Episode 20: Unethical Non-Monogamy

Your marriage doesn’t have passion but a new friendship does. How do make what’s been unethical ethical?

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help. Listen below. You can also find the podcast on Spotify, Apple, and other providers. Or, conversely, use our RSS feed.


Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript


This is a bit of a long email, I hope you can read it without too much judgement. Thank you in advance.

I'm interested in entering a consensual, non-monogamous relationship with my husband. We are both 32. We met in college, and we've been together for ten years--the last two as a married couple. For the most part we are fairly traditional. The exception is that we've spent the entire relationship (including marriage) at least 4 hours apart.

I'd like to stress that I am 90% happy with our relationship. We have the same longterm goals, values, and interests. We both love what we do (thats why we live so far apart). Frankly I think distance has been good: weekends are always spent together, our communication is top notch because we make it a point to talk about our feelings.

What's the 10% I'm not happy about? There's zero passion between us. It's never been great, but it's gotten worse over the last 3 years. I literally consider sexual relations as a duty -- not a joy. It's affecting our relationship badly. It used to be that I was excited to see him (but not physically be with him) now...I'm a little indifferent. He's a great guy, and I don't want to lose him.

In the past year, I've become very close with another man. Let's call him "X". X and I have amazing physical chemistry--there's passion and fun in a way I've never experienced. He's professed love for me many times without any sort of prompting on my end. Emotionally we're very attached. He and I have very much been in a relationship this whole time. I know this is wrong by most standards. It doesn't feel wrong.

The thought of either of them having sexual relations with someone else frankly doesn't bother me. In fact, I've often encouraged X's (safe) enjoyment.

With this in mind, I'm interested in openly exploring non-monogamy with my husband. I would never tell him I had been unfaithful, that kind of honesty would destroy him, but maybe we should explore it? How do I bring up this in conversation? He's fairly traditional, but always been open to new ideas. I think it'd be good for him too. I think my lack of sexual enjoyment has hurt his ego and a partner who enjoys him would be great. Don’t berate me too much about X.


So, okay here's the thing. This may not feel wrong to you, but it is wrong and I think you know that. Polyamory can sometimes begin with cheating. It doesn't always. Like very very rarely from what I’ve seen and how much I've given advice on it, very, very really does it ever occur that both people in a couple situation decide at the same time that they are interested in non-monogamy. Usually it's one person's idea to bring up or something like this happens and so it's not completely unusual.

I don't think it's impossible necessarily to go from being dishonest to being in an open relationship however what you have right now is not what you think it is. So you're saying that everything's great with your relationship. You have great communication but you don’t. You don't have good communication because you have this massive secret and you know that it is something that you need to keep from your partner. You know you can’t honestly tell your partner so that's not great communication and I really feel like I think polyamory and open relationships or ethical non-monogamy, whatever you want to call it… I think it can become a, you know… I think it can come from cheating but I think honesty has to be a big part of that.

You want a consensual non-monogamous relationship but right now you have an un-consensual non-monogamous relationship and your husband doesn't know about that and the second that you know… Basically the only way for… Even if you bring this up, even if it works out the way that you envision it working out and you get to date X and you get to date your husband at the same time, you're going to have to maintain this lie. You and X are going to have to maintain this lie to your husband in perpetuity. And it's one thing to like… you know, sometimes I do think people get, you know, they kind of meet someone. They get kind of infatuated and feelings develop and they try and kinda deny it to themselves and they end up flirting a lot and then they’re like, “Oh no. When is this cheating? I don't know. I'm confused.” and yada yada.

And eventually they realise that they've made a mistake and then they go “Shit. I’ve cheated. Now what do I do?” And then they’re honest but that situation… For that to happen in the past and for you to say, “Ok. I’ve cheated. I've been emotionally clearly intimate with this person and I've been dishonest with you about it”. You know, that's ok for you to have done that and then realise your mistake, admit your mistake, be honest with your partner and say, “I really want to pursue non-monogamy. I've been dishonest but I'd like to work on repairing our trust”. However if you decide, “Ok. I'm not going to tell him the truth because that kind of honesty would destroy him,” as you said, then you will never have a consensual non-monogamous relationship.

Because you have been lying this entire time and you will have to continue to lie. Even if you… he now knows about X, you will continuously have to lie and I really really don't think that that's going to work. Like it's very very obvious, you know, because this happens all the time. Not with people who consensually and knowingly cheat but it happens were somebody kind of develops and attraction to somebody else and that is sort of spearheading their interest in non-monogamy. And then they approach their partner about it and then it's sort of like that, you know, baking and cooking shows where they’re like “This is the recipe. By the way, here's one I made earlier”. They just kinda pull out this— oh! Just so happens that there's this person I'm interested in. Like… you can't pretend that kind of thing is just happenstance.

