What Cheating Looks Like in a Polyamorous Relationship
"In non-monogamy, you can have your cake and eat it too—so why are you sneaking cake in the middle of the night?”
Left to right: Cathy Keen, Nicole Everett, Thomas Keen. Photo courtesy of subjects.
When I first met my husband, he told me in no uncertain terms that he viewed kissing as cheating. So it might come as a surprise to hear that, ten years later, we regularly have sex with other people.
Neither of us had an open relationship before we met each other, but we always talked candidly about sex, love, and relationships. Like many poly-curious couples, we tested the water by having threesomes, before branching out and dating individually. These days, we define as non-monogamous. We’re married, live together, and put our relationship first, but we also see other people. So when I asked my husband earlier this week if he still thought kissing counted as cheating, I expected him to laugh. He didn’t.
“Yes,” he said. “If it was something we hadn’t agreed to.”
At first glance it may appear worrying that we weren’t on the same wavelength, but actually, this misunderstanding shows how easy it is for polyamorous people to misinterpret their own relationship rules. Afterwards, I felt shaken thinking about how I could have inadvertently hurt the person I love. (Happily, we had a long conversation about exactly when and why a kiss might not be appropriate—so we’ve since cleared things up.)
From the outside it may look like anything goes within the confines of polyamory. But actually, most non-monogamous relationships are based on a highly personalized set of agreements. As a non-monogamous couple, we are no strangers to long conversations. Our sober discussions of boundaries, insecurities, needs, and desires are a stark contrast to the sexually emancipated free-for-all that many people imagine polyamory to be. It’s definitely possible to cheat within polyamory. But what counts as cheating may vary dramatically from one relationship to the next.
As Franklin Veux and Eve Rickert, the authors of polyamory guide More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory point out, cynics may see polyamory as “just a fancy way of saying your partner lets you cheat.” But in truth, “a polyamorous relationship does not mean anything goes. It means far more listening, discussing, and self-analyzing than you may be used to.”
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Cathy and Thomas Keen have been together for nine years and non-monogamous for seven. For over a year the London-based couple were both in an open relationship with their friend, Nicole Everett. During that time the three of them were free to pursue other relationships, but recently Everett, 27, met a new partner who doesn’t feel the same way.
“He knows about my relationship with Cathy and Thomas but he wouldn’t be OK with me seeing someone new,” she explained. “If I was to sleep with somebody else, Cathy and Thomas wouldn't mind—but for him that would be a form of cheating. It's a bit confusing,” Everett admitted.
It’s hard to quantify the amount of cheating that occurs in non-monogamous relationships, but the fact remains that polyamorous people can and do cheat. In Mating In Captivity: Sex, Lies and Domestic Bliss, psychotherapist Esther Perel points out that all relationships rely on trust and violations of that trust amount to a betrayal, just as they do in monogamous relationships. She writes: “Even though the rules may look very different, they are breakable, and breaking them has equally painful consequences.”
Marceille Bisset, 26, was crushed when she found out her long-distance polyamorous partner had secret girlfriends. The pair were open about being non-monogamous: he knew about Bisset’s other relationships, and she expected the same honesty from him. Bisset was planning to fly out from her hometown of Philadelphia to visit him, when he emailed her saying he’d met someone new who wanted to be monogamous. When she pressed him further he admitted this “new girlfriend” was actually a partner of two years, and he also had another partner in another city. What hurt was not that he was seeing other people, but the dishonesty.
“All three of us women thought we were in consensually non-monogamous relationships with him but he kept us all a secret from each other,” Bisset says. “He wanted no accountability for being ethical with us. But in non-monogamy, you can have your cake and eat it too—so why are you sneaking cake in the middle of the night?”
Leanne, whose name we have changed to protect the identity of her child, told me how her open marriage broke down after her husband slept with somebody he knew she wouldn’t approve of. “The rule in our polyamorous marriage was that you couldn’t sleep with somebody without talking about it beforehand,” Leanne, 54, tells me. “My ex wanted to sleep with the mother of one of my son's friends. He knew if he’d discussed it with me I’d have said no. So he did it anyway behind my back for six months.”
Psychologist and sex and intimacy coach Dr Lori Beth Bisbey says that in non-monogamous relationships, cheating is less about the activity, and more about violating the trust you’ve built up in your relationship. “In non-monogamy, you set down how you're going to manage relationships and what the boundaries are,” she said. “So when you break that, you spit in the face of the work that you've done in the relationship. It’s not about sex, it’s not about jealousy—although contrary to popular opinion, that is also something poly people struggle with—it’s about the lie.”
Rules vary from relationship to relationship. Some polyamorous people may agree not to date anyone of a specific gender. Others may permit certain sexual activities, but not others. Many people—including my husband and I—seek approval before engaging with a new partner. But rules can also change. Most of the polyamorous people I spoke to said what counted as “cheating” for them had evolved over time.
Prague-based couple Tereza and Josef Sekovovi were in a monogamous relationship for ten years, before becoming polyamorous two years ago. Over time, they’ve relaxed their initial, strict rules. In the beginning they agreed not to sleep with anyone else without prior approval. But after a late night encounter left Josef with a dilemma about whether to phone home and wake his wife, they realized this wasn’t practical. “There were also a few trials: so at first we'd say, 'Kissing and hugging is OK,' and we found we reacted well to that so then we said, 'It's OK to have sex with someone else,'” said Josef, 27.
The key is communication. While there are non-monogamous couples who operate on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis, everyone I spoke to was adamant that honesty and disclosure was the only way to avoid cheating. “There is no option not to tell,” said Tereza. “It would be really weird if I had to hide something from Josef. It would feel totally like a betrayal.” Josef agrees. “Having something intimate with someone else and not telling Tereza, I would consider that cheating.”
Debriefing after seeing a new partner can be just as important a part of ethical non-monogamy as establishing boundaries beforehand. For Cathy and Thomas, 33, time spent reconnecting with each other after seeing someone new is crucial. “It's okay to have separate relationships, but I always tell Thomas and we always have reclamation experiences after I've been to see that person. I need to make Thomas feel secure, let him know that I'm still here and I still love him and my family is still my priority,” Cathy, 39, said.
Safe sex is also a common theme. One study from the University of Michigan, which collected data on several hundred individuals via an online questionnaire, found that people who cheat in monogamous relationships are less likely to practice safe sex than consensually non-monogamous people. All the non-monogamous people I spoke to were vocal about the importance of using condoms. “Not using a condom and not telling is probably the worst thing to do in a poly relationship,” said Cathy. “It happened with my ex. I ended up with chlamydia. All of us did. I was absolutely fuming.”
While it’s clear most polyamorous couples take a dim a view of cheating, many of the people I spoke with acknowledged it would not necessarily spell the end of a relationship. Despite being hurt in the past, Marceille believes non-monogamous people are better at working through betrayal. “I think what non-monogamy has when it comes to forgiving cheating is the ability to restructure a relationship without having to end it,” she said. “A breach of boundaries doesn’t mean you have to cut that person out forever the way monogamy teaches you to.”