“My head’s a little messed up,” she says.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
She tells me a pretty woeful tale. Without getting into too many details, her partner has violated their relationship agreement. And badly.
“I imagine that had to be a tough conversation,” I say.
“It was,” she says. “But we worked it out. That’s not why I’m upset.”
She tells me that it seems to have been an honest mistake on his part. That it happened because he hadn’t really thought through every scenario. That there was no letter of the law for this exact situation, but yes, he’d been in violation of the spirit of the law. That he should have thought through a few more steps and reasonably concluded that he needed to check in first.
She tells me, sure, she did struggle with it for a bit, but it had meant a lot to her that he admitted his mistake rather than it being something she’d uncovered. And quickly, as soon as he realized he’d messed up. He owned responsibility and seemed genuinely sorry. The talk had given them a chance to clarify some definitions, talk about what was working and wasn’t. And together they had figured out what went wrong and decided on a plan moving forward.
“Do I wish it hadn’t happened?” she says. “Yes. Of course.”
“Of course,” I echo.
“But it could have gone so much worse. I’m happy with how we handled it.”
“Honestly?” I say. “Sometimes that’s more reassuring than nothing at all happening. Things going bad and then handling it well. It’s reassuring knowing that you can work through it.”
“I used to think you were crazy when you’d say that, but now I’m starting to see your point.”
I laugh. “Well, I still might be crazy. You might just be joining me.”
“So if it’s not that, then what is upsetting you?” I ask.
“The mistake I made,” she says.
“Oh no,” I say. “What happened?”
“While we were in the middle of working it out, I talked to one of my friends,” she says.
“It didn’t go well, I take it?”
She shakes her head. “They basically told me that they didn’t get what I was upset about. That we were poly so it was impossible to cheat. They asked me what I expected.”
“Cheating” Can Mean a Variety of Different Things — Even to Monogamous People
“Cheating” is a slang term that in everyday usage refers to any act that violates the terms of a relationship agreement. Romantic relationships are often presumed to be monogamous (or heading that direction once a serious connection has been established) unless otherwise specified, so culturally people tend to define “cheating” as having sexual relations with other people.
Wait, or do they define it as physical contact even if that stops short of penetrative sex (i.e., kissing, fondling, etc)?
Or is it flirting?
How about having a deep emotional connection that your partner isn’t part of (i.e., emotional affairs)?
What about fantasizing about being with other people? Messaging your ex? Giving someone other than your partner a special nickname? (apparently all things that are called micro-cheating)
Okay, maybe this is getting a little silly — but that’s half the point. In fact, studies have shown that even people who identify as monogamous don’t always agree on what cheating is.
Instead, what constitutes cheating depends on the relationship and who the people in it are.
In keeping with research, I’ve known people who considered it cheating to post pictures on social media that were taken with anyone of the opposite sex. And I’ve known monogamous people who frequently cuddle with others (regardless of sex or gender) without it being an issue.
Polyamorous people might be outliers in that they may allow acts in their relationship agreements that most others consider cheating. But that doesn’t mean that everything is on the table. And there very well may be important provisions such as being informed beforehand or using barriers that can be incredibly important parts of those agreements.
It’s More Important to Follow Through on Your Commitments When You Don’t Have Exclusivity to Fall Back On
In fact, I think it can be more difficult in some respects when you have a polyamorous relationship agreement with someone and they violate it (whether intentionally or not).
That’s because there are typically two major forces that contribute to a sense of relationship commitment:
It’s a common misconception, that being polyamorous means a person can’t commit. And if I’m being honest, it was one of the reasons that I was hesitant to have polyamorous relationships in the first place. I thought that monogamy was the only way you could demonstrate your commitment to someone else.
I thought commitment was defined by what you excluded. Just like the marriage vows: Forsaking all others.
Prior to actually knowing polyamorous people and then going on to conduct relationships in that way myself, I completely didn’t understand the importance of followthrough.
It was a huge revelation. And as I thought over my past relationships, I could see where I’d been in romantic relationships that were monogamous where the person I was with may have been exclusive but hadn’t followed through on important promises. Including ones where we both remained physically faithful but we weren’t exactly emotionally loyal to one another.
But they had worked for a time — and that’s because we had the exclusivity to fall back on.
In a polyamorous context, that wouldn’t have worked. Without exclusivity, you need that followthrough.