I wrote an article a few years ago about things that everyone can learn from the kink community. The rationale is that when people introduce unconventional things into their sex lives, they can’t make the assumptions most of us make about what’s okay and what isn’t.
Grounded in this same line of thinking, it’s time to explore the same nuances of the poly community. Polyamory, also called “consensual non-monogamy,” is when a person is interested in having multiple partners – either sexually, romantically, or both. (For those interested in more information about this, this chart is a really superb starting point.)
Polyamory requires an enormous amount of rule-making, negotiation, and scheduling and organization. Folks in poly relationships – when this is navigated ethically – know with 100% certainty whether they are crossing a boundary. They know whether they’re allowed to kiss their best friend, and how much time their primary partner expects them to make for them.
While polyamory is increasingly common, it’s still unconventional, and still not how most people want to navigate their relationships.
In monogamy, most of us assume we know what cheating is. We think to ourselves, “I don’t want my partner to comingle their genitals with someone else’s.” But then something happens that isn’t so overt. Maybe your partner becomes close with a new friend at work – and perhaps that person happens to be pretty physically affectionate by nature. Or perhaps you find out that your partner spends hours every day talking to someone on their favorite Game of Thrones message board. And you get icky, jealous feelings, even though no genitals were involved!
Cheating is nuanced.
As you can see, there’s a lot more to the question of cheating than one might think. Cheating means different things to different people, and you and your partner can’t reach each other’s minds. So it’s important to have some uncomfortable conversations about what, in your relationship, constitutes cheating. These conversations may not be easy, but they are well worth having because they minimize the possibility of confusion and miscommunication down the line.
It’s really important to remember: when mucking through these complexities together, this is not you setting rules for your partner, or your partner setting rules for you. It’s both of you opening the floor for a respectful, loving conversation about what each of you needs, and how you can reconcile any disagreements. Ideally, in the end, you will both have expectations of what constitutes fidelity.
There are a thousand things to consider, but following are some questions to get you started:
What is your agreement with your partner about whether you are allowed to have sex with other people?
This sounds straightforward, but let’s break it down. What does sex mean? Is it just intercourse? What about oral sex or fondling?
If you and your partner do want to have sex with other people, are there rules about who each of you is allowed to have sex with, and under what circumstances? Are there restrictions about involvement with people you know versus people you don’t know? What kind of contraception do you expect your partner will be using with another person? (I could go on and on – negotiating an open relationship could be an entire blog article in its own right!)
For most people, though, the answer is a hard no – they do not envision themself consenting to their partner having sex with anyone else, nor do they imagine seeking out other sexual partners. But are there any exceptions to this? What if your partner has a chance to have sex with their favorite celebrity (or you do)? What if you and your partner decide to involve a third party in your sex life together?
This is also a good conversation to have overtly, just to make sure you and your partner are on the same page. If you know you are 100% monogamous, when you’re making a decision to commit to a life partner, it’s important to say to them, “I know I want monogamy. What about you?”
If extramarital (or extracurricular, for those who are unmarried) sex is off the table, what kind of physical contact with others are you comfortable with?
Is it cheating if your partner kisses a friend? Of the same sex? Of a different sex? On the lips? On the cheek? On the hand? And how do you feel about hugging? Do you find yourself becoming jealous if your partner hugs another person – especially if you’re in a straight relationship and your partner hugs another person of a different sex?
When negotiating these needs and boundaries, it’s important to remember that your partner has bodily autonomy. If you’re a man who is uncomfortable with your girlfriend hugging other men, that does not mean she has to stop. It means you and she need to have an honest conversation about why this is hard for you, and you have to give her space to describe what it means to her to hug her friends.
What kinds of friendships will you and your partner pursue and maintain?
If you are in a heterosexual relationship, how do you feel about your partner having friends of a different sex? Do you maintain these kinds of friendships? Is it cheating if one of you is friends with an ex? If you’re uncomfortable with your partner doing any of these things, what is the driving force behind that?
Is it cheating if your partner spends more time with another person (of the same or a different sex) than they spend with you? What if they talk to someone about things they haven’t discussed with you? (And does it make a difference if they’re only doing that in order to process something before talking to you about it later?) How do you feel about them having someone they call a “work wife” or “work husband”? What if they talk online with someone every single day?
How do you feel about your partner cuddling with a friend? Of the same sex? Of a different sex? Does it matter what the friend’s sexual orientation is?
How will you and your partner use technology?
Is sexting with another person cheating? Is chatting online with someone for a lot of hours cheating? Where do you draw the line? Does it make a difference whether it’s someone they have met in person?
What does it mean if you or your partner has an active online dating profile? What if they only list that they are searching for friends?
How do you feel about pornography and strip clubs?
How would you feel if you found out your partner was looking at pornography or reading erotic novels? Do you look at pornography or read erotic novels, and do you think of it as infidelity? How much pornography would you or your partner have to use before it felt like cheating? What if they were consuming pornography or erotica instead of having sex with you?
Are you or your partner cheating if you go to a strip club? What about as part of a bachelor or bachelorette party? What if there’s only partial nudity, such as at a Chippendale’s show?
This is just a starting point.
The definition of cheating is a complicated thing, and is a conversation that should be revisited periodically. If you feel yourself becoming jealous about something your partner is doing, rather than lashing out at them, take it as a cue to get curious about your own emotions. If your partner expresses a belief that something you are doing is cheating, explore that with them, and take it as an opportunity to reestablish a mutual understanding.