A common question in relationship forums centered on ethically non-monogamous relationships is, “How do you define cheating in polyamory?” In one group, a member went so far as to suggest that cheating is mono-normative in nature and suggested that it’s not even possible to cheat in polyamory.
I’m of the opinion that cheating is absolutely possible in polyamory or ethical non-monogamy. The fact that defining it takes a few extra words doesn’t preclude it from existing.
Let’s take a look at some fairly obvious examples of cheating outside of the relationship paradigm: It’s called cheating when you’re playing chess and you move the pieces on the board to your advantage when your opponent is not watching, or tuck an extra ace into your sleeve to use when you’re playing poker. It’s called cheating when you swipe the answer key for the final exam or copy off your neighbor’s test, or hack into the system to change your final grade after it’s been entered. One is cheating on their taxes by not declaring their full income, or inflating expenses in order to take a higher deduction.
I think cheating implies being intentionally surreptitious about ignoring (or outright breaking) established agreements to gain an advantage for yourself or to control outcomes. It’s a concept that implies there are agreements, laws, or rules in place and that one is actively circumventing them to their own advantage. This could be about a relationship, a game, a test, or a competition.
So my definition of “cheating” in any relationship (whether it’s monogamous or not) would be one that describes the act of circumventing agreements with the intention of gaining an advantage or controlling the outcome.
Sometimes the outcome people want to control is simply “not getting into a fight” or “not being dumped.” While most of us can empathize with that desire to avoid fights and breakups, it’s easy to see how withholding information that would result in being dumped is a form of manipulation.
So, what might cheating look like in polyamory? The more “rules” or “agreements” are in place, the easier it might be to cheat, but generally speaking – any time you’re withholding information from a partner that you think they would be upset to find out, there’s a good chance you might be “cheating.”
Of course, there are some exceptions. If your established dynamic is “don’t ask don’t tell,” for example, then your partner has specifically requested you not give them the information that will cause upset feelings. If your dynamic is a particularly anarchist version of “relationship anarchy” where there are absolutely no expectations or agreements in place beyond “engage consensually when we’re together,” then it might be REALLY difficult to do something your partner might consider cheating.
But, in many polyamorous relationships (and especially in many mono + poly relationships) there are some clearly established agreements in place. There might be agreements in place about when to notify a partner about a new or potential new partner. There might be agreements in place about who you can (or can not) engage in a relationship with based on gender or pre-existing relationship like an ex, or a partner’s relative or close friend. A very common agreement has to do with risk profiles and determining what the protocol is for testing and barrier use with each partner and how to communicate changes to those protocols over time.
So, when there is an understanding between two or more people in place and at least one of them does something contrary to the established agreements and intentionally withholds the information from their partner – that is very likely a case of cheating. Perhaps they are withholding the information out of fear that their established partner will react angrily about it. Perhaps they are withholding the information because they know it will bring up a lot of difficult emotions for their partner.
This is where trying to take on responsibility for other peoples feelings or emotional reactions can get you into trouble. It might seem like you’re doing them a favor by “trying not to hurt them,” but there’s a non-zero chance what you’re actually doing is unintentionally manipulative and deceitful.
Things get murky when agreements are unclear about the timing or the method of communication in these instances. An example of this might be that the agreement is to notify your partner about a new sexual encounter as soon as reasonably possible after it happens. You decide to delay telling them until the next time you see them in person – a week later – but they find out in the interim from a mutual friend who was at the same party and saw you making out and then leaving with your date.
Is that cheating? Honestly, it depends. It depends on how your partner might view your intentions behind the delay in sharing this information. Maybe you honestly thought it was best to tell your partner in person, not because you wanted to delay having to deal with their negative feedback, but because you know they prefer to deal with heavy emotions in person. If they agree with you, then it probably wasn’t “cheating” although it probably felt like it between the time they found out about your date and the time you could finally discuss it.
It’s important to note that good intentions might soften the blow, but they don’t invalidate the hit. You should still be able to acknowledge and validate the pain they experienced and allow them to feel and express it as needed. While you may not feel badly about your actions, you can still have compassion and empathy for the fact that they resulted in hardship for your partner.
But I’ve found that most people aren’t always super good about understanding their true intentions. Saying something like “I thought it would be easier for you,” or “I didn’t want you to feel bad,” or “I didn’t want to upset you,” might make it sound like you’re doing it for the other person’s benefit, but what you might really be saying is “I didn’t want to deal with the consequences of telling you.”
More often than not, when people avoid telling their partner something they know should tell them because they’re worried it might cause a fight or a breakup, there’s a chance their partner will consider it cheating.
So a simple way to determine if your actions might be considered cheating would be to ask yourself:
- Am I within the bounds of our established agreements with this action?
- If I’m not sure or if I’m using a loophole to rationalize my actions am I willing to discuss it with my partner in advance to ensure they are aware of my intentions?
- Am I allowing my partner to make a fully informed decision about whether or not to continue dating me?
If you answer “yes” to all those, you are probably not cheating. If you answer “no” to any of them, you might be.
And while in mononormative relationships, cheating can be quite simply defined as a sexual (or in some cases emotional) encounter with someone other than your partner; in non-monogamous relationships the concept of cheating can be a lot more nuanced (and possibly not even tied to sexual activity) – but still entirely possible.
All the more reason to communicate often; not just about what you want to know, but also how and when you want to know it, and make sure that everyone involved or impacted by that agreement has an opportunity to opt in or opt out of the relationship.