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A cheat by any other name

Do you have any advice on how to cope with cheating in a non-monogamous relationship?

Karine

I’m short on details here, Karine, so I’ll give you a general answer and hope it helps.

Cheating is a complex phenomenon for several reasons. We often assume that “cheating” means the same thing for every monogamous couple, but in truth, there’s a great deal of variation. Does flirting with someone else count?

Watching porn? Masturbating? Fantasizing? What about being crushed out, but not doing anything about it? Going to a strip club? Talking with your ex? Going on a dinner date? Plenty a monogamous pair disagree about the “cheat” value of these and many more. And plenty of “monogamous” couples make space for each other’s extra-curricular BDSM play, undisclosed one-nighters with strangers, the occasional hiring of a sex worker and any number of other activities. These technically fall outside the bounds of most monogamy but, in the right light, may allow some people to still see themselves as monogamous, which can be pretty important to their identities (or at least public presentation).

As you can see, it’s important to have the conversations about what is and isn’t okay, and how to talk about each new situation, no matter how you describe your relationship. That’s all the more true with non-monogamy, where the participants acknowledge that it’s a more-than-two situation. Every participant in a given configuration has the right to take part in the conversation to at least some extent, which can make this kind of agreement complex. But the basic question remains the same: how do we respect one another’s boundaries beyond the direct scope of this dyad?

Some folks get into non-monogamy because they think it’s an anything-goes kind of deal. Y’know, non-monogamy means no limits, so no need to be considerate or respect anyone’s feelings or anything. I think people like this need to hook up exclusively with other people like themselves so that the rest of us don’t get burned by them.

Others aren’t quite so cold-hearted—they just cheat for the same reasons anyone else might cheat, meaning that, in the moment at least, they want something (a sexual experience, a connection with a specific person, a shake-up to their humdrum lives) more than they want to respect the terms of a relationship agreement. Or they just display poor judgement, if not poor intent. And occasionally there’s a genuine misunderstanding. (“You mean, to you, going to a strip club counts as sex with someone else? Um, so about last Saturday…”)

Once a cheat has occurred, no matter the arrangement, you have decisions to make. Was the cheat a mistake or a pattern or an act of cruelty? Does this make a difference? If trust is broken, can it be repaired? How? Do you have the tools and support you need? Or does this mark the end?

Monogs or otherwise, cheating hurts. Good luck to you, Karine.

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