Can you turn infidelity into polyamory?

My spouse and I have been together for 18 years this year. Last August, I was pushed into a sceneries I didn’t think I’d ever find myself in. He had met a woman and wanted to either open our marriage, [o]r have a triad. (We had had a triad about 14 years ago and have been monogamous since.) This would’ve been okay had we been talking about non-monogamy at all prior to him asking.
The thing is, at first, he planned to have an affair, then pushed for her to join us or us to open, and when I finally put my foot down and said no, that we hadn’t discussed anything, he was going to leave me. He decided not to a couple days later, said he was making a big mistake and temptation blinded him. Moving on, we decided to open but he was feeling “left out” as I had the attention of so many men and he was finding it difficult to meet anyone. We decided to try swinging and met a couple. However I called it off when we became very good friends with them. They wanted sex, where I would’ve ended up in love. Back to an open marriage. I met a man, he met a woman. Things were okay until he started breaking our rules. For us, it’s about sex. Though I personally need a connection. I need that personality in order to find men attractive.
Anyway, no dating was a big one in order to help avoid feelings from forming. He had not only asked her for coffee, but asked her to go to a Burlesque show. This is once a month and considered as a date night for us. We stopped and decided to strengthen our marriage as he was wondering if he’d be okay knowing I have having sex with other men. A few weeks ago, he met another woman while we were a couple weeks into working on us, and again, pushed for an open marriage. This time, lying about what they had said to each other and deleting texts. He pushed so hard that I gave in. Im speaking with a few different men right now but I simply lack desire to have casual sex or an outside relationship. I don’t need it, it does sound fun, but I’d prefer a healthy marriage first; a solid foundation before adding something on.
Now that I’ve agreed to it, he doesn’t want to and is afraid I’ll “find someone who treats me better.” That’s not what I’m looking for at all. I want to be in this marriage, raise our children who are coming up on their teen years. (Wish me luck!) But I’m at such a loss right now. I partially feel like throwing in the towel and walking away from the distrust and disrespect I feel, yet at the same time, I don’t want to walk away. He has a hard time with temptation, I get it. So if I agree to open the marriage, at least I’d know what he’s doing and being safe about it. I’ve seen him with other women, I was okay with it but the lies and disrespect have me questioning our entire marriage. Do you have any advice for me? Thank you in advance!

Firstly, I just want to say that I’m so sorry for what you’re going through right now. There’s a lot of stuff to unpack here. First and foremost, there’s an issue of turning cheating into an open relationship, the issue of preventing feelings, and then issue of opening and closing a relationship. All of these, I think, are big issues you’re facing.

Turning infidelity into non-monogamy

Some people end up in open relationships due to infidelity or think that an open relationship is a way to address infidelity. I think that cases of infidelity turning into a solid, mutually trusting open relationship is about as few and far between as winning the lottery. And it has a lot to do with why people are unfaithful.

I believe that people who have a history of infidelity may have been unfaithful because they aren’t good at sexual monogamy or it isn’t something that’s really something they want to do, but they’re sold into doing monogamy because it’s culturally encouraged and prescribed. Infidelity is actually incredibly common and how we look at it as a culture, especially when it comes to people read as women committing infidelity, is very biased. Men have been able to commit infidelity in many cases without half as much stigma or shame, so that’s something to consider.

But, there are some people who commit infidelity because they enjoy the forbidden aspect of it. And for that, non-monogamy won’t work. Because if the kick is about something that’s forbidden, it won’t work. And I believe that some people, desperate to save their relationship or their marriage, acquiesce to non-monogamy as a way to keep their partner. It was actually pretty well depicted on the television show House. I don’t generally advise this.

Your partner has already demonstrated to you that they will lie to you. They will violate your boundaries and they fully planned to violate your boundaries. Even if you have successfully had a triad previously, you witnessed your partner willing to violate those boundaries. Open relationships can function well only when individuals involved in them respect each other’s boundaries. At times, when you’re starting off in open relationships, some boundary violations do happen because sometimes we don’t know we have a boundary until it’s crossed. But this is starting from the standpoint of already violating your boundaries. That isn’t going to inspire security and happiness in you.

