Decriminalizing Cheating

purple flower with 3 petals

Photo by Glenn E. Wilson / CC BY

If you love a flower, don’t pick it up.
Because if you pick it up it dies and it ceases to be what you love.
So if you love a flower, let it be.
Love is not about possession.
Love is about appreciation.

-Osho

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I’ve written recently about how disenchanted I am with poly agreements with too many hard and fast rules (in “Rip Off the Band-Aid,” “Rules Schmules,” etc).

Too often, I see elaborate rule structures that are there to ensure that no one ever feels uncomfortable, ostensibly baby proofing the relationships – but the moment something happens that isn’t quite covered by these rules (and I’ve seen this happen so many times)… everyone involved is defenseless, confused. There may even be some finger-pointing.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the easiest way to get more comfortable in the long term is to practice letting uncomfortable things happen, seeing how you react, and noting the world doesn’t end and that you can bounce back from upsets.  The monster under the bed isn’t so bad as all the rumors would lead you to believe.

The absence of rules doesn’t mean that reckless or ill advised actions don’t have consequences. They most certainly do. Those are decisions that we make for ourselves in response to what another person does. If both people can’t be happy conducting a relationship together, it doesn’t mean that anybody has done anything WRONG per se. It may just mean that you shouldn’t have a relationship together. Of course, there are easy tweaks that can be done for the sake of sanity – but soul-crushing compromises? Ugh. No thank you. I’ll pass.

And in a larger sense, by over-focusing on prohibiting certain behaviors as “off-limits,” we are essentially only practicing monogamy with the goalposts moved and taking on all of its attendant toxic qualities to social relationships.

As Pepper Mint writes in their essay “The Power Dynamics of Cheating”:

The act of cheating is what I call an “expected failure.” It is well-scripted by the media and the culture at large: people know how to cheat, what happens when you cheat, and how other folks are supposed to react. A person who cheats is not doing anything particularly revolutionary (in an ideological sense), but rather following an over-determined plan fed to them by movies, television, and their acquaintances. In other words, our culture condemns cheating while providing people with enough information and role models to make the act of cheating conceptually and emotionally easy. Seen this way, cheating is at its base a normal act and the people who do it are normal people, even though they are not behaving as the cultural norms say they should.

In fact, Mint argues, monogamy not only allows for cheating, monogamy’s very existence is dependent upon having “cheat” behaviors delineate what monogamy is not as well as to serve as a social model for what happens  when we violate its norms:

Monogamy needs cheating in a fundamental way. In addition to serving as the demonized opposite of monogamy, the mark of the cheater is used as a threat to push individuals to conform to monogamous behavior and monogamous appearances.

These norms extend far beyond the realm of sex to a plethora of non-sexual acts perceived as “romantic”:

The appearance of monogamy is very important in our culture, and we generally feel the need to maintain a certain monogamous decorum in view of friends and acquaintances (in addition to the actual partner). The purpose of this decorum is to avoid gossip, scorn, scandal, and possibly exposure to the partner. The actual level and manner of imposed self-restriction varies greatly depending on the social circle and situation, but our culture attaches sexual or romantic meaning to a whole host of actions that are not explicitly sexual or romantic…traveling with a person, spending a lot of time with one person at a party, helping someone financially, talking about someone when they are not present, spending time alone with someone, meeting their parents, holding hands, and of course flirting, touching, or smiling too much. All of these actions are signifiers of a possible sexual relationship in our culture, and this is what makes them socially dangerous.

In this way, many people in long-term monogamous relationships become emotionally and socially isolated in a profound way, especially when the relationship isn’t going well, like a flower that’s been picked and placed “safely” in a vase.

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Other polyamorous bloggers have argued extensively for rules governing the reservation of certain acts between any set of partners as a symbol that the connection is special and exclusive (in lieu of traditional monogamous sexual exclusivity). For example, a common one is that there may be a specific restaurant that only the two of you go to. Or you may only go to new release movies with a said partner. In the bedroom realm, some folks I have known have reserved certain sex acts, for example, no vaginal sex. Or no kink with anyone else. Or no sleepovers at other people’s houses and you always sleep in our bed (which sounds good in theory but doesn’t work for long-distance relationships). And while all of these feel good in the short term and can help in the moment, the problem is that they don’t address underlying insecurities — and frankly, sometimes people break them, whether through lack of self-control (this notoriously happened with vaginal sex and poly friends of mine, and oh the pain and processing that ensued) or by accident (honestly forgetting about them).

It’s not that I don’t think it’s good to have rituals or traditions that cement your special relationship with a person you’re involved with. I think that’s half the point of romance. Indeed, Skyspook and I have a wine pledge, through our wine subscription box. We’ve made the commitment to drink the 4 bottles of wine together that come every month. If we simply can’t make that time for one another, we’ll know we’re doing something wrong and that it needs to change.

But the key difference is that we don’t have a rule saying we can’t drink wine with others. And if we want to drink a bottle of wine from the subscription box with another person (friend or partner) who isn’t one of us, we’re welcome to, but we need to replace it with another bottle.

The commitment is about what we’re doing, not what we think people in relationships we are not a part of  (our partner/s plus our metamour/s) should or should not be doing. And I think it’s a key difference.

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A major part of my love of polyamory is a sense of superlative mutual social autonomy between me and my most significant others. I detest policing my partners’ actions and prefer to seriously involve myself only with people whose judgement I trust and do not need to much direct or limit in any way.

So while discussions of boundaries, expectations, insecurities, best practices, etc, are essential in the early stages of relationship building, and certain house rules tend to naturally stem from these discussions, the “end-game” for me, so to speak, is moving to a place where we have total or near-total understanding of one another and comfort of our mutual risk assessment and ability to act independently.

This doesn’t mean that people don’t mess up or make bad calls. It happens. It’s just less perceived as a moral failing or a betrayal and more of a learning opportunity.

I’ve accepted that it might mean that I have fewer serious relationships than some, but I’m very comfortable with this trade-off.

If anything though, much in the way that legalizing certain drugs has resulted in better outcomes, I’ve found that the people I’ve sought out generally respond well to a lack of rules, and if they don’t do well with it, I find out rather quickly they aren’t good partners for me.

 

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