Nearly a year ago, Wes wrote this post on the blog about whether it is permissible, morally, to accept an offer of sex from someone in a monogamous relationship. I was not in agreement with him when I read it, but my disagreement was based on a moral foundation I know Wes does not accept (primarily Kantian), so I didn’t argue since it would have turned into a meta-argument. I find his logic sound, I just found the basic assumptions to be lacking somewhat. I carry different moral foundations that the argument presented in that post, and so I realized that it would turn into a conversation about meta-ethics and moral foundation theory, rather than about the question at hand.
Over the last year I have thought about this issue a little, and I have come to agree with his argument, Kantian counter-positions or not, but only in some cases. I agree that the point of harm is the decision to cheat, and that acting on it only adds the potential harm of STDs or pregnancy (if precautions against such things are not taken, of course). The emotional harm was already done, and it is this point where the other person should focus their attention on why they care if their partners wants other sex/romantic partners, and possibly accept polyamory as another option.
My reason for refusing the proposition of sex from a monogamous person, morally, has to do with what Wes Said in his post:
the fact that someone is a cheater raises all kinds of concerns about that person’s trustworthiness, character, compassion, and decency. I have absolutely no problem with categorically turning down cheaters for those reasons.
I think that everyone should have a negative response to such a proposition if the person asking is untrustworthy. I think that a decent person would not even want to sleep with someone in a situation where you can’t trust their character, personality, etc. I have trouble finding it possible to both be a decent person and wanting to say yes to such a person. But if an untrustworthy person is still appealing to you, then I suppose you can do whatever you like, even if I don’t think it’s the right decision. I would not will that maxim to be universal law, but I can’t make decisions for other people either.
However, not everyone who requests, or at least wants, to have sex with someone besides their committed and supposedly exclusive partner (married or not) is untrustworthy or a bad person. Sometimes, they have good reasons to want and request such a thing.
Why am I writing about this now? Well, because I had a long conversation with a long-time friend today that both depressed and angered me. It spoke to all the reasons why I advocate for non-monogamy, especially where it rubs against traditional and conservative (patriarchal) notions of marriage, relationships, and commitment. I’m writing about this because this friend of mine needs and wants romantic, emotional, and sexual intimacy in her life, and is not getting it.
The occasional 2 minutes is not enough.
My friend, who will obviously remain anonymous, divulged to me today that she has been unhappy with many aspects of her marriage for a while. Sex happens perhaps every month or two, and lasts just about long enough for her husband to be done. The old squirt and snooze.
Now, she has talked to him about her lack of satisfaction with this amount of physical intimacy, and he had insisted that things are “OK” and that he’s just not going to change. He’s happy, he’s not going to change, and with her not being able to support herself right now (she’s a house-mom), leaving is not much of an option. She’s stuck in a situation where she is unhappy, stuck at home most of the time, and wants more from life. He’s not going to give it to her apparently, and her transparently finding it elsewhere is not a realistic option. Polyamory is not an option.
She does not want to hurt him, she does not want to put the kids in a situation of going through a potential divorce (her parents were divorced, which was hard on her growing up), and her kids are fairly young. But she is also seriously considering accepting what she knows are open offers to receive some level of emotional, sexual, and possibly romantic intimacy from other people she knows. She’s thinking about the possibility of cheating.
I want to tell her to do it. I want to tell her to find the happiness she wants, even if it means cheating. Her situation, with a selfish and un-giving husband, is a situation where the chains of monogamy are most clear to me. This type of situation is why Ashley Madison exists. My friend would benefit from polyamory (ideally, if she wanted that), but that is not an option she can count on happening with any level of probability. She wants real intimacy, and cannot get it because of this traditional definition of marriage which keeps too many people (both men and women) in unhappy situations, which lead to cheating.
Eventually she will likely leave him (that’s my guess) when she is able to be economically independent. Whether she would be better off doing now, I cannot say. I’m leaning towards yes, but I don’t have to deal with all of the consequences of that decision. But for now, she remains unhappy, unfulfilled, and there is a world out there full of people who would love her more and give her some of what she desires.
And I know there are many people like her out there.
Is cheating sometimes the only option?
So, what is she supposed to do? She has the option to cheat, if she wants it. She has said that she has people who only need her “yes” to get at least some of her desires fulfilled. She could do so in a way that would almost certainly not be found out. She could do so with people she knows and trusts. Does she have a better option?
Is it better to live with this lack of fulfillment while not breaking her marriage vows and possibly exposing her family to harm, or is it better to take the risk of having an affair and possibly having a secret boyfriend? In her place, I would be very tempted to take the risk and have some happiness, rather than live unhappily. Of course I don’t have to make that choice, which is why polyamory is the shiznit.
I would not want to live a life of quiet desperation. I would not want to hurt someone I loved, but in this situation that love seems to be mostly one way (I’m assuming she still loves him, and his actions clearly indicate he does not love her; at least not well). I would want to broach the subject of polyamory with my partner, and if that didn’t work I would be very tempted to leave and/or cheat, if I were in a similar situation.