Additionally, your partner has also proven that he has so little regard for your relationship that he can and will dump you for other people, which explains his insecurity entirely. He’s projecting what he’s done to you onto you because if he’s more than willing to leave you for another person and threaten you with that, then he knows you can do it too. The things we fear aren’t always projections, but sometimes they can be. It’s okay to be afraid. I am particularly paranoid about STIs because I am a peer sexual health educator and I have a compromised immune system. It makes sense for me to be afraid. But at the end of the day, I have to trust my partner.

But if my partner demonstrates through action that they are unwilling to abide by our sexual health rules by breaking them, then I’m going to have a hard time trusting them. And my fear will increase. And trust will need to be rebuilt again. But if my partner were to continually disregard rules, continually prove that he doesn’t care about me, then at some point I need to say when. Even though we’re all adults in this scenario, we get taught about boundaries when we’re younger. Solid, consistent discipline is important for children because it teaches them that actions have consequences. If you don’t provide the same consistent consequences for something a child does that isn’t right, the child learns that they can get away with things.

Adults can behave in the exact same way. And this is how abusive people groom people. I’m not saying your partner is an abuser. But what I’m saying is that people who can see that they can budge people and manipulate people into a place where they want them will absolutely do that if it works. Right now, your partner has taken advantage of the fact that you’ve tried to make this relationship work by acquiescing to demands and even threatening to take away your relationship if you don’t. I don’t personally believe there is any way to have a healthy open relationship with someone who does this kind of thing with you. Maybe years down the line when he’s learned better… maybe. But I don’t think that this person sounds like someone who will be able to do a functional open relationship.

Regardless of whether people are ‘tempted’, they are responsible for their own actions. He cannot blame his actions on being ‘tempted’ in an attempt to avoid responsibility. I would say if he took full responsibility of his actions and was willing to make amends for his actions, it would be one thing. But he’s not concerned with, from the sound of it, the harm of what he’s done to you, but that you’ll leave him for someone who treats you better. In this case, when infidelity demonstrates that an individual is doing so because they’re selfish and when they refuse to take responsibility and be accountable for the actions they’ve done, it cannot be changed into a functional open relationship, mostly because it’s not exactly a functional closed relationship.

Rules to prevent feelings

One of the reasons that people are so anti-rules is because of this being an example of how people use rules. Individually the reasons for each of you wanting non-monogamy weren’t explored. You’re forcing each other to get the same thing out of non-monogamy and that just not possible. It’s okay if you want a relationship whereas he wants more sexual experiences so long as you can respect that about each other.

Right now you’re trying to control feelings, which you can’t do. Even if you start a relationship that is purely sexual, feelings can and do develop. If rules stopped any feelings from developing, then monogamous people would never leave their partners for other people — and it happens. Even when monogamous people aren’t technically allowed to flirt or romantically or sexually interact with other people, they still develop feelings for other people and leave their partners for other people. It happens. Rules will not change or prevent that.

If you do non-monogamy in the future, I would encourage you to not to try and create rules to stop feelings from happening. You’re legitimate if you want to have relationships and not just sexual encounters. And your partners are legitimate in wanting just sexual encounters. You shouldn’t try to force each other into a box either way.

You’re adding rules to your relationship because you don’t have that initial trust with your partner. He’s violated your boundaries so enacting rules appeases your anxieties, but they don’t solve the inherent problem of your anxieties about your boundaries being violated. Nor will they stop feelings from developing.

Some people find they can have sexual relationships without much emotional attachment or that their emotional attachment to the people that they have casual sex with is different to their bonds with partners they have domestic bonds with or romantic bonds with. Some people can have a strong emotional attachment to someone they have sex with but still agree to have a primary type of structure as you have and that works for them. Things can happen in all sorts of ways. But essentially, in no arrangement can you stop people’s feelings. So I wouldn’t advise trying.

Opening and closing a relationship

You’ve taken an approach that a lot of people do, especially when they’re new to non-monogamy. There are a lot of fears people have that seem more real in non-monogamy that get sort of activated when people go into non-monogamy. When we have a partner we’re domesticated with or in a primary type of structure with or with whom we’ve invested a lot of time, it’s understandable for us to be worried about losing that. We also live in a culture that constantly tells us that a relationship is only successful if at least one person doesn’t make it out alive.