And even if you decide to like maybe lay it low or something for like a couple of… like a month or so to give some space then you're still lying to your husband about it. You're still creating a false narrative and you’re going to have to like… forever. Like let's say you end up with X and with your husband and those two relationships are great for you and you’re in these relationships for the rest of your life. You're going have to lie for the rest of your life until like I guess maybe you're like 70 or something and you finally decide that it's ok to tell him.

I mean if you think that like… you know, you have to understand from his perspective. Like, you have a good relationship. You're very communicative with each other and he's already, you know, you already said that your lack of sexual enjoyment is hurting his ego so how much more is this going to really gut punch him? The fact that not only, you know, is his ego bruised from how difficult your relationship has been but that you've lied to him this entire time? And he's going to have a lot of feelings about that. And it's going to be very very obvious like… I just don't think you’re realistically going to be able to pull it off by not telling him. It's going to come out.

The truth is going to come out eventually and when it does come out it's going to be 10 times as worse than if you would have just told him the truth. So point blank, I'm saying if what you want is a consensual non-monogamous relationship, you don't have that now and you can't ask for that if you're not willing to be honest. And I think that you know that it's not right, what you're doing because you're telling me not to berate you for it.

And another thing that you really need to think about is that X must know that you have a partner unless you're lying to X as well and if he knows that you have a partner that means that X is fine professing his love for you knowing that you're with someone else. And I mean that's the thing… like… I can understand that people get into situations especially when you have a long distance relationship. Your partner is 4 hours away. You don't see them every day. That can be hard. Most people— a lot of people would never agree to that kind of relationship in the first place and then you meet someone. You have a really good connection and like… I do get how especially if you're out, if you've had some drinks, like one thing leads to another I can totally understand how that can happen.

But that's very very different, in terms of that accidentally happening, that's very very different from someone obviously being very emotionally intense with you, knowing that you have a partner and being absolutely fine with declaring their love for you. Like that to me is…  that is a red flag you know. If someone is… I'm not saying that this is always the case because, you know there's millions of people on the planet and everyone is different but if someone is fine with breaking the rules and boundaries of someone else with you then theoretically they are fine with breaking your rules and boundaries.

So you're wanting to start these new relationships but everything is not built on any foundation of trust or honesty. Even the relationship that you have with X, while you may really love it because it has all the spark and passion that your current relationship lacks, it's still based on dishonesty and X is fine with that. And I think that's something that you really need to think about. Like are you… cause they say like… I'm not sure what the exact quote is but something like “Cheaters Cheat” or “Cheaters always cheat”. And I don't think it's necessarily true. I think it really depends on the situation. I think sometimes people get swept away and that's understandable but I do think it's worth thinking about. If someone is willing to be dishonest and lie to someone in front of you, with you, than it does put into question what they're willing to do with you not there.

That all said, you could hear what I’ve said and say, “Ok. How about I just be honest with my husband? I tell them about what happened with X. We try to start from ground zero, rebuild our trust. Is that a good idea?” I'm really really wondering why it is you’re holding on to this relationship. Like I get that you have a good relationship, maybe not a romantic or sexual relationship, but that you have kind of this established base together. You have some good communication. You enjoy spending time together but that isn't enough reason to… You know, your percentages where you’re like I'm 90% happy with it but 10% I'm not. You know it doesn't really matter if you're happy with most of it, if that 10% is like really, really crucial to being happy in your whole life.

Like you can be 99.9% compatible with someone. You could meet someone who is everything that you've ever dreamed of but one issue that is critically important that cannot be compromised on like… Let's say you meet someone who is absolutely perfect but you do not want to have kids and they do. There's no compromising that really like… I mean, I can't really think of a situation… like you can wait. There's a…  maybe but you really shouldn't have a kid if you don't want to have a kid and people who do want to have children… if they were you know, stuck in a relationship where they couldn't would eventually end up feeling resentment. There's a kind of, for certain people depending on how the body works, there's a time clock of availability of when they can have a kid so it's one of those things like you… everything else could be absolutely perfect but that one detail changes everything.

So yeah, you have the same long-term goals, values, and interests. You both love what you do and you spend some nice time together. You sound like good friends. You don't have to be in a romantic relationship with each other and I think that you're kind of a bit trapped in what's called a sunken cost fallacy which means that like… you've already put so much into this that you think you have to keep going with it but you really don't have to keep going with it.

