A common question comes up in polyamorous FB groups, and the polyamorous community tends to go ham on this question as if their personal situations had precedent over another individual’s relationship(s). This controversial question is this – when is it cheating? Polyamorous people, and people in polyamorous relationships, enjoy thinking that they have come to know the ultimate answers to these types of questions. They find pleasure in sharing their own personal judgments, as if their opinions were mere facts. After all, they have so much experience with polyamory, they have so much insight to give, right? Well…let’s think about this in terms of monogamy for a moment. Just because your friend found the perfect way to configure her relationship with her husband, does that mean that the same configuration will work on your relationship with your own husband as well? No, of course not. Because you guys aren’t the same person. Because your relationships aren’t the same relationship. There is no one size fits all “this is how it works” advice to give to people in relationships, whether those relationships are monogamous or non-monogamous. But then how, do you ask, will these individuals seeking help ever be able to really know what is or isn’t cheating? How will people new to the polyamorous community ever learn how polyamory works?
First of all, polyamory is not a set formula. There isn’t just one way to make it work. It isn’t even really something to make work. It’s an adjective. It’s describing something about the way you love, the way you date, the way you live. It isn’t defining what love is, or what dating is, or what your life is. You get to decide all the little details for yourself. Polyamory simply means that you love, or are capable of loving, more than one person at a time. Beyond that description – it means nothing. Or, more appropriately, I suppose, would be to say that it means as little or as much as you want it to mean. I’ll explain it like this: if you have a red block on a table…does the fact that it’s red determine what shape it is? Does the fact that it’s red determine what it does, what happens to it, how it’s used, what it’s made of, or where it is on the table? No. The red coloring determines absolutely nothing besides the fact that it is red. That’s it. It’s the same with polyamory. Polyamory is like the color red. You are the block. The table is life. You can paint yourself up as red as you want (you even get to pick the shade of red, or degree to which you are painted with the color red), but being painted red does not determine anything else about you or your life. Polyamory is a label, not an instruction manual. Unfortunately, for all the eager individuals out there, this means you can’t get a quick answer to your questions.
Which brings me to my second point – do you really want a quick, unbiased, 3rd party, answer to a complex question that holds such a big impact in the outcome of your relationship(s)? Well, some might say, yes. Yes, I’d love an unbiased answer, because I can’t see the situation clearly, I am too close to it. Fair enough. However, a 3rd party answer may be unbiased to your opinions and unbiased to your partner’s opinions, but it definitely isn’t 100% unbiased. The answer isn’t fact. The answer given to you is actually, quite accurately, 100% biased! It’s just biased based on that 3rd party’s opinions and experiences (and the small amount of information you’ve provided when asking for help), but it doesn’t take into account almost anything that is actually involved in your situation or your relationship. It doesn’t take into account who you are, or who your partner is. It doesn’t take into account what you want or need, or what your partner is wanting or needing. It only takes into account the impulsive reacting response of that 3rd party to a snippet of your own biased explanation. It may be quicker to ask someone else than to get your own hands dirty and really delve into discussion with your partner (or do some self reflection), but since when is quick the right way towards truth?
Something as deeply complex as “when is it cheating?” needs to be met with the same amount of deep analysis. Same goes for any other pertinent question you may have about your relationship. If it’s a deciding factor on whether or not to continue being with somebody, if the answer to your question will determine the future of your relationship, then it is not something to be asking someone else. You need to be asking yourself. Furthermore, you need to be asking yourself why in the world this is something you even feel the need to ask. If you’re asking the question “when is it cheating?” or “is this cheating?” the fact of the matter is that you probably don’t know what cheating means to you. No one else can answer this question for you. This is something that is unique to each individual (and each relationship). The only other person that needs to be on the same page with you is the other person in your relationship. If you have multiple relationships the answer to this question might not even be the same in each of those relationships. Perhaps having sex with someone without a condom is considered cheating (or a breech of someone’s boundary) in one relationship, whereas, perhaps it is not an issue in another relationship you are involved in. So, take some time to think it through, what does cheating really mean to you?
