How is Consensual Non-Monogamy Different from Cheating?
Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is an umbrella category that covers a range of relationship styles that describe openly conducted multiple partner relationships. CNM ranges from polygamy and polyamory on the serious, long-term relationship end of the spectrum, to open, monogamish, or swinging relationships that may have more emphasis on sexual variety and less emphasis on emotional intimacy with multiple partners on the other. Cheating is usually when two people have agreed to be sexually exclusive, and one or more of them has clandestine sex outside the relationship while pretending to be monogamous and lying to their partner with active manipulation and/or omission of information. In polyamory — at least, ideally — all of the partners are all aware of and consenting to be in their web of multiple-partner relationships. In real life, it is not always so neat, though, and people cheat within polyamorous and other CNM relationships.
Some people become polyamorous, starting swinging, or attempt other forms of CNM after they have tried — sometimes for many years — to maintain monogamous relationships and found themselves cheating repeatedly. In my 15-year study of polyamorous families, some of my respondents reported feeling like something was very wrong with them because they were not able to maintain an exclusive sexual relationship, even when they loved their partner. Usually, they would not plan it but would end up making out or having sex with someone else besides their designated partner and feel terribly guilty and ashamed. This caused problems with self-esteem and inflicted pain on their partners, who almost inevitably found out about their outside sexual encounters.
Former cheaters who found consensual non-monogamy reported feeling great relief that they no longer had to lie, hide, or inflict pain on their partners. People who are polyamorous by orientation felt especially relieved when they found out about consensual non-monogamy, although some people who do polyamory as a lifestyle choice also reported feeling like a terrible weight had been lifted from them as well. In these cases, former cheaters’ partners can also be better off with consensual non-monogamy than cheating. In addition to my own findings on the emotional benefits of consensual non-monogamy, studies show decreased rates of transmission of sexually transmitted infections when partners negotiate non-monogamy and increased rates of transmission among those who hid their activities with multiple partners.
Even if it does not involve sex, talking to someone can still be categorized as cheating for some folks, especially when it involves emotional intimacy or thoughts and feelings not shared with the primary partner. For some swingers, polysexuals, monogamish, open, and other consensual non-monogamists who emphasize sexual variety with multiple people and emotional exclusivity with a single partner, it can be very threatening when one member of the couple begins to develop an emotionally intimate relationship or even fall in love with someone else. Polyamorous people sometimes ask or require one partner to stop seeing a particular person.
Sometimes, CNM couples institute a “three strikes and you’re out” policy that allows them to have sex with someone else up to three times, but after that, they are not supposed to see that same lover again — socially or sexually. Even if they have been banned from emotional attachment, some CNM folks find the connection with that particular person compelling, can’t resist the forbidden fruit, or for whatever reason clandestinely continue to “see” someone their primary partner(s) think they have stopped seeing. In this case, “see” can mean anything from online chatting, texting with no physical contact but lots of emotional connection, and maybe even some mutual masturbation, to non-sexual lunch dates, or private intimate conversations.
Hiding and Lying
In many cases, clandestine emotional contact breeds longing, and frustrated lovers find some way to hook up with each other. This usually entails pretending to be somewhere else and doing something else than what the person is actually doing, which can severely strain the poly code of honesty and communication fostering trust. Mirroring other cheating relationships, hiding and lying are very popular strategies for tricksters of all stripes.
Breaking Sex Agreements
Not all cheating in CNM comes in the form of sexual and emotional contact, and even people who are “allowed” to see others and that specific person(s) is/are within the negotiated boundaries, sometimes people cheat by doing things sexually they know they shouldn’t. This can include anything from having penetrative sex after saying you would not, failing to use a condom or other barrier, having sex in a specific place that was agreed to be out of bounds (often the couple’s bed or residence), or using a specific position the couple had decided to reserve for their exclusive use, etc.
Having a Partner Who is Cheating
Some CNM folks who will not agree to exclusivity themselves and openly engage in their non-monogamous relationships will date people who are pretending to be monogamous with a different partner. Dating a cheater is not exactly cheating, or is it? This murky area is still considered cheating among some CNM folks, and some polyamorists or others who especially value honesty and transparency hesitate to date people who date cheaters. Cheating once removed is still kind of cheating in some people’s eyes.