What is the right thing to do when considering intimacy with someone who might be mated?

Question

Yesterday morning I read an article about a woman who'd enabled a man to cheat on his girlfriend, and when the woman told the girlfriend about it, her reward was to be bitched out for it. On one level, I would say the reaction is somewhat understandable, but at the same time, it's illogical since the woman didn't know the man even had a GF at the time. In any event, the woman has since adopted the perspective that whether the guys she sleeps with are taken is not her business to know; rather, it's their business to tell her. I went in expecting not to be too thrilled with the piece, but ultimately I by and large agree with her conclusions. What do you think about it?

Received via email from Siphedious Coyote
Twitter: @Sec_Yote_Agenda

Answer

The issue of being “the other woman” (speaking more generally, the person someone cheats with, but for expediency I use “other woman” as a gender-neutral term throughout) is a moral and ethical quagmire with a lot more nuance to it than many people give it credit for. The article you mentioned does a decent job of outlining the issues involved, and you summarized the article nicely in your email, but I’d like to unpack it a bit more before diving into my own opinion on the matter.

The author of the article describes hooking up with a guy all summer before finding to her dismay that Hookup Guy was in fact in a committed, long-distance, long-term monogamous relationship with another woman. Upon making this discovery, she agonized over what to do with her newfound knowledge. Should she tell the girlfriend? Did the girlfriend deserve to know? Ultimately, she decided to contact her:

“I drafted a two-page message to her, filled with apologies and sincere dismay at having to be the bearer of bad news, but I still had doubts over whether it was my place to tell her. A small part of me believed that it was none of my business.”

After sending this message, the author hoped she’d be thanked for being so forthright; instead, she “received a horrible, hatred-filled email that condemned” her for sleeping with the boyfriend, even though she had no idea he was in relationship, much less a closed, monogamous relationship.

Following this harrowing, gut-wrenching experience, the author seems to have revised her moral standpoint on the issue of cheating, absolving herself of future guilt over any similar “other woman” experiences she might have:

“I shouldn't be the one who feels guilt or a responsibility to monitor other people's relationships. I shouldn't bear the burden of having to ask if he is single, or taken, or in a complicated situation. It is his job to avoid hooking up with anyone if he is unavailable.”

The author squarely places the blame for cheating on the committed partner who decides to break his or her relationship terms, not on the third party who unwittingly becomes the “other woman”:

“When you are in a relationship with someone, you both enter into a monogamous — or whatever you decide — agreement. You make promises to each other. And that contract is solely between you two. The third person has nothing to do with it.”

“If I hook up with your boyfriend, don't expect me to feel bad. I probably didn't do it on purpose, but even if I did, he is the one who betrayed your trust,” the author ultimately concludes.

So, what do I think of all this?

Well, the way I would frame it, the author of this article is on one extreme of a moral spectrum that encapsulates how people think about cheating and about the ethical duties of a prospective “other woman.”

The author represents the camp who thinks it is strictly the committed partner’s duty to uphold his or her relationship terms — if the committed partner sees fit to break relationship terms and become a cheater, that isn’t something the “other woman” is morally responsible for, and he or she is in the clear.

The opposing camp, on the other side of the spectrum, thinks the onus is equally on both parties to any cheating that might occur. The committed partner is responsible for keeping his or her relationship terms, but a prospective “other woman” is also morally responsible, and needs to do his or her due diligence to ensure that the person he or she is seeking intimacy with is truly available.

My position is at neither pole of this spectrum. Rather, in my more moderate view of the responsibilities of a prospective “other woman,” there is a “Gold Standard,” which constitutes ethical behavior within the context of cheating, and a “Platinum Standard,” which constitutes going above and beyond to ensure no one could possibly be harmed by your actions.

In other words, if you follow the Gold Standard, you haven’t done anything wrong, but there’s a higher risk of someone getting hurt and a dramatic situation developing. If you follow the Platinum Standard, you’re doing everything in your power to prevent being a party to cheating, thereby lowering your chance of hurting someone and creating drama (while also lowering your chance of getting laid).

