It happened to a good friend of mine. She called me up one night very upset. She and her husband had been polyamorous for over 10 years and she found out that he was "cheating" on her. This brings up a really good question. Is it possible to cheat on your partner in a polyamorous or open relationship?
Although cheating isn't my favorite word--it's so laced with shame--I think it is possible to cheat in an open marriage. If you break your agreements and especially if you intentionally lie about breaking agreements--you join the ranks of the "cheaters."
In the case of my friend, I needed more details to discern what was happening. She told me that she and her husband had an agreement that they would not date within a 10 mile radius of their home. They also had an agreement that they would fully describe their marriage to anyone that they were considering dating.
My girlfriend found her husband corresponding with a woman less than 1 mile away. Furthermore, when she read his new profile page, on the website where he'd met the new woman-- there was no description of their marriage or their agreements. She was rightfully pissed off. But what was interesting was when I started coaching her about her predicament, she was reluctant to call her husband out.
There is potential hazard when doing poly to become wary of appearing uptight. Polyamorous communities can have a culture of permissiveness, which can creep up on a person and you can feel like a jerk if you get upset about possible sexual transgressions. It's important at these times to use simple "I" statements to express your disappointment. Try not to shame the other person but ask direct questions about what happened.
What is interesting is that it took me 30 minutes on the phone to get my girlfriend to even admit how hurt and upset she was. She felt like a poly defector for feeling angry and betrayed. Having known this couple for many years I offered to sit and witness their conversation around the situation. When I arrived at their home her husband was contrite and embarrassed. We sat down and he described finding the new poly website, putting up his profile, and genuinely forgetting to tell his wife. He was completely apologetic that he hadn't mentioned his wife more on his profile or clearly described their agreements.
The bigger story was that the profile had sat unused on the website for over year, so when he got two emails within the same 24 hour period from two separate women, he was surprised and somewhat off balance. After exchanging a few emails with one of the women, he told his wife what was happening. By this time he was a bit swept away by 'new relationship energy', a polyamorous term for getting high and giddy about a new found romance.
It sounded more like a series of small blunders that added up to some thoughtless mistakes. My friend's husband politely declined further contact with the two women since doing so violated his agreements with his wife.
So can polyamorous people cheat? They sure can. Although this turned out to be more of a series of awkward mistakes, I have heard of people breaking agreements in a flagrant way. I would never tolerate someone intentionally or repeatedly doing this. Because after all the whole point of ethical non-monogamy is the honesty and shared positive experience. But I am happy to report that this whole episode served to clarify this couple's agreements and the intention for their relationship.
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