Polyamory Isn’t An Alternative to Cheating

Every so often, I see an article or hear someone who says that polyamory is an alternative to cheating. In my opinion, that’s mixing apples and oranges.

Polyamory isn’t an alternative to cheating, it’s an alternative to monogamy. So are swinging, having a triad, polyfidelity, open relationships, a single person having multiple partners, and other relationship structures. If any of these terms is unfamiliar to you or you’re curious about how people make them work, pick up a copy of Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships.

You know what the alternative to cheating is? Honesty, communication, and abiding by your agreements. No matter what relationship works for you, no matter how many partners you have at any given time, the alternative to cheating is being honest with yourself and with your partner(s), and doing what you say you will.

I get that if you’re unhappy in an ostensibly monogamous relationship or if your needs aren’t being met, there can be a temptation to seek someone outside those boundaries. And you know what? People in open relationships sometimes do the same thing. After all, just because your relationship is open doesn’t necessarily mean you feel comfortable telling your partner(s) what you want, and sometimes, people cheat.

Cheating is breaking the rules, whichever rules you choose. In basketball, cheating is using any part of your body other than your hands. In soccer, cheating is using your hands instead of any other part of your body. It’s the violation that makes it cheating. But whatever game you’ve decided to play, you can cheat or not, as you decide. And if you start off playing one game and later realize you want to play a different one, the best way forward is to talk about it. Taking the basketball and kicking it isn’t going to work.

I think it’s worth acknowledging, though, that some people get turned on by breaking the rules. In The Erotic Mind, Jack Morin observes that the presence of a barrier can heighten arousal. If you’ve ever been in a long-distance relationship, you probably know that the tension and anticipation can be much higher because the barrier of distance increases the excitement. Similarly, the thrill of the risk can make cheating more exciting for some people, just as the possibility of being caught having sex in a public place can do the same.

If that works for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a bad person. My partner gets a thrill from breaking the rules, but her deep commitment to me and our relationship meant that she wouldn’t indulge that. So I told her to play it out. I gave her permission to find someone online, set up a one-time date, play safe, and not tell me about it until at least three months afterward. This was a departure from our usual expectation of telling each other in advance, which gave her the feeling of “cheating” without actually breaking our agreements. And yes, she did tell me a few months after. To be honest, I’d totally forgotten about it, which made it extra fun for her. Other people get the same thrill from role play or by going separately to a bar and pretending to pick each other up as strangers. There are a lot of ways to play with the fantasy of breaking the rules or having sex with someone different without actually cheating. The Ultimate Guide To Sexual Fantasy has lot of tips for figuring out what will work for you.

I think that what bothers me about the “poly isn’t cheating” message is that it seems to play into the “poly means you’re more evolved” meme that floats around in some self-satisfied circles. I know from personal experience that it takes a lot of practice to be open about your desires and to quickly and smoothly process the challenges that arise. And when there are multiple relationships, there are more plates to keep spinning, so it does require more grace and skill. But at the end of the day, we’re all people and any of us can be tempted to break our rules. So even if being successfully poly does mean that you have more practice at using your relationship tools, that doesn’t excuse becoming smug about it any more than being a skilled dancer gives you permission to think that you’re a better person than a newbie.

So it seems to me that we need to stop talking about open relationships as the alternative to cheating and instead, talk about how the alternative is the combination of honesty, integrity, and aligning our actions with our values. Maybe then, we can see the different relationship structures as equally valid choices, none of which is better than any other. It’s really just a question of which game you want to play.