Broken Agreements, Breaches of Trust, and Cheating in Polyamory: What Now? [Polyamory Conversation Cards #2]

“What is cheating in polyamory?”

“My partner did this thing that really upset me. Did they cheat?”

“Is it cheating if I…?”

I see variations of these questions multiple times a week in polyamory groups, forums, and other discussion spaces. Cheating in polyamory is a complicated subject, and a divisive one. Often, when the subject of what constitutes “cheating” in polyamory comes up, something has happened that breaches a relationship agreement (or, sometimes, an unspoken assumption) or leads to someone feeling that their trust in their partner has been broken.

In case you missed it, this post is part of a series I’m doing inspired by Odder Being’s Polyamory Conversation Cards. Once a week or as often as I can, I’ll pull a card at random and write a piece of content based on it. There will likely be some essays, advice pieces, personal experiences, rants, and more! You can read the whole series at the dedicated tag.

This week’s card asks:

“If your partner cheats on you or breaks an agreement, how can they best communicate this and what do you need to restore any damaged trust?”

Ahh, cheating in polyamory and broken relationship agreements. I have a LOT to say about this one, so let’s dive straight in.

Does Cheating in Polyamory Even Exist?

Some people think it’s impossible to cheat in an open relationship. After all, in monogamy-land, “cheating” is typically defined as “doing romantic or sexual things with someone who is not your partner.” But an open or polyamorous relationship explicitly allows for those things, so how is it possible to cheat?

This belief comes from another, to which I also do not subscribe: that polyamory or consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is a no-holds-barred free-for-all. In fact, all the successful polyamorous relationships I know are carefully negotiated and based upon mutual respect and well-crafted relationship agreements that serve everyone’s best interests.

So yes, cheating in polyamory is a real thing. If you go behind your partner’s back, don’t notify them about something they’d reasonably expect to be told about (such as a new partner or a change in sexual health practices), you might be doing something that could be defined as cheating.

However, when a breach of trust or a broken agreement has happened, I also believe that “is this cheating?” is almost always the wrong question.

Why I Think “Is It Cheating?” is the Wrong Question

“Cheating” is such a loaded term in our society and relationship landscape. It comes with so many assumptions and beliefs, many of them neither helpful nor true. Consider, for example, the maxim “once a cheater, always a cheater.” This is demonstrably false. Making a bad choice once, or even many times, does not doom a person to continue to make it for the rest of their lives! Many people have cheated on a partner, then decided not to repeat that behaviour in that relationship or others.

Cheating is destructive and cruel, and it is something that I take a pretty hard line on in my relationships. I won’t stay with a partner who cheats on me and I won’t get or stay involved with someone who is actively cheating on another partner. However, I also have a fairly narrow and specific personal definition of cheating. I would only consider one of my partners to have cheated on me if they deliberately and willingly broke a relationship agreement we made and lied to me about it.

Also, and this is important: you’re allowed to be upset about something even if it doesn’t meet anyone’s reasonable definition of cheating in polyamory! To use a totally hypothetical example, let’s say a partner of mine skips my birthday party to go hook up with a new person. No-one would reasonably call that “cheating”, but it’s still unkind, inconsiderate and unloving behaviour about which I am legitimately within my rights to be pissed off.

So, if one of your partners does something that hurts you or violates an agreement, don’t leap straight to “did they cheat?” Instead, ask yourself how their actions make you feel. Perhaps you’re hurt. Angry. Betrayed. Scared. A mix of these emotions, or something else entirely. Allow yourself to feel those feelings, then consider what to do next (which we’ll get into below.)

Are Breaches Inevitable?

Another refrain I hear a lot in polyamorous spaces is, “the problem with rules is that they always get broken.” I don’t necessarily agree with this, though. In my early days in polyamory, my relationships had a lot of rules attached to them. I no longer think this was a particularly good or healthy approach, and now practice non-hierarchical polyamory that prioritises mutual agreements, personal boundaries, and care and consideration for everyone involved over rules.

However, what I did not do is break any of those rules when they were in place. To do so would have been dishonest, unkind, and relationship-damaging. So no, I do not necessarily believe that any rule you put in place will get broken, and I certainly don’t think that mutually-made relationship agreements will.

What is pretty much inevitable, though, is the occasional miscommunication or mistake. We’re all imperfect humans and we will sometimes misunderstand our partners, genuinely forget to communicate something important, or realise that we were interpreting the terms of an agreement differently to the other person or people involved.

The bad news is that, when these things happen, they suck. For everyone. The good news is that they’re often entirely recoverable.

Someone Cheated, Broke an Agreement, or Breached Your Trust. What Now?

Sometimes, someone will make a bad choice or one that causes hurt to their partner(s). It would be wonderful if this never happened, but we’re all humans and we live in the real world. The chances of it happening to any of us at some point are fairly high.

I’m approaching this section from the perspective of talking to the person whose trust was broken. However, if you’re the one who did the agreement-breaking, there should be plenty in here for you too.

So, your partner cheated, broke an agreement, or otherwise did something to violate your trust in your polyamorous relationship. What the hell do you do now?

Get the facts and assume good faith

When your feelings are hurt and you’re feeling scared, betrayed, or angry, it’s very easy to assume the worst of everyone involved. You might feel as though they don’t care about you at all, or even that causing you pain was their intention. However, this is often not the case.

