What’s Considered “Cheating” in Non-Monogamy?

A large number of posts in non-monogamous groups ask whether or not something could be considered “cheating.” Thoughtful responses challenging the notion as a concept prompted me to ask the question: Is the concept of “cheating” really of any value in non-monogamy?

I’m beginning to think it might not be.

We know “cheating” as it’s defined in the dominant narrative: someone in a committed relationship does a thing with someone else that they should only be doing with their monogamous partner. Whether that’s a sexual act or forming an emotional bond, it’s not a concept that really holds water in the framework of non-monogamy; there is nothing wrong with us forming emotional bonds or having sex with other people. We may behave unethically while we engage in those activities, but those bad behaviors have names of their own and we don’t need to borrow a monogamous term in order to address them.

In situations not related to relationships, “cheating” means breaking the rules in order to gain an advantage. Rules defined by couples exploring non-monogamy are generally an attempt to protect what was a monogamous relationship from the perceived or imagined threats of non-monogamy. In my experience, the healthier the relationship, the fewer the rules, (if any), and breaking them is more about things other than “cheating” as we know it.

But Rusty,” you say, “isn’t it cheating if someone lies to a  partner about having sex with someone else regardless of whether or not the relationship is monogamous?

My non-answer: Well, what does that label accomplish for you in a non-monogamous relationship?

Human beings are fallible. We will say one thing and do another. When actions don’t match words, those close to us can feel betrayed – especially if they are emotionally invested in our words and disparate actions cause them pain. The concept of “cheating” in my culture of origin is a shameful and almost universally despicable one; If you label something “cheating,” it’s recognized by most as very, very bad. If we take an issue to the masses and they agree it meets the criteria for “cheating,” we are justified in feeling as hurt as we do.

It is no surprise that folks in the ENM community seek to apply it in situations where they feel betrayed by their partner.

“But Rusty,” you worry, “if I can’t call it cheating, how will my partner know how wrong they were and how deeply they hurt me?

I’ve been there! I have absolutely leveraged the impact of “cheating” as a concept to impress upon someone the gravity of a situation from my perspective. But that was years ago, and I know now the best version of me doesn’t actually want to wield language borne of a shame-based culture to suit my needs. It should be enough to use descriptive language specific to the event. Anything else is inaccurate at best and inflammatory at worst.

So – what do we call it when someone lies about something like that?

I say we call it exactly what it is. It should be enough to object to someone lying to you, or putting your health at risk, or taking away your ability to give informed consent. These are all extremely important issues that deserve attention and discussion, but we don’t need to call them by another name just to get our point across; direct and effective communication is best achieved with specificity.

In addition, when your message is clearly defined by appropriate and specific language, your points have more credibility and you won’t find yourself arguing semantics when what you’re trying to achieve is far more important.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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