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.

FYI: this post contains an affiliate link.

Can Masturbation Ever Be Cheating?

Short answer: no.

I’ve heard/read this question dozens if not hundreds of times in the years I’ve been writing about sex. People are desperate to know, it seems, if masturbating while you’re in a relationship can ever be classed as cheating.

In order for me to rip this notion apart, let’s examine what “cheating” is. To many people, it is probably broadly defined as “doing sexual or romantic things with someone who isn’t your partner.” That’s sort of fine, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Lots of us do sexual and/or romantic things with people other than our partner(s) all the time, but with their knowledge and consent. That’s kinda what consensual non-monogamy is! And yet it is still possible to cheat in an open or polyamorous relationship.

I propose the working definition that cheating is willfully and knowingly breaking the rules of your relationship in order to engage sexually or romatically with another person without your partner’s knowledge and/or consent.

“Yourself” does not count as “another person.”

You cannot cheat on your partner with yourself. You simply cannot. Doing anything with your own body, and only your own body, is a universe away from doing something with another person behind your partner’s back.

In my view, saying that touching your own body sexually is cheating makes about as much sense as saying that going to a coffee shop or restaurant by yourself counts as cheating.

You cannot cheat on your partner with yourself!

But it’s even more fundamental than that. Your body is yours.

You have an absolute, inalienable and irrefutable right to your own body. It belongs to you, and nobody else. Always.

Look, even if you think you’re the most absolute subby sub who ever subbed and you’ve given complete control over your body to your Dominant… you can still take that back at any time. You get to say “nope” (or “red” or “canary” or whatever means no according to your agreements) and have everything stop. Period, the end, done.

You have the right to do what you like with your own body. And that includes to engage in a sexual relationship with yourself.

You may have mutual agreements with your partner around sexual activity with others outside your relationship, and you should absolutely stick to those (or if you can’t, renegotiate the rules or end the relationship.) But your partner does not own your sexuality. They do not have a right to have any and all of your sexual activity and feelings directed at them exclusively forever more. (Nor is this realistic. Show me a sexual person in a relationship who has never had even a fleeting sexual thought about someone other than their partner, and I’ll show you a liar.)

What if my partner is masturbating all the time instead of having sex with me?

If you’re dissatisfied with the sexual relationship you have with your partner, that’s a conversation the two of you need to have.

“We’re not having as much sex as I would like, can we talk about that?” is a really valid thing to raise. Being able to talk frankly about sex is important to a strong and healthy relationship. And in a good relationship, your partner will be willing to have the conversation and work to solve the problem so that you’re both happy and satisfied. But “forbid masturbation” isn’t the answer. This is just likely to lead to resentment, hurt feelings, and sneaking around and dishonesty.

So no. Masturbation is not and cannot ever be cheating.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is full of shit. Also, trying to control what you do with your own body is a red flag for abuse.

Wank away guilt-free. And walk away from anyone who thinks that being in a relationship means they can take away your bodily autonomy.

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Sexting is a Real Sexual Relationship

When I was seventeen and we had not long moved in together, I caught my then-boyfriend sexting online with a random woman he’d met on the internet. We were, at the time, in a monogamous arrangement – and to say I was livid doesn’t cover it. I absolutely considered it to be cheating. (This is to say nothing of the fact that they’d been planning to meet and have sex, and only didn’t because I found out before that happened.) But the point is that I considered the online sexual relationship – in and of itself – to be a sexual relationship, and therefore a violation of the boundaries of a monogamous relationship. Of course, every relationship is different and if both parties agree a little digital flirtation is okay, more power to them. But there are certain things that are assumed to be off-limits in a monogamous commitment, unless very explicitly negotiated otherwise.

I stand by my assessment (of those activities as cheating) to this day, some decade and change later. This is because I completely believe that sexting, cyber-sexing and other forms of exchanging sexually explicit content online is a form of sexual relationship. It might not involve physically being in the same room or rubbing genitals together, but it is sex nonetheless.

