For the past few weeks I’ve been having conversations with people about polyamory and its potential to offer a fix or at least an alternative to common relationship issues. I believe in polyamory in part because it encourages each individual to honor their own authentic self, to directly address issues as they arise in the relationship and to participate in collaborative problem solving. Monogamy has this potential as well, but with its status as a the default relationship structure it creates a host of automated issues that tend to disintegrate the autonomy available to each partner in the relationship. By choosing polyamory people exercise that autonomy in a very real and tangible way.
But often the discussion devolves when I get this question: “so no one cheats/lies when you’re poly?”
Poly doesn’t prevent lying. Or cheating. Or betrayal. Or deceit.
Poly brings these behaviors to light much more swiftly and often more dramatically than we might see otherwise. It’s hardly assuring to someone new to poly. But because of the priority placed on the inherent values of honesty, trust, transparency and direct communication, the tolerance for deceitful behaviors is simply far lower than its monogamous counterparts.
I know, you don’t believe me. Because somewhere in the back of your head, you have this vision of a distraught wife finding out that her husband is cheating. She tears through the house in sobs, tossing him and his belongings out the door. Yes, that’s the common reaction. Because there was an expectation of sexual confinement, of fidelity and this, the dishonesty is understandable and even excuseable in today’s culture. Never mind that the cheating could not have happened without the deceitful undercurrent to the choices and actions. We’ve grown to accept, as a culture, that human beings will stray, will lie, will cheat. And while there is a sense of betrayal, there is also a sense of reluctant acceptance for the sneaking around and the lies. All while we cling to this sense of sexual and romantic confinement (or is it entitlement?) within the bounds of the relationship.
When you’re poly, the reaction isn’t much different, but the reasons are. When you are poly, you are more likely to have made a mutual agreement to be honest with one another, to not hide your attractions to other people, to remove the barriers to loving more than one person. So when a poly person is lied to, cheated on, the anger isn’t with the fidelity, it is with the deceptive practice itself…where it should have been all along. Cheating hurts more because it didn’t have to happen, because there was an underlying value for honesty. Lying is more insidious because there was no reason to cover up the truths of an attraction. The crime isn’t in the act of having sex with someone else, it’s in breaking trust with your partner(s) by choosing to lie or withhold the truth (omissions are still lies).
The reaction, yes, can be just as extreme as our monogamous example, but there is less acceptance that “oh well, this is just how everyone lives.” In a poly household, there might be a family meeting to confront the deceitful partner. Maybe there is a public shaming in other poly or kinky circles. Maybe there is just a stern, “fuck off” as someone is shoved out the door without a second chance. Regardless of how partners react, tolerance for the underlying dishonesty is rarely given in my experience.
Today I was reminded of a loved one’s deceit, a series of lies and cover-ups that have haunted me since before we broke up. I gave him more chances than my fellow polyamorists might. I recognized the conditioning that a staunchly monogamous past had left on him and that was my excuse to continuing to give him a chance. But the more I stayed, the more I saw the troubling behavior and the more it seemed to spiral out of control. The stories that later were contradicted by others. The convenient excuses that over time became harder to swallow. And when confronted he would gaslight me, shift blame and ultimately escape accountability for the choices that he made.
After almost 10 years of polyamory, I don’t regret staying with him and giving him chances. I learned a lot about my own value for honesty and a hard lesson about my own sense of self-worth. By accepting and tolerating someone else’s dishonesty, I was creating a large space to hide my own truth. A space that became a large closet of broken skeletons. A space where I convinced myself it wasn’t proper for me to be out as poly, kinky or queer. And as worried as I might be about how others might react to my truth, as a poly woman I have committed myself to living a life of authenticity, transparency and above all honesty. At some point, I needed to stop excusing my own dishonesty and I needed to trust myself to weather whatever storm might follow my disclosures.
And because my personal integrity matters more to me than enabling others’ escapist dramas bred into them by a societal expectation of secrets, I have been slowly emerging into the light again. And, for example, by being honest with my partners over the past few weeks about my fears, my wishes and my struggles, I’ve been able to get the support I need and the help I deserve. By allowing others to hide the truth, I was really allowing myself to hide my own. And now hiding has become…unbearable.
So, no polyamory doesn’t prevent cheating or lying. It will happen. But by aligning yourself with the core values of honesty and integrity, instead of surface satisfaction of singular sexual attachment, when you encounter such deception, it is much easier to recognize it, call it out and address it than it might have been otherwise. And simply put, when you choose honesty for yourself, deception will inevitably start becoming intolerable and dissatisfying, making it easier to exclude it from your life the more practice you get.