Is polyamory just a way to cheat ethically?

I have always been monogamous. I have been in a monogamous relationship for the past 22 years. While I have several friends that have been in the past or are currently in polyamorous relationships, it has never held a lot of interest to me. I know (intellectually) that it is possible to be in love with more than one person at a time, but it is not something that I have ever experienced or expected to.
Recently, I became back in touch with an old flame/turned friend. We had one weekend together about 24 years together and due to a combination of being young and stupid and a 2.5 hour distance, we never pursued a relationship. In a way, he has always been the one I wondered about. Could it have worked? What would have happened? We settled on being friends who chat occasionally and running into each other every couple of years. Very casual. He and my husband have met like and respect each other.
2 months ago, I was able to spend a little bit of time with him (with both families) and then I was in his town for a couple of days for a work training. We went out to dinner and spent time together. Now I feel like a teenager and think about him way more than I have since the early days when we first met. Is it hormones? Is it left over feelings? Mid-life crisis? He thinks it is us exploring a connection that we didn’t allow ourselves to in the past. He is in the middle of a divorce and is looking to be single in the near future.
I am not. While I am crazy about this guy and feel like I am on the verge of falling in love, I find myself more in love with my husband than ever before. I can’t imagine my life without him and don’t want to lose him. I think I am finally understanding what friends of mine have been saying for years. I feel entirely different about these two men, but feel a connection and deep affection for them both.
Am I just being selfish? Am I just going to hurt everyone? Part of me really wants to give polyamory a try and see if we can make it work and part of me is terrified that I will end up ruining my marriage. I don’t know if my friend would even be willing to be in a polyamorous relationship and he may not see this as anything more than an emotional fling. Part of me wants to check with him before trying to talk to my husband, but part of me feels that that is the cowards way out. I don’t want to open my marriage only for a way to cheat without feeling guilty. I want to be sure if I take this step, that my husband is comfortable with everything and feels free to do the same. I am still trying to suss everything out. Plus, if I do decide to have the talk, I have no idea how to even begin.
I am not sure I am making any sense whatsoever. If I am, please let me know if you have any advice. If not, thanks for reading this far and letting me get it out.

I’ll be honest with you, OP. I don’t think you’ve been really honest with yourself here.

You’ve always kept in touch over a period of time with this friend and it’s kept this old flame going in a way. And because you’ve never really sat down and had a discussion with him about what your friendship means and how likely it is that you could be together, it’s giving you this uncertainty which people often find appealing about dating and which has a tendency to rekindle new relationship energy (NRE). And I feel like there’s some part of you that’s not wanted to clarify things with this guy because it gets rid of some of that tension.

To open a marriage or not

I think the thing you have to remind yourself is that, understandably and rationally, you feel like a teenager now. This relationship has been stoking for years and it’s exciting, new and shiny. It’s going to feel even somewhat marginally more exciting than your current relationship because of its newness and that will suck in you in like a moth to a flame.

But inevitably, this relationship, if it is pursued, will stop being new. You will likely stop feeling like a teenager. Things will die down and go back to a new normalcy. That tension will likely fade. It doesn’t mean you won’t care for this person, just as you still love and care for your husband, but a lot of what is driving you right now is the shiny, newness of it. And it’s important to remember that the newness has an expiration date.

That needs to inform whether or not you want to approach your husband about opening your marriage. Because this is not an Etch A Sketch. You introduce the concept just itself, especially so that you can pursue a relationship with a person your husband has probably long considered not a ‘threat’, and it’s going to really shake the core and the foundations of your relationship which you have been building for years. You will not be able to un-suggest this. Once you drop that, it’s dropped and there isn’t any going back, even if you don’t actually get to pursue this new, shiny person.

It does not make you selfish to want to pursue a relationship with this person. But I think that you need to remember that so much of what is pushing you to this is an expectation that one event need follow the other. Let me expand on that further.

Does tension need to be resolved?

I don’t feel like you’re selfish or that you’re having a mid-life crisis, but I do believe you’re making the assumption that your tensions and feelings must be acted upon. Look at the situation as it stands. You have a husband who you’re in love with and you have a friend who you have this great chemistry with. What is wrong with just this scenario? Does your tension and fun with your friend inevitably have to result in a sexual relationship? Or any relationship? Why not continue to do what you’ve been doing with this flame for years — continue to stoke the fire, have fun meet-ups every now and then which make you feel giddy and be happy with just that?

You’re pushing yourself into the assumption that falling in love with someone in this scenario must result in a relationship, but does it? One of the things that polyamory can bring to some people’s lives is an understanding that no two relationships have to look the same. It can make dating people who don’t wish to have any sexual relationship with anyone possible, even if that’s what you want personally, because you don’t have to get everything from one person.

Already, you have deep affection and a connection with two people. Why is that not fine as it is? Why does it have to inevitably develop into something ‘more’? I think you need to ask yourself some hard questions and be really honest with yourself — but also question why you’re assuming your relationship with your friend must develop in a specific way. What you’re finding fun about this is the tension and the excitement, and that’s fine. But as I mentioned before, this isn’t going to necessarily be a constant. Don’t make permanent decisions based on temporary feelings or assume that your relationship with your friend needs to look exactly like your relationship with your husband to matter or mean anything.