My relationship with Mr CK began primarily online, as we lived 100 miles from each other. As we tried to work out what we felt for each other and what it meant, we texted day after day and sexted, cyber-sexed and exchanged filthy pictures and videos by night, until we reached the point that we simply had to see each other in person. But by the time we took it “real life,” not only were we already in love but we already had a pretty decent understanding of each others’ likes, dislikes, kinks and curiosities. Such is the power of digital sexuality.

“It’s only online!” I hear this all the time. I hear it from people in ostensibly monogamous relationships who have been caught having illicit cyber-sex behind their partner’s back. I’ve heard it from people who are trying to convince themselves they’re not really into that person they have been swapping naughty messages with every day for weeks. I even said it myself, when I was trying to deny the fact that I was fast falling in both love and lust with the man who blew up my phone with sexy texts multiple times a day.

We live in a digital world. There’s no getting away from it. Whether you’re keeping in touch with your long-distance sweetie via naughty Skype chats, booking private shows with your favourite cam models on Chaturbate, or using sites such as freesextingsites.com to find sexy chat partners, the vast majority of us have engaged with our sexuality online in some form or another. I would venture to suggest that the vast majority of adults around my age have nude pictures – their own or someone else’s – lurking on their phones.

Personally, I think sexting and cyber-sex are brilliant. Many of us have partners who live a good distance away from us – a different city or a different country – which makes regular in-person sex impossible. Online sexting is an amazing way to keep the spark alive in those relationships.

But it has benefits for those of us with more local partners too – even partners we live with. Have you ever received a steamy sext from your partner in the middle of the day, and then just wanted to go home and rip their clothes off their body for the rest of the day? Exactly. And if you’re very busy, or one of you has an illness or injury that is making a physical sexual relationship difficult or impossible, a virtual one can be just as satisfying.

Crucially, I think we need to move away from viewing sexting or cyber-sexing as less “real” sex. There are infinite ways to have sex, and as sex positive people we’re trying desperately to move away from the narrative that sex only “counts” if a penis goes into a vagina. I propose that we also move away from the idea that virtual expressions of sexuality are less valid, less real, or count less than in-person encounters. Let’s stop devaluing sexting and embrace it as one of the infinite possible ways to express delicious, hot, consensual human sexuality.

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All the Things “You, Me, Her” Got Wrong About Polyamory

SPOILER ALERT! This post will contain spoilers for You, Me, Her seasons 1-3, so if you care and haven’t watched yet, click off this post now.

Regular readers might remember that I briefly flirted with a ridiculous quest to recap every episode of this stupid show, which fizzled out somewhere in the middle of Season 1 because I ran out of time, energy and fucks to give?

In case you haven’t seen it, You, Me, Her is an American comedy-drama series following suburban married couple Jack (Greg Poehler) and Emma (Rachel Blanchard) as they enter into a polyamorous triad relationship with 25-year-old college student and escort, Izzy (Priscilla Faia).

Instead of reviewing this mess one episode at a time, I thought I’d bring you all the things I think it got wrong about polyamory – so far – in one easy post.

1. Izzy would never date these two idiots.

Izzy is a beautiful, 25-year-old college student who is escorting her way through university for the money. When Jack hires her for a date and then Emma later (having found out) does the same thing, she inexplicably decides she’s super duper into both of them for some fucking reason. That would never happen.

Any sex worker in Izzy’s place would do her job, take the damn money, and leave this pair to work out their shit in suburban hell by themselves.

2. It’s PORTLAND, not the Bible Belt.

This show is set in Portland, Oregon – a city famous for being super-duper liberal and where I know for a fact there’s a huge polyamorous community. Sure, there are some conservative people there (they’re everywhere, sadly) but the idea that being out as non-monogamous – or even bisexual – in fucking Portland would totally destroy Emma’s life is patently unrealistic. If they wanted that narrative to work, they should have set it in rural Alabama or something.

3. Being bisexual is apparently a worse crime than cheating.

There’s a scene in their therapist’s office where Jack shames the hell out of Emma for telling her bisexual origin story and having slept with women before they met. Seemingly forgetting he cheated on her with an escort about, ooh, a week before.

