Episode 131: Cheating Introduction

Can you move from cheating to a “successful” polyamorous relationship and what needs to happen?

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Episode 131

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Podcast transcript

I'm (female, cis, early 30s) coming up on 9 years together with my partner (male, cis, mid 30s). We have what I think is a really strong relationship. It's not perfect, but in general we have good communication skills, practice being present with each other and are fairly adaptable to what life throws at us. We have been through a lot of trauma together too (losing important family members, terminated pregnancy) and supported each other through unbearable pain. I love him, and want to spend my life with him. He loves me, and wants to spend his life with me.

We are finally getting married and having a wedding this year. He is more excited than I am about it but I've been working on showing up and letting go to do this with him. It's not that I don't want it, but I am less excited about the financial cost, whereas he is excited to spend for this special moment. I mention this because I think it plays a role in how we will proceed.

Recently I've developed a friendship with a co-worker that I've been told might be classified as emotional cheating. After reading about that term I think I agree, and I'm sick about it. This co-worker and I discussed our spiritual and emotional connection in private, he has crossed boundaries with touching (long hugs, hand holding) which I have since asked him not to initiate - even though it felt so good. We have also talked about how great it would be if I had the freedom to be with him, even in non-sexual ways, eg just cooking dinner with him and his kids or holding hands or going on hikes.

But because I know about this deep connection we share, and now I've hid it from my partner, it feels dirty and wrong and I've been trying my best to distance myself from my co-worker, even though it's hurting my heart to do so, and I have not been 100% at it. I have caught myself thinking about him quite a bit. NRE, I guess it's called. The shiny new thing that I KNOW goes away and becomes something else, always. But it's more than that. We feel like we knew each other in another life. We understand each other's hearts in a deep way that I have felt with other platonic friends before, except we have other layers too.

I have since been torn up about all of this, filled with crushing guilt, and even worse am watching myself not being present enough for my partner. It has dredged up many big questions that I am struggling with. One of the biggest issues I've realized is that we have never "defined" our relationship as monogamous --- like many other straight people I know we simply accepted, got on the escalator without even knowing or thinking twice about it.

Monogamy was never even a vague question. Now, this event with my co-worker has brought it to the surface. I wish I could have thought of these questions before, without this horribly dirty and hurtful prompt. Q's like, do I even want a monogamous relationship? If I want a non-monogamous relationship, what would it look like? Or are all of my questions actually driven by a desire to "be with" (sexually, romantically and emotionally) my co-worker, likely driven by my upcoming weddings, and I'm not really poly(am), I'm just weak-minded, and I need to do a lot of personal work to let this go and never let it happen again? (The last one is what I hear from the internet, and what I feel like the world is telling me, but it doesn't feel right. I can't tell if it's the "drug" of this co-worker or if I may actually need to dig deeper.)

I have been crushed by all of this for a couple of months now. I've been told by friends I should leave my job (which I love) to remove the potential for this co-worker to mess up my life. I've seriously considered it and even sent in some applications. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like that won't fix the deeper problems. Yes it is driven by this person, but the questions are now bigger than just him. If he suddenly disappeared, the pressure of the questions lessens quite a bit - but they don't go away.

After reading and deliberating I decided to gently broach the topic of ethical non-monogamy with my partner. I did a lot of prep for this. Abstract, kind, gentle, inquisitive, light-hearted, not about this co-worker - to see if my partner would have any interest in potentially exploring this with me.

Quite the opposite. He freaked out, got very defensive. He said things like "If I ever slept with anyone else I'd be worried I'd fall in love with them", and "I can't stop imagining you with some other guy now and it's making me sick." We spent the night crying and upset. I tried to maintain calm, but his inability to even have a respectful conversation about this topic shocked and confused and hurt me, deeply. We have since mended some of those wounds, but not entirely.

I'm left in a pickle. I know I need to deal with how unethically I have handled this situation with my co-worker, and heal the fact that I withheld this from my partner, before we can move forward. At the same time, I'm glad I did withhold it, based on his reaction to the very abstract conversation I tried to have about non-monogamy.

If I had come to him early on and said "help, I am having weird feelings, can we talk about it?" it seems I could have wounded our relationship beyond repair. I don't understand his reaction to these things...I'm very open to discussing ANYthing with him, anything in the world, and I thought he would he with me too, but I was wrong. Now I've hurt him, and myself too, in this whole big mess.

Bottom line is that I am set to marry this person - who I love, so deeply, so much, and want to make a life with - who is clearly monogamous. Now, suddenly, I'm not sure I am - or at least am interested in talking through the many potential forms of our relationship throughout this long life together- and he is not willing to discuss / likely is unwilling to engage in any non-monogamous explorations with me.

I want to start couples therapy. I'm trying (the financial burden is real). It's a slow process. And I'm so worried about what it could do to our relationship to open up this can of worms. But I'm more afraid of what happens later if we don't. What if I condemn myself to a life that I can't be fully happy in? (Or is that the "love drug" talking again?) I'm so suddenly worried that I'm committing to something (marriage) that I will constantly be testing the limits of, without being today aware of it, or because that's where my heart will lead me.