But let’s be real, I feel like you’ve had a history of lying to yourself a bit when it comes to this relationship. Even here, I feel like your attempt to declare yourself fully monogamous for 20 years and never really that interested in non-monogamy is a bit of you trying to reassure yourself that this has come out of left field, when it feels like there’s been signs of something brewing between you two for decades.

You can’t help falling for people, but I don’t think you should put yourself in situations where you may decide to have sex with this guy and risk your marriage and I feel like that’s what’s definitely down the line if you don’t get honest with yourself about what your feelings are. Right now, it’s the ambiguity that makes this a bit fun, but that could easily go wrong for you. I don’t think it’s your fault because you can’t control your feelings, but if you pretend like you’re just friends who are completely platonic and without any subtle hint of romance, you might be in for a world of trouble later on.

How to broach the subject of polyamory

If you decide that you do want a relationship with this guy, I don’t think it is necessarily a wrong choice to suss out his feelings about polyamory first before even risking something with your husband. And you don’t need to come out with it as “do you want a polyamorous relationship with me?”

You said you have friends who are in polyamorous relationships. Are these mutual friends? Can you maybe bring up the subject to your friend and see how he feels about it? You can take a similar approach to your husband and see what he thinks about it. You might find though that really actively pursuing a relationship with your friend ends some of that excitement, especially if he categorically states he doesn’t want polyamory. So it’s up to you to decide if that’s the path that you want to take.

Understand that if and when you do approach your husband about this, when he does figure out that your primary driver for being interested in this is an old flame, it’s going to create a lot of understandable fear in him. I don’t know what types of conversations you’ve had with your husband about this guy, but if you’ve spent any time re-assuring him you’re not interested in him and you’re just friends and then you turn around and want an open relationship because your friend is now available, well… you’re breaking your husband’s trust because you weren’t honest with him in the past (and to be fair, weren’t very honest with yourself). And it might not have been your intention, but it’s going to be hard for him to believe anything you say reassuringly if you’ve told him one thing and now it’s changed.

You also need to think long and hard about what a relationship with your friend means beyond you just being able to finally explore something you never got the chance to. Is polyamory something you actually want or are you, as you said, looking for a way to cheat without feeling guilty? How do you foresee a relationship with this friend going on and where does your relationship with your husband fit in? You need to really think about this so, if you do introduce it, you can offer your husband some clear guidance on how your relationship with him will change and in what ways.

The coward’s way out

A lot of people might consider what you’ve already done with this friend ‘cheating’, but that is really up to you to define. I do not assume that a romantic partner need access to every thought in your head. I do think you can love this friend, have a tense but fun friendship with him and never let it go beyond that without breaking the bonds of what your marriage and relationship means to your husband.

I feel like when you said that asking your friend if he’s interested in polyamory before you ask your husband being the ‘coward’s way out’ maybe indicates to me that you are unsure of where the boundaries between cheating lie within your relationship. Maybe you’re not sure if making active plans to do something like this counts as ‘cheating’ and it’s really up to interpretation.

You may not want to disclose your closeness with your friend to your husband out of fear he may misunderstand, react badly, and it may cause you to lose this friend and I think that’s totally understandable. It might be awkward at this juncture to sit down with your husband and find out what he considers cheating to be, if you’ve never had that discussion, but I do think you need to be prepared for the reality that even now, aspects of your relationship with your friend may make him feel uncomfortable. And if you choose not to disclose the true nature of your relationship with your friend, whether you pursue polyamory or not, he may consider that a betrayal of his trust in and of itself.

I don’t believe that asking your husband outright about whether or not he is interested in polyamory is necessarily less cowardly or somehow more virtuous then checking to see if your friend is even interested in polyamory at all. It sounds like a logical step, before you introduce an idea that would totally change your relationship, to make sure whether or not it’s actually worth it.

But what you need to really also be honest with yourself about is where this jump to call yourself a coward comes from and if you feel like what you’re doing already is ‘dishonest’ or running a risk of hurting your relationship. Because, if you do keep things as is and not pursue anything with this friend, there’s a chance what chemistry you feel and hiding that may already constitute something that would hurt your husband.

In my relationships, I define cheating as purposefully hiding or obscuring the truth of a situation from a person. It doesn’t have to even involve physical contact with someone. If something is being hidden from me or if someone is not giving me the full truth, I consider that cheating. I make allowances for situations where people may not be self-aware enough to be honest with themselves about everything and cheating isn’t always necessarily a devastating blow, but I do feel like if you feel like you have to hide something, it’s at the very least a glaring red flag.

What you can do and what you can’t do

Fundamentally, I can’t tell you whether or not this is worth the risk. Because it basically comes down to the only rules that matter: what you can do and what you can’t do.

Can you accept that this love may be forever lost? Can you control yourself and your feelings if you continue this tension with your friend? Are you willing to live with never pursuing this relationship or is it something you feel you have to do? No one can really answer that for you but you.

The only thing I would remind you of is:

  • Again, this relationship is new and shiny and that will fade,
  • Question your assumption that this need evolve into something more, and
  • Ask yourself some hard questions not only about what you want in life but what your agreement with your husband means and what having a friendship like this means within your monogamous relationship with your husband.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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