Poly Means Many: What is cheating?

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at polymeansmany.com

This month’s Poly Means Many topic is on relationship ethics, and why what it is we do is not the same as cheating. To me, the answer to this seems fairly obvious, but then I look back to before I knew that poly was even possible, and I realise that perhaps it isn’t. And I think on my experience, and what I consider cheating and I find myself wondering exactly what cheating is.

My first experience of cheating was the breakdown of the relationship from that-one-time-I-was-in-a-mono-relationship-with-a-man-for-five-years. It ended because he cheated on me: to what extent, I do not know, but I know that it happened and I know that our relationship circled the drain for a few months and then ended and I spent a while moping around in a dressing gown crying and eating sweets. It wasn’t so much whatever had transpired physically or emotionally between my ex and that someone else which had bothered me. It was the dishonesty, the refusal to tell me anything.

I also have experienced the other end of cheating in monogamy. I once had sex with someone who was in a monogamous relationship. I knew. I didn’t care.

Have I experienced cheating in poly relationships? It’s hard to say. I once had a partner who had a rather poor attitude towards condom use. We were fluid-bonded, or so I thought–meaning we did not use condoms with one another, and as I understood it we would use condoms with other partners. He didn’t, not always. That was not OK. I sometimes wonder if perhaps I was not clear enough about what exactly it meant, the fluid-bonding, but at the same time he must have known that he was exposing me to risks without ever bothering to even mention it. It echoes back to that first experience of cheating I had: I might not have minded the behaviour itself had I just been given the information to make these decisions. Yes, I did cry in a dressing gown while stuffing my face with sweets for a while after.

What about my own personal set of relationship ethics? I am honest with my partners about what I do. I am less honest about my feelings, a lot of the time, because scars from bad things that happened sometimes tie my tongue and sometimes stop me from saying “Hey, I’m not OK” unless asked. But I’m honest when I’m asked, and I’m upfront about this particular shortcoming of mine and those who love me know to read the signs and check with me if there’s something up. And that’s why I love them. It takes a lot for me to open up to people, and I need handling with care until I am able to trust someone not to break me.

I suppose, as I reflect, I have come to the conclusion that relationship ethics largely boil down to trust, and cheating is a violation of trust through dishonesty, whether by omission or commission. Cheating is not inherent to any form of relationship, and poly people can cheat just as surely as mono people.

But to me, relationship ethics encompass more than mere honesty: my trust in people has been violated through other routes than cheating. Some people have violated emotional and physical boundaries. The bad bit of my brain always blames myself for not adequately enforcing my own boundaries; the rest of me knows this is a nonsense but still finds itself listening to the bad bit. It is honest to say “Oh, you have this boundary, do you? Well, I’m going to cross it, because that’s how I roll,” but it is not ethical.

Trust is a gift. Be careful what you do with it.

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