Think about stories you see of old couples that have been together for ages and ages. That is the goal people have. You have a lot to lose and it’s scary. I believe a lot of people like the sexual exclusivity of monogamy because it’s a rule that addresses their anxiety of their partner wanting someone else. And as we can see with infidelity being so common, it obviously doesn’t stop people from wanting other people outside of their relationship. It’s a mirage and it doesn’t change anything about the risk of a partner straying.

I think that when people start in non-monogamy, they replace the sexual exclusivity rule that addressed this fear by having an option where they can shut their relationship if things get scary. For them, it’s a fail safe so that they can keep what they’re afraid of losing. And in some ways, closing a relationship can force everything into a halt and force someone who is ignoring you to focus on you again. And sometimes, that can work… but opening and closing a relationship is less like opening and closing a door and more like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube after it’s been pushed out.

Even when you ‘close’ an open relationship, you aren’t changing anything. You’re putting on an emergency brake way past a point of no return. And in fact, pulling the break can actually sometimes do more harm than good. Consider if you were dating someone and all of a sudden they had to dump you because their partner wasn’t okay with it. It hurts. It damages relationships. You may be ‘saving’ yours, maybe, but you’re sacrificing other relationships in the process. And that causes resentment.

A lot of polyamory advice talks about the ‘veto’ as if only someone who is truly the devil uses it. But I have seen people use a veto not because they were trying to hurt anyone but because they were trying to save themselves from being hurt. Their partner was being neglectful and they thought that vetoing the cause of the neglect or reversing would fix it. Ultimately, I don’t think this actually addresses the issue. Your partner may be able to re-focus back on you, but they still never learn to adequately meet your needs and meet their own in a balance. In the future, I would advise against a situation where you can close your relationship when the going gets tough and encourage you to brave it out, stick with it, and trust that your partner loves you… of course, provided your partner has given you reason to believe they respect both you and your boundaries.

Glaring red flags

Now that I’m done discussing these issues, I want to address what I see here because it really concerns me. The fact of the matter is, he tried to force you into a relationship that you didn’t want, threatening to leave you if you didn’t agree. Ask yourself what kind of person is happy and fine with you being unhappy so long as they are happy. Ask yourself if a decent parent is willing to sacrifice their partner’s happiness for their own. You’re being forced into situations you don’t want to be in and it’s not okay.

There is a difference between saying, ‘I do not want to be in this kind of relationship if given a choice and I would prefer to end our relationship and pursue that which makes me happy’ and ‘Either you do a triad or I’m leaving’. Now, I’m not saying he said the latter word for word. But what I am saying is that he put his wants on the table and when you didn’t like those and didn’t agree with them, he essentially brought out a threat.

He’s afraid you will leave him for someone who treats you better because he knows how poorly he’s been treating you. He repeatedly lies to you, breaks rules (which is, by most people’s definitions, cheating), and forces you into situations that suit him without any concern of how it affects you. You say that agreeing to an open marriage means you can trust he’s doing things safely, but can you? He’s already made it potently clear to you that he doesn’t care what he has to do to get what he wants.

Personally, this is not a situation I can or would tolerate, but I am not you. If you are desperate to save this marriage or at least give it one last chance, I would say that you find an open relationships positive marriage therapist and consider couples counselling and get individual counselling for yourself. I would say that you must, must, MUST decide upon some boundaries for yourself and consequences for people who disregard those boundaries. Decide what you are actually comfortable with, not what you are just willing to do to save this marriage. Give him a fixed period to demonstrate that he has changed and make him realise he is on very thin ice.

Make serious plans to relocate and change your life regardless. Don’t be caught trying to enforce your own boundary without a hope in the world because you’re high and dry. Reach out to family and/or friends or even women’s shelters if you need them. Having your parents split isn’t the best thing to experience as a kid, but it’s definitely not the worst. And coming from someone who’s parents stayed together ‘for the children’, I can tell you that sometimes divorce and separation, while it may look like failure, is definitely the better option.

I have little doubt your spouse is going to change. Whether he’s manipulating you intentionally or not… it seems as though he is capable of pushing you to the point of changing your boundaries. Be more firm with them and embrace them. Solid and clear boundaries will serve you well.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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