Lastly, let’s discuss boundaries. What is a boundary? People tend to confuse the terms rules and boundaries. Some people use them interchangeably. Others just completely misuse them both. Let me clear this confusion up for you. A rule is an agreed upon term between two (or more) individuals. It helps you structure your relationship by setting up a sort of frame, or confine, to which that relationship has to mold. I, personally, do not like rules. I find them very restricting. The idea of someone imposing a function (or retracting a function) from my ability toolbox seems somewhat abusive to me. Others will disagree with me, and say that if it is agreed upon by all parties involved that it is completely ethical. My only issue with this is that a lot of times a rule is proposed in a way to form a sort of power dynamic that inflicts the disability to choose your real feelings. One might ask to have a rule in a relationship with the undertone that if the rule is not agreed to then the relationship will end. This is down right abusive manipulation. So, my question to you is, how are you to be 100% sure that everyone involved is truly, genuinely consenting to the rule?
I don’t like rules. This is true. However, that doesn’t mean I’m fine with everyone just running wild and crazy and being super disrespectful or dishonest. There are things that I want to make sure of in my own life, and with myself. I deserve that (so do you). You could say I have rules for myself. But, this is where the confusion becomes prominent. If it is something I have agreed to by myself, and for myself only, then it isn’t a rule at all – it is a boundary. I get to decide what is worth putting up with. I don’t get to control other people and their actions, but I do get to decide how I react to them. And this brings in the concept of boundaries. A boundary is a personal agreement within oneself. Boundaries are typically setup by getting to know yourself and what your own needs and wants are. Then, based off of those, you agree with yourself what is and isn’t okay to you.
If you have a need for lots of personal space, then your boundary may be that no one is allowed into your home. If this is the case you cannot say that someone is breaking your boundary simply for showing up at your home, neither can you complain if you willing let them in and are upset about the fact that you allowed them into your home. Your boundary is an agreement with yourself to not let anyone in. Therefore, if someone comes to your door you can tell them to leave. If you don’t tell them to leave and you let them in, even though you don’t want them to come in, then you are breaking your own boundary. Conversely, if you tell someone to leave (or that you don’t want them to come in) and they come in anyway, then they are breaking your trust and not showing respect for your boundary. However, they cannot break your boundary because it is only you who is bound by it.
Another example of a boundary would be if you do not want to have sex with people who have not been STI tested (or who have slept with others who have not been STI tested). You cannot decide what your partners do. It isn’t up to you to place a rule on them, and you do not get to choose their boundaries for them. So, what do you do if they sleep with someone else and don’t get STI tested and then want to sleep with you? Do you get mad? Do you give in? If you want to hold up your boundary then you tell them you will not sleep with them unless they are tested first. If they keep pushing to have sex then they are not showing respect for your boundary. If someone doesn’t show respect for my boundaries then I would seriously consider not being with that person, but that is a personal choice that you must make for yourself if that circumstance ever arises.
So, when is it cheating? Some would say that anything that involves a lie is cheating. For some people, even if they are fine with their partners sleeping around with whomever, if their partner ever lies about who they’re sleeping with (or says they aren’t sleeping with people even when they are), then that is cheating. The fact that they lied about it makes it cheating. Non-monogamy, or should I say ethical or consensual non-monogamy, is based off trust and honesty. If someone is not being honest about their relationships, or their sexual or romantically affectionate actions, then they are not really trustworthy. Is this the only thing that a polyamorous person, or person in a polyamorous relationship, is allowed to complain about or call cheating? Of course not, but it is a major one for a lot of people. What is cheating, then? Well…what do you think? What have you and your partner agreed upon? What are the rules in your relationship (if there are any)? What are your boundaries? Have you discussed with your partner(s) what cheating means to you? If you haven’t, you should. The bad news here is that you can’t get a quick answer to a complex question. Sorry. But, the good news is that you have all the power in figuring out the answer for yourself. All it takes is a little self reflection, and some genuine conversation.