I know you've been together for 10 years and maybe that's like partly is like… your fear because you've always had this base with this person so you’re really afraid to give it up but I don't think-- if it's not actually working for you that it is worth keeping. Like why would you try to salvage this especially when you know you can find someone else who also has the same long-term goals? I mean realistically right now if you want non-monogamy like, even if you were to break up with your husband and go with X and you still want a non monogamy, you wouldn't share the same long-term goals you know. You don't really have the same values. You don't actually do because you, in your relationship, want some passion which is understandable. And you say it's gotten worse. You say that you know I mean… you could go to couples counselling but I just feel like, you know, you're in a situation. You live 4 hours apart and you’re just forcing this relationship to stay and I don't think that you need to. Especially if you're monogamous and especially if you know…

You say you want him to have a partner who enjoys him. Let him have that. Let him go. Let yourself go. Try it with X. Maybe it won't work with X. Who knows? But there's no reason to keep… just because you have had this history doesn't mean that you need to keep it. And it's better for— It’s far far better for you to part ways amicably, to go, “Ok. You know we both like each other. We’re both friends. We both have a good rapport but clearly this romantic relationship isn't working out. We clearly both want a relationship where we do feel attracted to one another and we don't at this point”. Sometimes even if people have a history of having that kind of good attraction, it does go away.

One thing I would also add, just as a caveat, is that people do tend to find, you know, when you have a new relationship that’s sparkly brand new and you have a lot of passion, especially like if you— if everything is brand new, there is a lot of what's called “new relationship energy” that goes along with that. Like everything is new and sparkly and shiny and exciting and then especially like, usually it’s when people move in together to be honest, things become a little bit humdrum and it's not necessarily that that’s a bad thing and I do think sometimes people get this false expectation. Like new relationship energy gets them really excited and that's what they want relationships to always be and it usually isn't like that.

Not necessarily because there's something wrong with moving in together or forming into a monogamous relationship where you don't see other people. A lot of people would use that as an example of why humans aren’t naturally monogamous or whatever. I just think that sometimes you know… it's sort of similar to like any relationship in your life or you even like getting a new phone or new computer. It doesn't even have to be a relationship. Like when you get a new phone you’re like “oh wow!” and eventually you'll get used to having it there. And it has a different type of relationship in your life. I really shouldn't compare people to things.

But I think it’s the same like with a new friend. When you meet a new friend. You become best friends and you know eventually like you have a different kind of relationship. As a relationship matures, it's a different kind of relationship and some people do just tend to find that passion dies in their relationship and I kind of feel like sometimes as they say “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and sometimes being apart can actually help people because then they get excited when they see each other again.

But in your case, if you're not even excited now like… if you’re 4 hours apart and you're not even that excited when you see him again like what's your overall game plan? You're going to move in together? You're gonna get married? You’re going to have kids? I mean I don’t know what your long-term goals are but I just feel like you’re just forcing this relationship to stay and you don't really have any good reason for it other than the fact that you've been together for 10 years and you spent two as a married couple. And you know you think… because there’s so many things for you to list as positives, you don't get… you’re not weighing things out by how much they mean to you and how much of an impact it has terms of what you actually want out of relationship.

You know you may have the same long-term goals and values in life and you both may love your jobs but that doesn't mean that you're inherently destined to be together in a romantic relationship or that a romantic relationship even works for you. So I think that you need to like really think about why it is that you are so intent on keeping this when there's no passion in it. Even though you're emotionally very attached to each other or at least you know you're actually emotionally attached to X but like you seem to have this really strong bond with your husband and that's cool, but if there isn't any passion and that's what you want then it's not worth just trying to hold on tight to this relationship.

It’s like I said, it's far far better for you to split on amicable terms, you know, and you don't necessarily have to, if you decide to split, you don't necessarily have to confess that you've kind of been— I assume that you haven't done anything physical with X because you just said that you kind of had this emotional relationship. I mean you say you've been very much in a relationship this whole time. I don't know what that means. If you've actually physically done things with him in which case, that’s an STI risk and I do think it's fair to tell your husband that, even if you are splitting up, because it's just you know… he should know to get tested or you should— like I just think it's fair to disclose in that regard.

But if you haven't and you’v just kind of been a little bit emotionally tied to this guy and you’ve kind of not said you're officially in a relationship but you've basically been in a relationship then you could technically decide to break it off with your husband without having to tell him about X. I wouldn’t. I just think honesty is the best policy in most cases because I just think that whenever you have a lie this big, it is inevitably going to come back and bite you in the ass. So you should just be honest about it, especially like if you're breaking up.