Are there any relationships you've seen go through something similar and come out okay? Do you have any advice for how I can heal the wounds I've caused already, and also set the stage for our relationship to be successful in the long term?

I wish we could all just love each other and it could be easy, but of course, it's not. I'm willing to put in the work to heal my horrible mistakes, rebuild my relationship, and explore non-monogamy, but I'm not sure my other person can do that with me, and I'm so afraid.


I would say that unfortunately, I don't see the prognosis of this situation being good because on a very basic level, if he feels this way, in general about non-monogamy, then he probably is going to be extremely hurt by the fact that you have kind of emotionally cheated and kind of physically cheated in a way.

Even though you haven't slept with this person, this co-worker that you have, there has been some physical touching. It's kind of obvious based on how you feel about it that it's cheating and I think it's kind of really unfair for you to say, “Well, we never defined our relationship” because the cultural default is monogamy.

And that is what most people expect and what most people go into relationships thinking there will be and I think it's a little bit dishonest and a little bit unfair to him. And I hope that that's not something that you've brought into conversations because I think that that will make things even worse.

Is this idea of like “well, we never defined our relationship”. You culturally, never defined it as anything else. And there is an expectation. And yes, I do think that it's important for people to specify what cheating is because I do think that in monogamy you get sort of — especially with you know the digital age, we get caught in these discussions about whether or not liking someone else's picture is cheating or stuff like that.

But in this case, I don't feel like that's the issue. I definitely feel like it's very clear from the situation that there has been some cheating going on. And ultimately, this comes down to your partner really because you have been the one to cross the boundaries and you have been the one that's made the error here.

You didn't intend for that to happen. And this kind of opened up a lot of things that you weren't necessarily prepared for and you tried to do something — which I don't think it was wrong to like broach the topic of non-monogamy but understand that even if your partner had been super keen on trying non-monogamy, the fact that you are beginning this from the standpoint of betrayal is not very great to begin with.

And the fact that he's also not keen on non-monogamy, I think, doesn't spell out the best things for this going on in the future. Because you may be — regardless of what you've been through and regardless of how long you've been together — on a base level incompatible.

Do I see situations where people begin from cheating and go into a “successful polyamorous relationship” — whatever you want to define success as? Yes, I do see that because a lot of people are in similar situations to you where they don't know that they are kind of more inherently situated toward polyamory, or they're interested in trying it and don't really figure that out until a situation presents itself.

Or they end up in a situation where they end up cheating on their partner however, I do think that even if you wanted to continue a monogamous relationship with him, there is a lot of issues that need to be addressed. Matthias Barker, I think that's how you say his name — Matthias. He has this really amazing analogy for cheating which is like, you know, you have a bowl of oatmeal and you put hot sauce in it.

And you can't really take the hot sauce out and you may have to like add more oatmeal to it and eventually you add more oatmeal to it — He said it way better than I'm portraying it but the idea is that like yes, you're frustrated. Yes, you're mad but the hot sauce is still there and eventually like the level of hot sauce won't be so noticeable if you keep adding oatmeal to it.

But some people may just not want to eat it at all and they may not want to add any more oatmeal to it and they may just be done. And ultimately it comes down to your partner is he willing to continue a relationship with you monogamously? Let alone non-monogamy. I think it's kind of optimistic AF for you to think that you're going to be able to explore non-monogamy with your current partner and then also have your co-worker.

And the other thing that I think that you really need to think about is I assume that your co-worker knows that you are with somebody else. So your co-worker is fine with also being involved in a betrayal. And it's not that I think “you find them how you get them” or any of those kinds of old stereotypes where it's like, “once a cheater, always a cheater” or any of that kind of thing. I don't think that that's necessarily true.

But I think there is something to be said about the ethics of an individual who is fine with participating in a betrayal and whether or not that spells a good thing going forward. Especially if he has children and he has like an established relationship with someone else. I assume he's with someone else.

Maybe not. But he has people that he is responsible for. And I don't know if you've met his children. If you've met his children, I think that that is a little bit much given the situation. I don't know. But I just feel like sometimes I remind people of situations — like some people feel more comfortable cheating than they do being non-monogamous.

I don't know what kind of discussions you've had with this co-worker and whether or not this co-worker’s interested in non-monogamy but there are many cases where people are 100% fine with cheating with someone but are not fine with a non-monogamy. So I don't think that this situation where everyone gets along and everyone's happy is realistic.

And I think that there's a lot of healing that needs to happen. And the first thing that needs to happen is you need to be honest with your partner. I don't know — you need to pause this marriage especially if there's a lot of financial stuff going in that is do not go forward. In my opinion, I do not think that I would go forward with the situation and I think that I would immediately tell my partner what's happened with the co-worker as painful as it's going to be.

It's not fair, in my opinion, for him to not know. And I understand also your feeling of like, “Hey, like I feel like I should be able to share anything with my partner”. Yeah, you can but understand that sharing with your partner that you want to sleep with someone else … yes, we do share a lot with our romantic partners, but we also have inner private lives that don't always need to be disclosed to partners.

