Not Just Cheating: The Other Kind of Unethical Non-Monogamy

a closeup of the face of a mean-looking eagle owl
Image by webheathcloseup / CC BY

“So I ran into someone you know while I was at the mall today,” my roommate Noah said.

“Oh yeah?” I said. “Who?”

He said the name of a theater director I knew. A friend of a close friend.

“Nice,” I said. “How’s he doing anyway? I haven’t talked to him in ages.”

“It was the funniest thing,” Noah said. “The first thing he said when he realized I knew you was that you were crazy and not to listen to a word you said.”

I boggled at this. I couldn’t understand why the director would say something like this. Sure, I had my quirks (still do). But the entire time I’d known him we’d been on good terms.

“Did you guys hook up or something?” Noah asked.

“One time. It was very casual,” I said. “How did you know?”

“It seemed like he was defensive about something. I bet he was worried you were going to tell me that he was bad in bed or something,” Noah said.

I sighed. “Why would I do that?”

“I’m not saying you would,” Noah said. “Only that he’s scared of it.”

“So he decides to discredit me before I have a chance. That’s awesome of him,” I said.

“How was he anyway?” Noah asked.

“Honestly?” I said.

Noah nodded.

“I forgot we even slept together until you asked me,” I said. “It wasn’t terribly memorable.”

“Ouch.”

The Other Kind of Unethical Non-Monogamy

When people ask me how long I’ve been non-monogamous, the question always gives me pause. “Formally polyamorous?” I’ll say. “First heard the word in 2009 from a friend who had quietly opened her marriage a few years prior to that without any of us knowing. Took the leap myself not too long after that. But I was non-monogamous for a while before that, prior to getting married. Traveling in bands and putting on plays. Although it wasn’t always ethical, those casual hookups.”

And when I say that, people usually infer that I’m talking about cheating. However, that really didn’t happen so much. True, I was cheated on by a few partners over the years. And I had the really unfortunate experience of hooking up with a jazz singer one night only to have him tell me the next morning, “Oh, by the way, I have a girlfriend, so nobody can know this happened.” (And man, was I pissed. At him for not telling me and at myself for not thinking to ask. Still not quite over it.)

But those were isolated events. I myself never cheated or was knowingly “the other woman” (aside from emotional affairs, which made me feel like a terrible person when they happened). And I understood emotionally that when others cheated it had more to do with those who cheated and less to do with whether any particular connection was casual or serious. Because after all, the cheaters were in serious relationships, and it didn’t stop them from betraying that trust.

Casual Sex and Disrespect

No, what really irked me about the non-monogamy I’d experienced prior to discovering the idea of polyamory was the level of disrespect people would show their casual sex partners. The theater director wasn’t the only person who talked smack about me or someone else after a casual sex encounter as a weirdly proactive defensive tactic. I encountered this behavior over and over again — directed towards me and others.

It was part of why I began to only hook up casually with women, if I could help it. In the early 2000s, there was still enough stigma surrounding same sex relationships, especially in my small Maine town, that female partners were less likely to talk about it, or me: Good, bad, or otherwise.

The worst I’d encounter there was awkward avoidance after we’d done the deed. I preferred that.

And when I saw a chance to “settle down” and became monogamous with someone, I took it. Sure, there were the more conventional benefits of a long-term relationship: Steady companionship, having a plus one for family events, someone to split the bills with. But frankly? It also seemed like the easiest way to have a lot of sex and not be disrespected for it. To be able to open up and be vulnerable to another person and be reasonably sure they wouldn’t just turn around and stab me in the back the next day.

*

So when my friend introduced me to polyamory, I was excited by the premise. The idea that a person could have multiple loving connections at once. Maybe they didn’t all turn into serious capital R relationships. But everyone involved would be honest — and respectful to one another.

Maybe I was a little naive going into polyamory. Did it always pan out that way? No, there were some janky-mankeys wrapped up in the mantle of polyamory, for sure.

But overall, it’s been a hell of a lot better than what I experienced prior to discovering polyamory.

And I’ll take it.

*

My new book is out!

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

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