I am a 22yo male wolf in a polyamorous triad with two wonderful mates, a 19yo male fox and a 24yo female vixen. We all identify as bisexual. Lately, we’ve dealt with some infidelity problems, and we’ve been able to work through it, but I think we’re all a little confused about expectations given that we are in a non-monogamous relationship. How should we define what cheating is, given that we have more than one mate as it is?
Received via e-mail (name withheld)
First off, it's a really great sign that you are asking for help with this and sticking with each other. That is a sign that you love each other very much and are willing to forgive some mistakes when the intention was not to hurt one another. So, congratulations on having such an awesome relationship and such a great starting point!
Now, as you’ll hear me say frequently on the podcast and advice column, asking “What does that mean for you?” about important terms such as “cheating” is really key to avoiding mismatched expectations that can cause people to get hurt.
Different individuals will draw the line for what constitutes cheating at different places. Is sexting cheating? Maintaining a Twitter after-dark account? Engaging in role play online? Participating in BDSM activities? Is permission required first, or is disclosure sufficient? Is having penetrative sex cheating, but perhaps not mutual pawing/masturbation? Is it cheating to go bare with someone else, but perhaps not if protection is used? You and your mates will need to sit down with each other and work out what your comfort level is surrounding each of these activities.
Now, you don’t really say whether your triad is closed (polyfidelitous) or open, and that can make a big difference as to where the cheating line gets drawn as well. If you’re in a closed triad, cheating probably includes having sexual contact with anyone outside of the triad without discussing it with the triad first and getting everyone’s consent. Of course, whether that sexual contact need to be in person to be cheating, or whether online role play or sexting would also be, is something you all would need to discuss.
The most general definition I can give you for cheating that will work in any situation within a non-monogamous, polyamorous relationship (or a monogamous relationship for that matter) is the following: Violating a relationship agreement that pertains to sexual or emotional intimacy. Any time you violate such an agreement, you are cheating. Of course, you need to have such agreements first, and that’s where the “What does cheating mean for you?” conversation comes in.
Cheating could be having sex without getting permission first or disclosing it to one’s mates, or even masturbating if you have an agreement not to climax without each other. If you have agreed not to flirt or post sexual images or sext outside of the relationship, any of those activities could be cheating. If emotional or romantic intimacy is where you draw the line, rather than physical intimacy, then having a deeply personal, intimate conversation with another person could constitute cheating, especially if such a conversation is not openly talked about or disclosed.
At the end of the day, cheating is a result of poor communication, dishonesty, and lies of omission. When your relationship is built on a foundation of trust, honesty, open communication, and full disclosure, cheating will not be able to thrive. Keeping secrets from your mates in the name of “privacy” and being intimate with others behind their backs is insidious, and this behavior will create guilt within you that you will likely externalize as resentment and anger towards your mates. Intimacy within your relationship will then suffer, and your relationship with your mates will crumble in a vicious cycle of resentment, rationalization, and cheating. This is a very sad way for a relationship to end, so communicate well, disclose your activities, follow your relationship agreements, and make sure everyone is on the same page, and you all will be happier and more secure in your relationship as a result.
Hope that helps! If you have any follow up questions or comments, please let us know via our contact page.