And sharing with your partner that you have a fundamental different interest in another way of living that is going to be not only completely new to them, but also your partner has been raised in a monogamous centric society and may take to heart the idea that if your partner really loves you and is really interested in you, then they don't really have eyes for other people.

And as much as I think that that idea should be critiqued because it doesn't fit everyone, there are some people who genuinely do feel that way. There are some people who are genuinely monogamous in that they only have eyes for one person and they may be genuinely and understandably hurt by the idea that their partner finds someone else attractive enough for them to want to change the foundational structure of their relationship. And he's valid to feel that way.

And yeah, you can share everything that you want with your partner but that has to be within reason. If you were to say to your partner, “I think that that moustache that you've grown is really ugly, and I really hate it, and it makes me want to vomit”. You would hurt your partner to say that. It may be the truth.

There are ways to say things and you know what, if your partner really liked the moustache and it's your partner's face, then maybe you keep it to yourself. It's not that we have to share every single aspect of our inner world with our partner, and I wouldn't have necessarily encouraged you to come forward with feelings about a co-worker. I think if I could turn back time on the situation, I would have advised you to not do anything with the co-worker and to pull back a little bit earlier when you noticed things were escalating.

Because that is the issue, more so than necessarily having feelings and you know, there may be a painful growth aspect of that, that your partner has to go through. I do think that sometimes we're a little bit unrealistic in relationships in monogamy where we're like “You should never find anyone else attractive”. I think that's unrealistic for the vast majority of people.

I do think the vast majority of people will find their partner attractive even if they're monogamous and also find other people attractive. That's normal. However, that doesn't make it any less painful for people who maybe don't feel that way sometimes or who maybe find themselves attracted other people but don't feel it as strongly as they feel the love that they have for their partner.

And I think it's valid for him to feel that way. And you're not invalid for not feeling that way. It's just two different ways of thinking. So yeah, to sum up, I don't have the best prognosis for the situation not only because your partner had such a negative reaction to the concept of non-monogamy, but also because I don't even know if this relationship is going to survive within monogamy.

Because you've cheated and I think you need to be honest about what you've done. Other people may have different opinions about that. Other people may say like, “Quit your job”. ou've said that you've got advice about like quitting your job and just kind of hiding it. I couldn't sleep at night with that. That's not something I would feel comfortable doing.

I don't think that I would want as well if I were your partner. I don't think I would want to be lied to. I think I wouldn't want to know especially if I was getting married. And especially if I was spending a lot of money on the wedding. I think I would rather know but it's difficult. It's a personal situation. Some people would rather never know.

I am just saying that if I were in this situation, I would be honest, and I would come forward and say that, especially if you feel like there's a risk that you are going to regret marrying 100%. So, I would at the very least as well explore more of the topic of non-monogamy or at least be honest about the fact that you're not sure if you want to be monogamous.

At least introduce that into the situation. You don't have to go nuclear. You don't have to be like, “Hey, guess what? I cheated! Da da!” You can especially with couples counselling and therapy you can first suggest that you postpone the wedding or put a pause on that and then say, “Look, we had this talk about non-monogamy. I brought it up because I don't know if I want to be monogamous”. And at least then you have that.

And maybe if you say that, he may go “Well I definitely for sure want to be monogamous”. So that's the end and then you don't have to go forward necessarily with disclosing that you've cheated if that's not something that you feel comfortable doing. I think I would ethically if it were me in this situation.

I think I would feel comfortable with you know introducing that, “Hey, I don't know if I want to be monogamous” and then if the relationship ended then I don't — you know, I would feel comfortable walking away from that situation without necessarily disclosing that I've made a mistake especially since it wasn't physical cheating.

So he doesn't have any physical kind of STI risks or stuff. That's my level of boundary of comfort in that situation. But your own ethics are yours to manage. But yeah, I don't necessarily have the best prognosis for this because not only did he have a negative reaction to non-monogamy, but you're also beginning the situation from a betrayal.

And you're also involving someone who knows that you're betraying someone and who may be betraying someone else if they are married and that's not always the best situation to start from. And yes, there are relationships that (don’t) start in polyamory and end up being stable and functioning as polyamorous relationships after cheating that does happen but ultimately it comes down to whether or not your partner wants to continue with you and wants to continue any kind of relationship with you.

So yeah, I think that — be honest about the fact that you don't know if you want to be monogamous first and foremost, really consider the ethics of the situation and see where it goes and see where your partner is. See what your partner is willing to do. Because ultimately, I think this isn't just about you and the perfect way of introducing the situation or the perfect way of solving this. That ultimately comes down to whether or not you're at a base level compatible.

And if he wants to be monogamous and you don't, then you're at a base level incompatible. The same thing if you wanted to have children and he didn't it wouldn't matter how much you've been through, or anything like that you would be on a base level and compatible unfortunately. So yeah.

I hope this helps and good luck.

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