The Gold Standard: Before becoming intimate with someone, you ask whether the person is single. If yes, you proceed with sexy fun time. If the answer is no, you ask whether intimacy with you is permissible under the terms of the person’s relationship. If the person answers this question in the affirmative, again, you can proceed with sexy fun time. If the answer is no, you decline, or you ask the person to get permission first. If the person lies to you, and you unknowingly become the “other woman,” that isn’t your fault, and morally, you are in the clear.

The Platinum Standard:  Before becoming intimate with someone, you ask whether the person is single. If yes, you proceed with sexy fun time. If the answer is no, you ask whether intimacy with you is permissible under the terms of the person’s relationship. If the person answers this question in the affirmative, you ask a very important follow up question: Do you mind if I check in with your partner just to make sure this is okay?

Usually, if the person is in an open or polyamorous relationship, you talking to the person’s partner is no big deal, and something that the person would enthusiastically welcome. Once you check in with the partner, and the partner says go for it, you’re in the clear, and you can proceed  with sexy fun time. If the person instead says, “I’d rather you didn’t” or “We have a don’t ask don’t tell policy,” you apologetically decline and do not proceed with the sexy fun time. Obviously, if the person straight up tells you he or she would be cheating by being with you, again you would decline (perhaps less apologetically in this instance).

When you follow the platinum standard, you should be in the clear pretty much no matter what, but as you can see, you end up saying no more often. You also may be met with the question, “Why don’t you just trust me?” This can put you in an awkward position, but I tend to follow Dan Savage’s lead here: Tell the person you do trust him or her, but for the sake of avoiding miscommunication, drama, and hurt feelings, you’d still like to check in with the person’s significant other (Dan calls this “trust but verify”).

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In some of my own relationship dealings, I follow the Gold Standard. In others, I follow the Platinum Standard.

I use the Gold Standard either when I have a great deal of trust in the person I’m seeking intimacy with, or when I have very low investment in the person (as in, when I am casually pawing at someone I don’t know well at a con underwear party or something).

I use the Platinum Standard when I am seeking an ongoing connection with someone, but don’t yet know the person well enough to trust him or her completely. I also tend to use the platinum standard when I know the mate of the person I’m interested in; this is because I think it is a sign of respect and a nice gesture that inspires trust, helping to tamp down any jealousy the mate  might be experiencing.

There is one more moral question addressed in the article, namely whether you should report being the “other woman” to a cheater’s partner when you discover that you are in fact the “other woman.”

My stance on this is that you should not tell the person if you don’t know him or her, for three reasons.

First, you don’t know the full details of their relationship terms. Perhaps they have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement, which your disclosure would violate. Perhaps they have a cuckold dynamic, and the cheater’s partner gets off on being cheated on, then told about it later on during sex. Again, in this case, your disclosure would be ruining something, not helping.

Second, as the author of the article encountered, making this type of disclosure opens you up for emotional abuse at the hands of the cheated on partner; very few people take the news well, and shooting the messenger is all too common.

Third, what if the person who cheated with you deeply regrets it, swears to himself or herself no cheating will ever happen again, and goes on to make a renewed commitment to honor his or her relationship terms? In this instance, your disclosure could destroy a relationship on the mend, one that was paradoxically strengthened by a one-off infidelity with you. 

So, why risk it? Better to let sleeping dogs (wolves? foxes? otters? coyotes?) lie. If you must confront someone, confront the person who cheated with you, and tell the cheater to come clean to his or her partner.

Now, if you know the person, you’ll have to decide whether the nature of your relationship calls for you to tell him or her. A close friend,  or anyone who has a deep and trusting relationship with you, probably needs to be told, as otherwise, the secret can drive a wedge. Not to mention, if the cheating ever comes to light later, the cheated on person will feel that you betrayed him or her twice — first by engaging in the infidelity, then by covering it up. That sort of thing can be catastrophically hurtful, and your relationship with the cheated on person is unlikely to survive the drama that ensues.

Hope that answers your question! If you have any feedback or follow up questions, or you aren’t totally clear on something I said, feel free to leave a comment on this advice column entry or to use our contact page.

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.