What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses.
It is in order not to become victim of an assassin that we consent to die if we become assassins.
-Rousseau, The Social Contract
It’s a fairly common story, regardless of what sort of relationship you’re in. Your partner hasn’t done anything atrocious to you. Nothing you can hold up as a sort of casus belli (an act to justify war). You can’t put your finger on exactly why. But you feel empty. Disappointed. Unfulfilled.
And yes, cheated.
One of the first questions many people ask when they first learn of polyamory (or other forms of ethical non-monogamy) is “But isn’t that cheating?”
And the simplest answer to that is of course not. Cheating is breaking the agreed-on terms of your relationship.
In monogamous relationships, this usually includes a rule against having other partners for romantic and/or sexual purposes.
But if you have no such rule in a polyamorous one, then to have other connections does not constitute cheating.
However, it’s possible for polyamorous folks to cheat if they violate the terms of their relationship agreement.
For example, if you agree upon safer sex measures and do not employ those with your new partners, yup. You screwed up.
Or perhaps you have a permission or vetting process for new partners that you circumvented. That’s a screw up, too.
Taking a closer look at the mechanisms of “cheating,” I see a chief agitating force underlying it all: Hypocrisy. Agreeing to one thing, doing another.
Cheating Violates the Norm of Social Reciprocity
In philosophical terms, the social contract is a concept that argues that individuals sacrifice certain rights and freedoms to be afforded certain protections by society.
And this expectation isn’t just for politics and governance. Even if we don’t realize it, human beings as social animals tend to have the expectation, generally speaking. Kindnesses that are extended, should be returned.
Psychologists call it social reciprocity — the principle that if one person gives, we should pay them back in kind.
Sometimes this is known as The Golden Rule or, as one very insightful reader suggested, The Platinum Rule — “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”
This is because effective social reciprocity isn’t about performing identical behavior. But offering equal consideration. If you feed a starving person, they can always repay that kindness later not by offering you a meal (especially if your cupboards are full) but by doing a much-needed service you can’t accomplish yourself. For me, this might be auto repair.
In relationships, things get even more nebulous. Far less concrete. We’re not talking necessarily about discrete tasks like meal prep or fixing things (although we could be). Many times we’re talking about time, attention, and emotional labor.
Things can get rather lopsided in a relationship when one party benefits from unequal consideration. Whether this is via one party giving too much or the other giving too little, or some combination of both.
Sometimes It’s About a Mismatch of Expectations
Sometimes the culprit is a simple mismatch of expectations. One partner may desire a relationship that is lower entanglement than their partner does. And so they’re giving consideration equal to that desired level. They’re happy with one date a month. And a sprinkle of texts in between those dates.
Whereas the other partner might be calling caterers looking for quotes for an elegant commitment ceremony. Y’know, something intimate. No more than 100 of your closest friends and family. Okay, 200. Or three. And yes, the color scheme must include fuschia.
It happens. Especially if one or both parties are stuck riding the relationship escalator. And struggle with direct communication.
In circumstances when it’s really a miscommunication? It’s easy to feel cheated. Even without hypocrisy or a violated agreement.
Moral of the story: ABUYW. Always be using your words.
If you feel like things are lopsided, take a look at this post on ways to remedy it.
Cheating Is an Antisocial Behavior that Isn’t Just Limited to Romantic Relationships
But sometimes? It isn’t about miscommunication. Or differing expectations. Sometimes a person is happy to get more than they put in. And they have no intention of changing their ways. They are pleased to take and take without giving anything back. To effectively cheat the system.
And this form of cheating isn’t just limited to romantic relationships. It can apply to all sorts of social settings.
I look at my own mother for a prime example.
My mom would criticize but couldn’t bear criticism.
She demanded absolute loyalty but would turn on people without a thought.
If we look deeply at ourselves and at those around us, we’ll likely see other ways that we’re violating the norms of social reciprocity.
While matters of sexual infidelity and/or relationship agreement violations tend to jump out in a way other betrayals don’t, the ethics in ethical non-monogamy (and the rest of life) are not always about the grand events. Nor are they clearcut.
Much of what shapes our interactions with others is microscopic and messy.
And the small cheats definitely add up.