Here is my situation. I’ve been with my partner for four months, we started our relationship as another one of mine was ending. I definitely jumped in full force to the relationship, partly because of my heartbreak over the previous one. It turned out to work out really well, however, as I feel so cared for and valued by my partner. At the time we started dating, they were casually dating a couple of people, and I was still dating a person casually (outside of my more serious relationship that was ending).
My partner and I discussed what would be cheating in our relationship: breaking agreements, lying, not updating relationship statuses with someone. Not long after this discussion, my partner broke an agreement by sleeping with a mutual friend while intoxicated. We had previously spoken (as in very very recently) about not having anything happen with that person more then a fun drunken party make out, as that would be really messy within the friend group and too much to navigate.
My partner assured me that they do not have romantic feelings towards this person, but that they are just friends, however I know the person has feelings for my partner. Before the hookup, I had an understanding that they were just friends but now I find myself not fully trusting that that’s been always the case (on my partners side). My partner is adamant that that is their feeling towards that person despite the person being attractive.
Anyway, my question is: how do you rebuild trust when an agreement has been broken? If there was never an agreement I still would have been uncomfortable as this is a mutual friend in our circle, however I don’t think I would have felt betrayed. Since the cheating my partner has done mostly a good job of taking ownership, setting boundaries with the person, and explaining to me what happened (which I accept and have understanding for). All this aside, how do I work through my feelings of betrayal? Are their tools for people for when cheating happens and you’re not monogamous?
Sometimes we have to ask ourselves if the rules we’ve put in place really serve us. ‘Cheating’ can be defined in all sorts of different ways. It’s not up to me to tell you how to define ‘cheating’ for you, but I can say that for me, the biggest part — and really the only part — of what makes something cheating is deception and lying or aiding someone else in their deception and lying knowingly.
You’ve chosen to define cheating among each other as ‘breaking agreements’, not just lying, as well as ‘not updating relationship statuses with someone’ (which also seems like lying to me). My problem with this is that one can break an agreement in a variety of circumstances without necessarily participating in an willing deception and this is such a case. No doubt, an agreement you made was broken, but it doesn’t seem like your partner did it with their full sober mind nor did they hide it or lie to you about it once it happened.
That’s not to say you don’t have the right to feel upset, but ask yourself if putting the label of ‘cheating’ on this is further inflaming those feelings by making you feel like there is more of a betrayal than there actually was. Is this more of a mistake, especially if your partner is taking ownership, settling the boundaries and didn’t at all hide it from you? Why is it that you are defining ‘breaking agreements’ specifically as cheating and is that really going to help you out in the long run? In this case, I think slapping the label of ‘cheating’ onto this situation is reinforcing what you’ve probably learned and understood about cheating through the monogamous lens that society has given you.
As someone who has a lot of strong feelings about cheating, I can understand this. Some people don’t consider cheating a big deal and have no problems participating in it, even if they don’t try to do it. I consider cheating, and by that I mean lying and deceiving a partner about anything (doesn’t have to be sex) to be one of the worst things someone can do and helping someone do that is equally as bad. But then there are some people who consider their partner watching porn as ‘cheating’ and I don’t.
It’s not as if those people who consider their partner watching porn as ‘cheating’ are wrong in their feeling of betrayal if that happens, but what I would encourage them to do is think about the assumptions they are making in this situation (e.g. being sexually attracted to someone other than your partner is something one can completely prevent in all situations and watching porn means that you’re less attracted to your partner or it affects the integrity of the attraction to your partner) and hope that through breaking that down, they can come to understand the source of the betrayal. Because often when we expand the net of ‘cheating’ to encompass more and more things, it can say a lot about our assumptions.
Likewise, in this situation, I think you need to take a good hard look at this rule and understand why you’ve put it there. What are you assuming when it comes to breaking agreements? Maybe you have a relationship with cheating in the past that you haven’t mentioned. Maybe this is part of your inherent fear that non-monogamy is unsustainable and your brain is creating rules to try and prevent something from happening. Accidents can and do happen and they don’t have to be devastating and destructive if we take people off of their pedestals, understand that we’re all humans and make mistakes, and figure out how what we’ve learned about certain concepts influences our behaviours.
But in non-monogamy we may be less inclined to see a simple accident as just that if we have such a small cultural script to pull from to define what commitment to each other means if we’re not using sexual exclusivity. If you’re not defining what makes a non-monogamous special by sexual exclusivity you may be searching for another place to put the meaning society has told you is important in and you may be doing that with the idea that breaking an agreement is tantamount to ‘cheating’.
It’s natural, whether you define a breaking of an agreement as cheating or not, for you to feel nervous and untrusting after that violation. It’s also natural for the fact that, regardless of how your partner feels, you know that this person is interested in your partner for that to kick up a lot of anxiety for you. But at some point, you also need to realise that there is only so much that you can control. The fact that your partner is taking ownership of this will help you rebuild that trust over time but it can also be helpful for you to realise that trust is really all you’ve ever had to begin with.
Even before this breach happened, none of us can prevent our partners from falling in love with someone else. Even if this person your partner slept with moved away and you never saw them again, another equally challenging or ‘messy’ person could come along in two months time. You can only prevent so much from happening. And rules certainly can’t prevent mistakes from happening.
Allow yourself to feel anxious and scared, but come back to the truth that, what little can be controlled is being controlled. Your partner is taking ownership and setting boundaries. Don’t prevent or berate yourself for having feelings. It’s very understandable. But also think about the way you’re classifying this situation and its impact on your relationship and whether or not your current definitions are really serving you.
People can break agreements in relationships unintentionally and without hiding that from a partner. Rethinking the labelling you’re adding to this will also help ground you a bit in understanding that while you may very well and validly feel betrayed because an agreement has been broken, you also need to zoom out and see the bigger picture of everything else that is going on around you to help you not get trapped in the undertow anxiety will try to pull you into.
I hope this helps and good luck!
Do you have a question?
If you have a non-monogamous relationships question to ask, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a voice message. Your question will be posted anonymously.