Are my mate's online RP sessions crossing the line into cheating?

Question

What is the difference between role-play online and an online relationship? My mate and I have fought over this many times. I get upset with him for having lengthy, involved, multi-session online role plays, which to me feel like secondary relationships, but he insists it's just RP, and therefore not cheating. I've asked him if he's told these RP partners he's mated, and he responds that it would be too awkward to tell them, so he usually doesn't. Some of these relationships have been going for months to years. Am I in the wrong for being upset, or is he downplaying these online relationships by calling them "RP"?

Received via Telegram (name withheld)

Answer

Exactly where to draw the line between “online role play” and “online relationship” is a question that has come up in many of my own relationships, and it is certainly not a question with an obvious, clear-cut answer. There are many factors at play — is your mate role playing as himself, or is he playing a role against type to expand his horizons? Is your mate pawing off to these role play sessions and leaving himself spent, unable to be intimate with you? Is he spending time and emotional resources on RP when he ought to be spending time on you or other obligations? Or is the role play enjoyed on more of an intellectual level, as if your mate and his role play partners were simply taking turns writing a novel together?

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Certainly, it is possible to engage in a role play with someone without there needing to be any emotional or personal investment (or any negative impact on your relationship). However, in many cases, role play that is ongoing does become emotionally invested, and in such a case, I do think it crosses the line into being an online relationship. Whether or not that is problematic is up to the people involved, and it sounds like, for you, this is in fact a problem.

Ultimately, the issue between you and your mate boils down to communication problems and mismatched expectations, as often occurs when relationship partners attempt to abide by rules without really understanding the intent behind them. Your question implies that you have relationship terms with your mate that allow for “online role play” but forbid online secondary relationships (or, at least, online secondary relationships that your mate fails to obtain your enthusiastic consent for). Feel free to correct me if I am wrong, but I’ll be working with this assumption.

If this is the case, your mate is choosing to comply with the letter of the law (or in this case, relationship rule), in that technically these online connections are role play connections, but he doesn’t seem to be complying with the spirit of the law, which presumably you created to protect the primacy of your relationship with your mate and give yourself a greater sense of security in your relationship by reserving deep romantic and emotional connection for the two of you (or whoever you mutually agree on).

It would appear that your mate has chosen to form deep, meaningful online relationships that are emotionally, sexually, and/or romantically charged without your consent. And, to defend himself against being accused of cheating or violating your relationship terms, your mate is in fact downplaying to you, in that he is shrouding his activities in the language of role play so that you cannot tell him what he is doing is wrong.

Clearly, your mate is at least somewhat invested in these relationships, or else he would not feel so awkward about mentioning that he has a mate to his role play partners. A casual role play connection shouldn’t really be threatened by the fact that your mate is taken romantically, and even were it to be threatened, such an uninvested connection shouldn’t be a grave loss. What your mate is telling you when he says he feels awkward is that 1) he really cares about these relationships (which means he is invested more than he should be given your relationship terms) and/or 2) he is worried that his role play partners would feel led on and would be upset to know that he is not romantically available (which suggests that he’s being unethical towards his role play partners as well, in that he is lying to them by omission and implying he’s romantically available when he is not).

Now, it is possible that your mate has rationalized his activities to himself so well that he really doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. It’s also possible he knows he’s cheating and is intentionally misleading you. We can’t really know which, but I like to assume good faith in my relationship partners, so let’s assume he truly doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong in the way he is conducting these so-called role play relationships. In this case, you and your mate need to have a serious conversation about relationship terms and your expectations for each  other. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in debating whether or not what your mate is doing is RP (and therefore permissible) or not. That’s not really a productive line of conversation. Instead, talk about the intent behind the rule you made; there’s really no need to accuse your mate of wrongdoing, which will most likely just make your mate defensive and cause your conversation to become a heated argument.

It is far more productive to proceed directly to clarifying what it is that you need and want in order to feel safe and comfortable being with your mate. Use the principles of non-violent communication (as we’ve discussed on the podcast and in the advice column many times previously). Talk about how your mate’s actions make you feel, and ask your mate what you can both do to make things right. Were I in your position, I might say something like this:

“When you spend your time roleplaying online instead of engaging with me, I feel devalued in our relationship, which I am sure is not intentional on your part, since you are simply trying to have a good time. However, I would very much appreciate it if you would be willing to empathize with me a bit more, knowing that your actions are making me feel this way. Also, when you engage in role play relationships that go on for a long time and do not mention that you are mated, I feel insecure about our relationship, because I worry that you want to be perceived as single and romantically available. It would mean a lot to me if you acted a bit more proud of our relationship and disclosed to your role play partners that you are mated and therefore are not romantically available.”

You’ll probably want this to be more of a conversation and less of a monologue, but you get the general idea. Tell your mate how his actions affect you, and ask him if he is willing to take actions that would make you feel better and more secure in your relationship with him.

If he responds by telling you that everything he is doing is fine and nothing needs to change, you have a few options. You can choose to take him at his word and put up with the status quo. However, if you go this route, you need to be able to explicitly authorize these online relationships and not resent your mate for following through with them. Alternatively, if these relationships are something you simply cannot abide, you need to tell your mate that you will be unable to remain with him if he continues to act in a way that makes you feel unhappy, neglected, and insecure. 

Hope you reach an outcome with your mate that preserves both your and his happiness. If you have any follow up questions or comments, use the comment box below or visit www.feralattraction.com/contact.

Viro the Science Collie

Viro Science Collie is a PhD virologist and medical writer, experienced in teaching, technical communication, and writing for the public. He has been active in the furry community since 2012 and has been happily and ethically non-monogamous for much of that time. His interests include non-traditional relationship structures, technology, biological science, and tennis.