I mean yeah, it'll hurt. Like it hurts to be cheated on but it's not in like… I know you say it will destroy him but there are things that are going to happen in life that are going to be shit and he is responsible. I'm pretty sure he can find a therapist and I’m pretty sure he can deal with his own emotions. That's not like a reason to hide the truth from him just because you don't think he can handle it. Like you ultimately… You aren't really the arbiter of what he can and can't handle. He's a grown ass adult. He's adult enough to be in a relationship so that kind of is part of it. Do you know I'm saying?

So yeah, overall I think that it's not a good idea. If you what you want is a consensual non-monogamous relationship, you're never going to have that if you were unwilling to tell your husband that you've been unfaithful. You’re never going to have a consensual non-monogamous relationship because even if you were to introduce it to him… Even if it was the ideal situation, you introduced it to him and he was like, “Actually yeah I’ve always been interested in it. Let's do it.” Great, but you're going to have to continuously be dishonest about X. You're never going to tell them the truth so he's consenting to something, consenting to you dating, consenting to being in this non-monogamous relationship with you from that point.

He isn't consenting from the point that *you* decided to be non-monogamous basically. So you're never going to have a consensual non-monogamous relationship with your husband if you refuse to be honest about what you've done. And again I stress like… as part of the wrap up, there is no point dragging this out if you're at a base level incompatible. Like you sound like great friends. Like he sounds like a great friend for you to have. And you can be friends. You can chat with each other. You can talk with each other. You know you can meet up when times call for it but you don't have to be in a romantic relationship.

I know it’s hard sometimes especially when you’ve been together with someone for so long and it just feels like how are you ever going to live without one another? And it's a very very scary thing especially if like… So if you've been together for 10 years and you’re 32, that means you've been together since you were about 22, which I don’t know if you went to uni but like theoretically like you're almost high school sweethearts. So I don't know how much you dated before you were in kind of this monogamous relationship but if you've gone for such a long time without actually dating and getting out there it can seem really scary but that's not a reason to just stay in a relationship.

And it's also not fair to him. Waiting until… playing this sort of weird chicken— relationship chicken and waiting until someone calls it quits like… Don't do that. Both of you like… you're not… you know you have time to figure out what it is… to find partners who are at least in the same city. Like there's really no reason to just keep this going. I really don't like that cause I don't like it when my advice like “break up” because I do feel like that's like… I don't know if it's like it's the typical advice like “just break up. just break up.” but like in this situation, especially if you are never going to tell him the truth.

It's just… You might think that you are going to be able to keep it under wraps. I mean let's hope you don’t. Cause you’re also relying on X to basically keep his trap shut for the rest of however it is that you are together you know. If you have a bad breakup with X and things don't work out… all that passion turns to anger and X decides to tell your partner. You don't like… You're assuming that you can lie and I just don't think… like he… Your husband would  have to be extremely naive person to not realise that something is going on. I mean, granted he is 4 hours away so there might be a lot he doesn't see but I just don't think that you're going to be able to keep that lie and there is no reason to.

I really hate that that’s kind of my advice in a this certain circumstance but I do really feel like ultimately you have a good overall relationship but you're not clearly romantically compatible and it's sometimes like… Don't try to shove it and make it work and you know separate amicably. As amicable as possible. Like breakups always suck but separate in the nicest way that you can and that's so much better especially if you want to be friends in the long run. Like, it's so much better to split up amicably and so much easier for people to theoretically heal from an amicable split than just trying to force your husband into being non-monogamous so that you can continue seeing the person you've cheated on him with.

That's not ethical non-monogamy. That's just you wanting to see the person that— you wanting to have permission to cheat but without having permission because you’re still not going to be honest with your husband about it so… it's just best to to end it unfortunately so yeah I hope that helps.

I'm not berating you for cheating. I just think that you know, honesty is the best policy and there is a reason for that and it might be worth you thinking about in the future because I don't even necessarily know if you're actually non-monogamous you know. It's not as if you're interested in you know… You say that you'd be fine with your husband or X sleeping with other people but that’s easy to say from the position that you're in right now. A lot of people before… A lot of people who are super gung-ho about polyamory think “Oh this would be great!” like… people who are super gung-ho about polyamory, people whose idea it was to become polyamorous constantly find themselves in a situation where, as soon as a partner starts seeing other people, they get scared as hell and it becomes a situation that they were not prepared for. So you really aren’t going to be able to tell and I don't know as that you're actually interested in it so… yeah. I'm going to end it here cause I feel like I'm bit repeating myself. But I hope that helps honestly and good luck.

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