There are many bumps and pitfalls when you engage in relationships outside of the societal norm, such as polyamory and relationship anarchy. In a monogomous relationship, sharing sexual or romantic intimacy with someone else is almost always seen as cheating. In a polyamorous relationship, cheating is still possible, just not so easily defined. Since polyamory involves engaging in multiple romantic or sexual dynamics, cheating is usually defined as breaking a relationship agreement. This almost always refers to relationship agreements relating to intimacy with other people though. After all, while your spouse might get jealous if you watch the newest episode of Desperate Housewives with your friend Jay, even though you may have promised to watch it with your spouse first, they are unlikely to label this as cheating. If on the other hand, you have sex with Jay and tell your spouse afterwards, and you have agree to run new sexual partners by each other beforehand, then your spouse would likely feel that you had cheated on them. When a relationship agreement is broken, in a monogomous or polyamorous dynamic, and it does relate to intimacy with other people, the label of cheating is often applied. And cheating is often seen as the worst offense, the sex you had with Jay is a much greater betrayal then your watching of Desperate Housewives together. So what about when you are not the one breaking an agreement, but you are Jay, and are just the third party involved in the breaking of the agreement?
So you have ventured into polyamory, or maybe you have been polya or a relationship anarchist for years. You befriend an adorable creature who shares some social circles with you and begin to get to know each other. You meet up for coffee and get lost in their eyes, your discussions stay with you for days after. Soon you realize well fuck, I really want to kiss this person, but alas, they are in a monogomous relationship. What do you do? Okay, well obviously don’t kiss them without consent, you have to make sure they want to kiss you too, but assuming mutual desire has been established, do you go ahead because you both want to, or do you refrain from doing so out of respect for their relationship? The cry I’ve heard echoed in most all the polya circles I’ve been in is full stop! Respect their relationship! For many years I was in Camp Respect, I would have said that you were enabling cheating, and in doing so you were just as bad as a cheater yourself. If that were still the case this writing would be pretty boring, as it would end here. I no longer believe that.
This boils down to an ownership mentality. While polyamorists often try and unpack the idea of owning their partners much more then monogomists, it is hard to completely throw off that societal conditioning. But I don’t feel like I own my partner! they may say incredulously. Well, do you accept that your partner is a completely autonomous being who has every right to have and express their emotions as they come up, and share their own body as they wish? If not, do you feel you have a right to restrict how your partner feels and expresses their feelings or shares their body? If you answered yes to the second question, there is a sense of entitlement over your partner’s body and mind. That possessiveness is the ownership mentality I’m speaking of. You may have answered yes to the first question, you do accept that your partner is autonomous and can share their body and heart with who they choose, and that means we’re on the same page. As a relationship anarchist, this principle is of extreme importance to me. Shrugging off the ownership mentality, the idea that I had some say over how the people I am close to could share themselves with others, was no easy task, but one I continue to put a lot of effort into. The motivation behind that is the most important thing. I truly do believe in the importance of autonomy. I do not believe your partner is ever your possession, or that anyone has a right to treat someone else as a commodity they can keep to themselves or only rent out to others as they choose. So, in a situation where a person is in a relationship where their partner has dictated, or the societal norms have dictated, that they may not do the delightful kissing or other such things with other people, respecting that is buying into that ownership mentality and acknowledging that they are a possession of their partner. I refuse to take part in that coercion any longer and as such, if I consent to the kissing of the new adorable creature over the coffee date and they consent to kissing me as well, I will not respect a monogomous dynamic that allows their partner to dictate what they may consent to, and in doing so disrespect their own autonomy to decide. Now I do acknowledge that them breaking the agreements of fidelity with their partner are hurtful, even if I believe imposed monogomous relationship agreements are unethical. I also acknowledge that cheating usually includes an element of deception, and that is not a dynamic I will walk into, so usually I end up refraining from the kissing for that reason. I have no interest in helping someone lie, because while I do not find a disregard for possessiveness and restriction of autonomy to be unethical, I do find dishonesty to be unethical. My response would likely to be an expression of my desire to kiss the person, but an acknowledgment that I have no intention of being part of a secret where we mutually work to keep it from their partner. And if they express that they will keep it from their partner, and I need have no part in that, possibly because I don’t know or will never meet their partner, well the desire to do the thing is gone because I don’t really need to be swapping spit with someone who is happy to lie. So, it’s often a non-issue, but I feel the reasoning behind it to be very important from an ethical standpoint. Especially when my ethics dictate bucking against a culture of owning-ones-partner as much as possible.
