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Advice – How to define cheating in the context of non-monogamous relationships.

“My boyfriend and my metamour (my nesting partner’s girlfriend) lean on each other to cope with feelings of envy when my nesting partner and I go out together. They both identify as monogamous, and mono/poly has been tough on them both. I think it’s great that they’ve formed a friendship.

Well, they went out last night, ended up drinking too much, and made out with each other – without any communication or even the chance for either one of us to give consent. My boyfriend called me after and said it happened and that he didn’t feel good about it. I’m struggling to see how this is any different than cheating.

How do you handle being able to act impulsively outside your existing relationships? If there’s no knowledge/consent of another partner, do you wait until you have a chance to talk to them? We don’t have a permission-based relationship, but I do like having the chance to give my consent. So this left me feeling pretty betrayed and confused. Any words of wisdom or encouragement are appreciated.”

Jenny Jellyfish on /r/polyamory.

Photo by Nihat on

Dear Jenny Jellyfish,

The betrayal that you feel makes a lot of sense. You weren’t really aware of either your boyfriend or your metamour developing attractions toward each other. So it really appeared to have come out of nowhere, and from the cracks of that surprise emerged pain.

I disagree with the others who posted in your thread about how this is not a truly infidelitous experience just because you maintain a polyamorous relationship. Infidelity can absolutely happen in polyamorous relationships, but the threshold and assessment is very different from that of a monogamous relationship. And I think your circumstances here does explain the sense of betrayal you might feel. And I can see how the feelings you would get from an infidelitous experience could be very similar to the feelings you feel now.

Photo by Firaaz Hisyari on

First things first. Every non-monogamous relationship is different because each relationship’s boundaries, agreements, and rules are all very different. So I don’t think it would be fair to broadly bracket any behavior as infidelitous. What I think could be a more productive discussion is to assess how and why monogamous folks define infidelity and see if the same sentiments can be applied to polyamorous context such as yours here.

Dr. Karen Finn goes into detail about what makes infidelity so painful for the betrayed spouse. In the blogpost, she outlined twelve different reasons on why infidelity might be painful. I’ll list a shortened version here:

  • Violation of relationship expectations
  • Resistance to dealing with oncoming change
  • Fear of the ensuing pain
  • Absence of emotional security
  • Loss of trust regarding past behavior
  • Guilt
  • Grief over the loss of the idyllic relationship experience
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Uncontrolled imagination making worse what really happened
  • Embarrassment
  • Growing desires for retribution
  • Suffering of the body-mind relationship

In short, infidelity is so painful because of how much the reality has deviated from expectation. Pain comes from that gap in understanding. And it is a vicious negative feedback cycle that affects our perspective and our respective footholds in the shared reality. Infidelity is defined by an egregious and intentional break in implicit expectations and explicit relationship agreements, and the cover up that usually ensues after.

Photo by Frans Van Heerden on

So let’s apply what we just learned about infidelity in monogamous context and see if it makes sense here.

You did not say if you and your boyfriend agreed to committing to an explicit statement of intention to date others or if it was an ongoing dialogue about always being open to date others. It is also unclear if you, your boyfriend, your nesting partner, or your metamour ever discussed expectations about dating others period, or if that was just an assumption based on their assumed monogamous identity. And lastly, based on what you’ve shared, it is very difficult to read to what extent this was an impulsive decision on either of their part.

I think it is absolutely a fair agreement to set intentions to date in the context of your non-monogamous relationships. It allows everyone to gauge their potential emotional and sexual risk profiles. But if you and your boyfriend never explicitly agreed to let each other know when either of you want to pursue other romantic/sexual connections, then this is by default not a broken agreement.

If you are indicating that you and your nesting partner each had very different expectations of their behavior due to their self-identified monogamous identity, then I think it is important to acknowledge the pain, then work as a group to make sure this kind of unexpected pain point does not get retriggered again. This is clearly the first time it ever happened, so it’ll be important to figure out if their connection is going to be ongoing or what this meant. Does this mean that your boyfriend and your metamour are both open to dating each other or others outside of your polycule?

Photo by Vitória Santos on

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if this experience is objectively or subjectively determined an infidelitous experience.

What matters more is if your pain is valid and if it your pain addressed. The pain you feel from fissures of relationship expectations, loss of emotional security, and the general loss of trust are all legitimate reasons for the pain you feel. I also think it is very important to point out here that you are in full control of the source of these feelings. If your relationship expectations of a closed relationship on your boyfriend’s side has been shattered, pick up the pieces and move forward with this new reality. If you are acutely feelin that distance of emotional security, talk it out with your boyfriend and figure out how to earn back your marbles. If you feel that you’ve lost a lot of trust in your partner, reflect on how that is closely related to the shattering of expectation and the loss of relationship security.

Your mind is not the victim of your own feelings; it is just the language in which your pain is processed. Yes. This experience was painful. So what do you want to do about it? Dig deeper and assess why it was so painful. And learn to avoid it in the future by mindfully approaching each of your relationships with clear intention and direction.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

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