Sure, some people are malicious actors who operate with absolutely no regard for their partners’ feelings or even set out to hurt their partners intentionally. The vast majority of people, though, are not like that. Many breaches of trust happen due to thoughtlessness rather than malice. Misunderstandings, forgetfulness, mental health issues, and intoxication are just some of the other non-malicious causes (or contributing factors) that can be behind hurtful choices. They’re not excuses, of course, but understanding that your partner did not harm you intentionally can be helpful in the immediate aftermath of a broken agreement.

Until you know all the facts, try to assume good faith on the part of your parter(s) and anyone else involved. It is far easier to recover from someone doing something stupid but thoughtless than it is to recover from someone intentionally and knowingly choosing to betray you.

The other important thing to do here is watch for patterns. If this is the first time your partner has done something like this and they seem genuinely remorseful, your reaction will likely be (and probably should be) different than if this is the fifth time they’ve done the same thing with the same excuse.

Decide whether repair is possible

You might be someone who considers a broken agreement to be an instant, relationship ending dealbreaker. And you get to make that choice! However, for most of us, this is likely to be contextual.

Choosing to break a safer sex agreement (e.g. not using a condom with a casual hook-up, if that’s what you’ve agreed) in the heat of the moment and then disclosing it to your partner straight away isn’t good, but it’s a world away from repeatedly and deliberately having unprotected sex for months without telling your existing partner(s.) The former is far more likely to be repairable than the latter. Misunderstanding the terms of an agreement in good faith is quantifiably different from understanding the spirit of an agreeement but rules-lawyering your way into violating it anyway.

If your partner has broken an agreement, cheated on you, or otherwise damaged your trust, only you can decide if repair is possible. In other words, are you going to stay and do the work with your partner to fix things, or are you going to leave the relationship?

Either choice is valid, of course. However, I’m personally big on forgiveness and not a fan of throwing relationships away over mistakes. A breach would have to be both huge and clearly deliberate for me to walk away from a relationship over it at this stage.

Feel and express your feelings

We touched on this above. It can be tempting to skip this step, because the feelings these kinds of incidents bring up can be painful and even traumatic. However, it’s essential that you allow yourself to feel and express your emotions. Repressing them doesn’t do anyone any good.

Note that expressing your emotions does not mean completely flying off the handle. However, it’s fair to be in a heightened emotional state and – as long as you’re not doing anything abusive such as screaming at your partner, using verbal abuse, showing physical aggression or violence, or threatening harm to them or yourself – you shouldn’t necessarily feel an obligation to tone this down. It’s okay to cry, to express anger, and to show how hurt you are.

Where possible, try to use “I” statements and to be as specific as possible. For example, “when I found out you’d had sex without a condom, I felt disregarded and uncared for” is better than “you obviously just don’t give a fuck about me.” If you need to take a little time and space before you can express your feelings in a healthy way, that’s fine too.

What do you need from your partner?

Assuming your partner made a genuine mistake, they are likely feeling remorseful for their actions, regretting hurting you, and wanting to make amends. Take the time to think about what you need from them for repair to happen.

This can look a bunch of different ways. I’ve had situations where all I needed was an explanation of what happened and why followed by a genuine apology, then we could forget the whole thing and move on. Other situations have required more intensive repair efforts.

Some of the things you might ask for include:

  • An apology
  • To talk through exactly what happened and why
  • A commitment that your partner won’t repeat the behaviour and for them to outline the steps they will take to ensure it doesn’t happen again
  • Some quality time with your partner to re-establish your connection
  • Some space from your partner. (Ensure that this doesn’t lead to you stonewalling them or giving them the silent treatment as a punishment. Time-limit it and let them know when you will return. For example, “I’m going to take until tomorrow to process this and care for myself, I’ll call you after work.”)
  • For the two of you to see a relationship counsellor or therapist together

…or something else that I haven’t thought of! Your partner doesn’t have to give you what you ask for, of course. This is about requests, not demands. But how they respond to your reasonable requests for reconnection, amends, or trust-rebuilding will probably tell you a lot about how they feel about having hurt you and how committed they are to repairing and strengthening your bond.

Resisting the urge to punish or retaliate

This part can be difficult for some people, but it’s essential. If your partner has cheated, violated an agreement, or breached your trust, you might feel a lot of anger. That’s understandable! What you must do, though, is resist the urge to punish them or retaliate from a place of anger.

I’ve seen this look various ways. In cases of agreement breaches or cheating in polyamory, two of the most common are “you have to be monogamous to me but I can still be open, because you broke the rules” and “I’m vetoing the person you made a mistake with, so you have to break up with them.” The other common version in all relationship structures, of course, is “you cheated on me so now I get to cheat on you and you can’t say anything about it.”

Assuming you’ve decided to remain in the relationship, the goal must be to repair, reconnect, and come back together having learned from whatever happened. Depending on the severity, this may not be easy and it may take some time to rebuild trust. However, punishing your partner or retaliating will actually lead you further away from a positive resolution. It may also irrevocably poison your relationship in the long run.

Give it time

Trust is often fragile, particularly for people with trauma histories. It can take a long time to repair when someone breaks it. So don’t expect overnight repair, no matter how remorseful the person who broke an agreement is or how sincerely they commit to ensuring it never happens again.

The best apology, as the saying goes, is changed behaviour. So see how your partner behaves in the aftermath of the trust breach. Do they make sincere efforts to display trustworthiness and make you feel loved and valued? Do they take steps to make sure they don’t repeat the mistake? If so, you’re good.

Broken agreements, trust violations, and cheating in polyamory are incredibly painful and can cause massive ruptures in relationships and polycules. But they don’t necessarily have to mean the end of everything.

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