So, what would I suggest she do?
You are probably guessing that I would advise that she try to have a serious conversation with her husband about some sort of non-monogamous arrangement. And ideally, I think she should do that. But then I think that if she does that, he will suddenly look differently at her going out on a Saturday night to see friends. He might, in fact, insist that she not do so. That would make any cheating harder to pull off, even if she didn’t accept his (hypotheitical) insistence of not going out anymore, because he would be curious and prying if he suspected she wanted to do so. So, given that, is it not only easier pragmatically, but in terms of her ability to find some happiness, just to cheat?
He seems to think that things are fine. He’s happy getting his rocks off every several weeks, but she wants more and she could get away with doing so. Probably. So, in this situation, is it better to cheat?
In a world where polyamory is more mainstream, no it would not be better. We, however, are not going to get to that world any time soon. And yes, the idealist in me wants her to take a stand for her desires openly, and demand that he make a better effort to try and fulfill her needs (she has done this, somewhat, to no avail), and to demand that he either let her go find it willingly or share, and fly the polyamory flag. Or, at least fly the find-a-partner-who-treats-me-well flag. She has not said she wants to be polyamorous per se, but she has said that she wants sexual and emotional intimacy, and he will not give it any more than he already does.
So should she cheat?
Yes. I think she should. And when she can get away, she should. Because in this case it is not the seeker of extra-marital sex who is untrustworthy or a bad person, it is the person she is stuck with who is. And I am not convinced that such people deserve the respect of marriage vows. I don’t think he’s given all he can give to their relationship, and she shouldn’t have to suffer because of that.
Polyamory is great, but it can’t solve this problem because polyamory requires the consent of her husband, and he almost certainly will not give it. And if he should be hurt by any such cheating, he should take responsibility for being a terrible partner, both emotionally and sexually, and deal with it. You can’t be an un-giving partner and also expect your partner to be happy just with you.
9 thoughts on “When polyamory isn’t an option, is cheating an option?”
The vows are a two person agreement and when he refuses to meet his obligations the deal is blown. Yes, the number of times they have sex is not spelled out in the vows, but to love and cherish is, and that is not happening. Counseling is needed, as is courage. Cheating leads to many problems, not the least are the decisions of the court during the ensuing divorce. As someone close to me said “I wish you had left him before you started this new relationship.” This mom needs to get a job and be self supporting if at all possible, then look for love in the right places. Divorce is not always a bad choice.
DrHoney is quite right in what she says. Cheating is just going to cause more problems. I have to also point out that by staying in an unfulfilling relationship, your friend is modeling for her children that such things are normal – that they have to “settle” for that in their lives. Is that what she really wants for her children? I had to make a similar decision when my daughter was young. It was very difficult, but I still know that it was the right thing to do.
I think that a big consideration for the potential cheater is their loss of integrity. I think having a congruence between what you say/promise and what you actually do, is a really powerful and important thing psychologically for human beings in general (regardless of moral or religious leanings). When there is a disconnect between what you say/promise and what you do, especially as concerns major things such as serious relationships, that can create some serious cognitive dissonance. I believe this dissonance can be psychologically damaging to one’s self, in my humble opinion and speaking from my own experience. Also, just the loss of trust and confidence in one’s self can be huge.
An additional point: it is tempting and in fact normal for potential or actual cheaters to think of their partners as being mostly or completely responsible for their cheating. It is very common for them to start painting a picture in their minds, and in conversations with others, of the partner as a one-sided “bad guy” who is “forcing” them to cheat. This is probably not a completely clear-eyed and fair perspective of the situation. There is likely culpability on both ends. (Unless the relationship is abusive, and in that case the person should get the heck out of the situation as soon as they can manage it and not stay/cheat.)
I think rarely do people truly have no agency or choice, and that is what happens when the cheater uses this line of thinking to justify their cheating. As others have stated, there are probably many other options (getting a job, skills, reaching out to her networks for support/places to live, talking to partner, making a plan for leaving, saving money, etc.) that they can work towards and achieve before taking the ultimate step of cheating and damaging their own integrity and confidence in self.
I don’t say this as some raging monogamist. Poly and mono people can both cheat and lose integrity by not living up to their commitments and stated intentions to their partner(s), especially as concerns mutually agreed important issues.
Anyway, just my two cents! Thanks for writing a terrific blog. I love reading it! I find it often thought provoking and makes me reflect on my own values. Cheers!
I have to agree with Dr.Honey particularly since the goal shouldn’t be “more polyamory” but “more honesty in adult relationships no matter how that’s crafted” in which case cheating (being fundamentally dishonest) is precisely NOT what she should do. The husband isn’t meeting his obligations and thus should be forced by the courts to support her as she is obviously meeting her’s by working (taking care of children is work).
Or in other words two wrongs don’t make a right.
She shouldn’t look for anyone until she’s in the middle of divorce proceedings.
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