(Also, Emma later declares that her bisexuality “wasn’t a thing,” despite having had entire relationships with four – FOUR – women! That is definitely “a thing”.)

4. Partners are not commodities that you have to share out equally.

Jack and Emma agree that they each get “two nights with her… I mean you” per week. They then have a debate about who “gets” Izzy first. This is gross beyond belief. She’s a human being, not a pie to be shared out in equal slices. Ugh.

5. Dating someone new isn’t how you inject sexual spark back into your ailing marriage.

Jack and Emma’s idea is that they’ll each go on dates with Izzy, then come back fired up and ready to ravish the hell out of each other. That’s not how polyamory works. That’s not even how feelings or sex drives work! And it’s, once again, objectifying as all hell. They’re basically using Izzy as a human sex toy.

Also, Jack gets mad when Emma comes back from a date and isn’t up for fucking him right there and then. Your partner doesn’t owe you sex just because they just went on a date with someone else!

6. Jealousy IS inevitable. That doesn’t mean courting it is good for your relationship.

Jealousy is normal and fine, as long as you deal with it in a healthy way. Trying to make your partner jealous deliberately in order to… what, make them want you more? is a REALLY bad idea. And half the time it seems to be these idiots’ entire game. Jack and Emma use Izzy to make each other jealous. Izzy uses Andy (who is a kind of dick but seems really into her) to make Jack and Emma jealous.

7. Treating someone like crap then chasing them through an airport isn’t romantic!

Jack and Emma treat Izzy like total crap for the entire show. One romantic gesture (chasing her through an airport to “bring her home”) isn’t going to make up for that or for doing any of the actual hard, complicated, difficult work of making a relationship between three people work.

8. Polyamory isn’t just for rich white people!

Jack and Emma are the classic middle-aged, upper-middle-class, professional married pair I’d expect to see at a swingers’ club. Nothing wrong with that, except that the polyamorous community is actually hugely diverse. Trust me, we’re all bored as hell of seeing every representation of polyamory reduced down to “rich white people who don’t enjoy sex with their spouses any more”.

9. Even in polyamory you can’t expect someone to fall for two people in the same way, at the same rate, at the same time.

And that’s EXACTLY what Jack and Emma expect of Izzy. At one point, it becomes apparent that Izzy’s connection with Emma is growing stronger while her connection with Jack is developing at a slower pace, and Jack throws a hissy fit to the point of fucking off and abandoning both his partners for several days. This is exactly the kind of expectation inexperienced unicorn hunters put on new partners, and it’s grossly unfair.

10. Sex doesn’t solve your problems. Communication does.

Whenever these three have a problem, they just fuck and it all goes away… until next time. Sex is great but it’s not how you fix your problems. Only actual, honest, open and respectful communication can do that.

11. You don’t have to live with all your partners!

Jack, Emma and Izzy move in together almost the moment they’ve decided to give a triad relationship a go. Not only is this the mother of all bad ideas, it’s just… not realistic. Just as most monogamous people wouldn’t give a new date the keys to their house before things were pretty stable and established, neither do polyamorous people.

And regardless of relationship set-up, the “three people sharing a double bed every night” trope is… sweet but unrealistic. Trust me. I can only manage it even in my Super King bed for a night or two, max. You can still be polyamorous if you don’t want to live with all your partners, now or ever.

12. Extremely conservative, homophobic parents don’t come around in three seconds flat.

Emma’s parents go from hyper-conservative, openly-homophobic bigots who only care about her having babies, to being totally chill with the accidental dropping of the polyamory bomb in… yeah, less than five minutes of screen time? (Which equates to about an hour in plot-time).

People can come around, of course. People question their assumptions when they are directly confronted with them by someone they love. But it usually takes more time than this. Sometimes much more.

13. And finally… NOT ALL POLYAMORY IS A FUCKING CLOSED MFF TRIAD.

Are we all sick of this very specific picture being painted yet? Good, me too. Let’s move on to something more representative and less relentlessly cishet-male-gazey. Please.

So what’s next? This show has been renewed for seasons 4 and 5. I hate this about myself, but I already know I’ll watch them all. Maybe I’ll even live-tweet them.

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