Now what about if the person you are interested in is polyamorous, and it’s not a matter of coercive monogamy structures in which fidelity is assumed and there is an expectation of a persons body belonging only to their partner, but instead you have people who respect each others autonomy and desire to explore with others, but have made agreements to guide how they do so? This is where it gets sticky and even I am still working out my hard feels about this. So if you make an agreement with your partner that you will let them know before you have sex with other people, is that coercive and ownership based? Sometimes I think the answer is yes, I’ve seen these sort of agreements made, where one partner felt they had to agree to restrictions to be “allowed” to be polya, and that is clearly coercive. Assuming though, that there wasn’t overt coercion, is there a problem? Well, if you want to tell your partner beforehand, and your partner wants to tell you beforehand, you both will do so, is there need for an agreement there, that if broken = cheating? If the agreement is truly being made out of a mutual desire to do so, there really isn’t a need for an agreement at all, because both people will do the thing anyway when acting out their wants. If one person no longer wants to do the thing, then honestly, they are no longer a mutually consenting participant in the agreement. I think though, brains are not that simple, and desire is not that simple. If we are assuming agreements made without coercion, without any pressure from the other person that restricts autonomy, and with a deep respect for each others desires, then a person might agree to something that they know is an overarching want, even if their in-the-moment wants might conflict with that. I have agreements with some of my partners to discuss new partnerships with them as I am considering them. I have these agreements because my base wants are to share my emotions as I enter new experiences, and to give my partners a platform to share their emotions. I will not let a partner control my new connections, but I do want to know and understand what they are feeling and address that with them, and also include them in my emotions and life experiences, even ones that don’t directly involve them. In the moment I may at times find these agreements restrictive, and for that reason I do question them, and I may evolve away from them over time. But at this point I have chosen those agreements and they are my primary want, even if they conflict with other momentary wants. So I keep to them.
What do you do when you are the third party in these situations though? You don’t know if agreements that a polya person has with their partner might contain some elements of coercion, or if they are agreements gone into with a respect for autonomy. When the adorable creature you want to kiss tells you that it would be breaking their agreement but they wish to do so anyway, is there wish to do so a passing fancy that conflicts with their overarching desire to do the thing they agreed to, or are they bucking against and agreement they did not desire to make? For this matter of ethics, I would say you can’t really know. All you can do is ask and then trust their answer, and if they say that they truly with to do the kissing, more then they wish to do the keeping of the agreement, you are not ethically bound to hold them to an agreement they do not want to be engaged in. Now again, I would likely have other reasons for not moving forward. One reason would be again the possibility for dishonesty here, are they someone who would lie to their partner about this later, or are they letting their partner know and informing them that the agreement is no longer something they can keep to? And also, I would likely disengage at this point because I do take agreements so seriously due to my distaste for ownership and coercion. I want to make sure my partners will only agree to things with me that they are sure they want to make a commitment about, because they know they do have a strong autonomous overarching desire for it. I want partners who are self aware to be able to see these things about themselves and determine their own wants and needs. Someone who is going around making and breaking agreements, when coercion isn’t a factor, is lacking a measure of self awareness and understanding of their desires before making commitments, and I don’t want to get involved there.
I think in the end what we need to understand is that ethical blame is often misplaced due to the normalization of ownership mentality and a lack of respect for autonomy. Cheating is not unethical because you are sharing yourself in an intimate way with another human, it is unethical because of the dishonesty and breaking of commitments involved And breaking those commitments is not always even unethical when they were not made in an environment free of coercion in the first place. When you are participating from the sidelines, not the person who is breaking their agreements to begin with, but the person who is just engaging with an individual regardless of their agreements, you are not taking an unethical action. Respecting someone else’s choice to decide for themselves what to do with their body is not unethical. You are not required to buy into respecting their agreement to hand that control over to someone else. You are not required to buy into the concept that someone else is owed or deserves that control. And you are not responsible for deciding which of their wants are most prominent or overarching, especially if they tell you otherwise or don’t have the self awareness to tell you at all. I would advise against engaging in those kind of dynamics for many other reasons, dishonesty and causing hurt being some of them. But I would like to dispel the myth I once perpetuated that helping someone cheat makes you a cheater as well, and put forward that instead we dismantle the structures where we feel we can own someone else’s body and cheating is even a thing.