly relationships identify their boundaries and what constitutes “cheating,” we reached out to people who practice some form of non-monogamy. As always, it’s important to remember that there's a wide and diverse range of relationship styles and forms of breaching trust within relationships. These anecdotes are based on individuals’ personal experiences and do not speak for all.
Covertly Forming Relationships
“I was in a relationship with a man who decided to start dating his ex again a few months after we started dating. Not only did he not inform me that he started dating her—she was under the impression they were exclusive. It all came out after a couple of months, and he ended up choosing to be with her only when he was caught. It was a severe breach of trust.” —Nicole, 32
“I usually have two partners maximum so I may spend equal time with everyone. The number of partners one might have is usually set with the main partner/base partner or by personal self; if that number changes without consulting everyone I would also consider that cheating. I wouldn’t want my pack/unit to fall apart due to anyone feeling uncomfortable.” —Alex, 20
“I personally am more comfortable with partners who are really open and transparent about who they’re dating. I kind of want to hear about it. So, for me, uncomfortable feelings come up when I don’t know about my partners’ partners, my metamours. If I had a partner who engaged in a new relationship, and the relationship was going forward in an emotional way and they didn’t tell me, I would feel cheated on.” —Heath, 38
“I was in a steady relationship with this guy, and in the beginning of our relationship, we established what cheating was for both of us. We agreed if one of us started seeing another person and we don’t tell each other about it, that’s considered cheating.” —Olivia, 36
“The relationship I am involved in has set rules regarding bringing in others. First, when interest has been initiated, we must tell the others. Second, we discuss everything: feelings, boundaries, the details of the one who has either shown interest or who has become the subject of interest. Then we all meet in a neutral place, for lunch or dinner, and get to know each other. If any contact has been made without abiding to those rules, then it is cheating. If one of us goes on a date with someone new and doesn't follow the rules, they are cheating on us.” —Bear
Violating Sexual Health Boundaries
“I prefer routine STI testing and prefer to use protection with partners that I haven't consciously chosen to fluid bond with.” —Nicole
“If one person in the relationship fails to communicate honestly about an STI, trust and respect are both broken.” —Bear
“Say I have a partner and we make an agreement to have barrier-free sex… We make that agreement with the understanding that we will be open and transparent about our sexual behaviour with other people—and if our barrier usage with somebody else changes, that we would notify each other. Say that same partner goes and sleeps with somebody barrier-free and then comes back to me. Now, the person at that point has violated an agreement we had... But have they violated my consent? They haven’t violated my sexual consent or my body because they haven’t slept with me. If they did that and didn’t tell me—that, to me, would be cheating… If they tell me, it’s a renegotiation of our agreement.” —Heath
Going on Secret Dates
“Lying about going on dates.” —Nicole
“When my partner is starting to date someone new but they don’t say anything about it, I consider that cheating. [An ex] cheated on me by not telling me about another woman that he went on dates with twice. The reason I found out was because he called me and told wanted to see less of me (we only saw each other once a week) and wanted to see more of her because she’s familiar with sex club scene.” —Olivia
Failing to Communicate
“If they neglected to inform new potentials of the existence of current partners.” —Nicole
“In any of my relationships, I prefer to have open and honest communication. If communication ever fails, then the unit might not survive. If there is a breach in this communication and honesty, then I personally would consider that cheating.” —Alex
“We have to be honest with each other. Most importantly, we must be honest with ourselves. Before bringing in anyone else into the relationship, everyone involved sits down for a honest conversation. We express our true feelings, openly and honestly. If we don't, we are setting up a scenario for failure.” —Bear
“If someone is omitting information, blatantly lying, or obscuring a truth, then it’s a breach of trust. I don’t need to know every detail, but if it’s big enough to lie about it, then it probably shouldn’t be happening” —Nicole
This article originally appeared on VICE CA.