This post will be hard for me to write. It will be difficult because it involves mistakes I have made juxtaposed with ideas about love and polyamory that may come across as crass, cold, and possibly uncaring. There will undoubtedly be people who read this that think of me as an asshole for the thoughts I will express below, but I think it’s worth exploring these ideas anyway.
After all, it is such experiences which helped give me perspective on polyamory, and perhaps some people will sympathize or have experienced similar things.
So, I have not always been polyamorous. Well, I suppose somewhere deep down, I have always been predisposed to polyamory, but I have not always practiced polyamory in my relationships. I discovered it early, being around 20 or so, and while I had a quasi polyamorous relationship back then, I was immature, uninformed, and was not really ready to have very healthy relationships then.
So, after college I was monogamous, serially so anyway. And during the most serious relationship I was in during my 20’s, I acted badly on at least one occasion. All of the details of the act are not necessary, but it should be sufficient for me to say that I cheated, hid that act from my girlfriend (with whom I was living at the time), and it was eventually found out.
But I want to focus in on a small part of all of this in order to draw out a lesson I learned about myself, love, and non-monogamy from that time. This part occurred a long while (I think 6 months or so) before she found out about the act. It was pretty immediately after the act happened, in fact. It was the first real opportunity I had to reflect on it in the presence of my girlfriend, and I regret not coming clean at that time, but it’s the past….
I loved her. In many ways, I still do. But I truly loved her then and appreciated our relationship and all the wonderful times we had. Sure, we argued about things like cleaning (she was terribly messy), being on time (She was perpetually late), and so forth, but I loved her genuinely. The sex was great, she got along with my friends, and I loved being with her. I found her very attractive, passionate, and there was never a lack of desire from my part.
The cheating act, therefore, was not about lack of attention or satisfaction. It was just about me being into someone else I had met and with whom I had spent some time in social gatherings One weekend, the circumstances allowed the possibility to act on it, which I did. Yes, alcohol was involved, but the responsibility was ours. We both knew what we were doing was wrong. We did it anyway.
A couple of days later I was faced with my girlfriend, and I had a choice. I knew that it would have been easy to get away with what happened, and so while I felt like I should say something, I hesitated. And so with the intention of sitting her down and telling her, despite knowing it could end the relationship, I found her and could only express a strained but genuine smile. She was happy. She was in a great mood, had plans for the day she was excitedly telling me about, and I was genuinely glad to see her. Yes, the sex had been good with the other girl. Yes I also liked the other girl. Yes, I had violated a trust. Yes, I should have stopped her and said something.
But we were happy. A rationalization for sure, but a true one.
It was at this moment that it fully clicked home for me that there is no contradiction between loving two people. Or at least loving one person while enjoying sex and intimacy with another person, as I cannot say honestly I was in love with the other girl; that would be a severe stretch of the truth. We were recent acquaintances, really. I didn’t know her very well. But we liked each other, shared attraction, and decided to act on it spontaneously.
I felt the tension of knowing I had acted badly and feeling genuine love for the person whose trust I had violated. It was guilt mixed with happiness. I knew, at that moment, that I would be capable of caring for a person deeply and genuinely while also being with someone else. I knew that polyamory was something I wanted and would be capable of. The irony of discovering this in the context of doing it all very wrong is not lost on me at all.
We were together for some time after this, even after she found out about the act. We actually had a polyamorous relationship with another woman later on, which was a fairly successful even if relatively short triad. The cheating act did create problems, but we worked through them and moved on. I don’t know if the trust ever fully returned, and the relationship eventually faded until we were friends with benefits, friends, and now there is distance between us.
Now I’m married, and she engaged. We don’t talk much anymore, but are on friendly terms. I still love her and care about her, even knowing we cannot work as partners nor, do I think, would either of us want to. Such is life.
So, here is the thing. I violated an important trust. I had sex with another woman while in a monogamous relationship, and after having done so all I could think about was how happy I was with my girlfriend, how much I loved her, and how much I still wanted to be with her. I also thought about how in an ideal world I would continue to see that other girl. That never happened. We only saw each other a couple times after that, and eventually job opportunities led her away.
There was no immediate, visceral contradiction there for me. Yes, there was a tension, but it was mostly fear of losing a person I loved with some guilt for having done it. But there was no deep feeling of having done something inherently wrong; no feeling that sex with another person while in a relationship was always wrong, just wrong when done in this way.
I was aware of the fact that according to common wisdom there should have been a contradiction there, but it didn’t exist for me. The tension was all in knowing that I could do it again, at least not in the wrong way. I wanted to do it in the right way. And eventually (after she found out) we would start talking about opening up our relationship, and we eventually did decide to become polyamorous.
I was as if, in my mind at that time, I was already polyamorous. I completely got how one could share and be shared without it being an issue. The fact that we were not polyamorous at the time, that we had not agreed to share, was a problem that did erode at me, but we continued to be happy. In fact, later on she did something rather similar with a male friend of hers while visiting home and did disclose it to me immediately. And it was fine.
It was fine because in my mind I was already willing to share. I was already geared to have that conversation. I had already stopped thinking about her as being exclusively mine. I would love her whether she was with other men (or women) or not. I loved her because I loved her, not because she loved only me.
Now that I am polyamorous, I experience a similar feeling all the time. Whether I spend some intimate time with Gina, Ginny, or someone else, if I am to then spend time with my wife or my girlfriend afterwards, I am then focused on them. The fact that I just had sex with another person cannot touch what I have with them. What I have with them is special, powerful, and transcends such silly things as where my penis was just a little while ago or whose penis was with them.
Why does that matter? Why should that matter?
And I understood that in that moment I should have disclosed the act, but didn’t. I rationalized all sorts of reasons why it was better to keep it secret. I get that even if it didn’t change how I felt or that it really should not matter, I should have disclosed. And now I do disclose. If I am with someone else, Ginny and Gina usually know that it is a fair possibility before it happens. And if it does happen, they know.
And I still love them both, am happy with them both, and all is transparent.
What I learned was that sex and other people cannot damage relationships in themselves. Relationships fall or stand on their own merits. If your relationship is strong, it can withstand external intimacy. If your relationships have weaknesses, those external intimacies will become a lightning rod for those weaknesses, but are not necessarily the cause of them.
So yes, cheating is a violation of trust. But it is not the act, the sex, that does the damage. The damage is the violation of trust. That was a distinction I learned that day, and have ever forgotten.