134: Cheating in Open Relationships

Mar 28, 2023

Sometimes, a couple will have an agreement that they aren’t in a monogamous relationship. They think they have a shared agreement of what non-monogamy looks like and what it’s okay for them to do with other people outside of the relationship. This can work out great for everyone. However, even if you have an agreement about the terms of your open relationship, there may come a time when you do something that your partner considers cheating.

No matter how explicit our agreements may be, each party has their own relationship to that agreement. You may violate the terms of this agreement intentionally or accidentally, and even the best-thought-out agreements can’t prevent this from happening. So how do you deal with accusations of cheating in an open relationship?

Tune in this week to discover the options available to you if your partner has decided you’ve cheated in your open relationship. Dr. Marie Murphy is discussing both sides of the argument, sharing how to empathize with your partner if their view of your open-relationship agreement is different to yours, and she’s laying out how you can move forward together if you decide you want to.

If you’re ready to take this topic deeper in a confidential and compassionate environment, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with Dr. Marie Murphy by clicking here!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why having shared agreements with your partner is part of what makes a relationship work.

  • How each party in a relationship engages with their shared agreements in their own unique way.

  • What cheating in an open relationship might look like.

  • Why it’s fair for you and your partner to have totally different perspectives on your actions.

  • Some things you need to seriously consider when your open relationship partner has decided you’ve cheated.

  • How to talk to your partner about what they consider to be you cheating on them, without needing to agree or disagree.

  • Your options moving forward if you and your partner have different ideas about your agreement of what non-monogamy looks like.

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

Hello good human!  I am Dr. Marie Murphy, and I’m a relationship coach.  I help people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do.  No shame, no blame, no judgments.  If you are ready to begin the process of resolving your infidelity situation in 

a way that’s truly right for you, I can help you do it.  When you’re ready to work with me, you can schedule an introductory coaching session through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located.  I can’t wait to meet you.

As you can hear, I’ve still got my sick voice going on, just like I did when I recorded last week’s episode.  And just like last time, I trust that I will survive the process of recording this episode, and you will survive listening to it, even if I sound a little raspy.  Thank you for bearing with me.

With that established, let’s get down to business.  I know I refer to monogamous relationships a lot on this podcast.  That is definitely a limitation of this show, even though – as strange as this might sound – many of the issues related to cheating in monogamous and non-monogamous relationships are quite similar in their essence.  But today I’m going to talk about an issue that is pretty specific in some ways to non-monogamous relationships.  

And that issue, in general terms, is this.  A couple will have an agreement that they aren’t going to be monogamous.  And they will have a shared understanding of what their agreement about being non-monogamous looks like – or at least, they’ll think they have an agreement about what it’s okay for them to do with other people and what it isn’t okay for them to do with other people.

And for a while, this may work out great and everything may be fine and wonderful.

Having agreements with your partner – of any kind, or pertaining to any topic – can be a really good thing.  I would be the first person to say that having shared agreements with your partner is part of what makes a relationship work, and is part of what makes a relationship a relationship.  But here’s the thing.  No matter how explicit our agreements may be, no matter how well-understood they are, each party has their own relationship to that agreement.  When an agreement is made, it’s not this thing that takes on a life of its own, and exerts independent power over whoever is party to the agreement.  It’s something that each party relates to and engages with in their own unique way.

And what can happen is that even if you and your partner had an agreement about how you were going to do non-monogamy that seemed pretty great, there may come a time when you do something that your partner considers cheating.  Even if you had a very explicit agreement that you could do other things with other people, you could still do something that your partner thinks of as crossing a line.  And you might do this fairly consciously, or even deliberately – and you could also do this very unconsciously, or unintentionally.  Even the best agreements cannot always prevent this from happening!  

So for instance, maybe you and your partner brought a third person into your relationship, and maybe this was totally great for both of you at first.  But then you and the third person started getting a little closer than your partner wanted you to get.  Maybe it became pretty obvious to your partner that you were a lot more sexually interested in the third person than you were in them.  Maybe you and the third started doing sexual things together that you weren’t “supposed” to, maybe you became more emotionally or intellectually connected to them, whatever.  There are any number of ways that you could get closer to the third person in your relationship than your primary partner might like.  

Or perhaps you and your partner don’t have an established relationship with a third person, but you do have an agreement that each of you can do other things with other people, within certain parameters, but then you did something outside of those parameters.  And your partner doesn’t like it.  Maybe there are some sexual things that you’re only supposed to do with them, and you did them with someone else.  Or maybe you’re allowed to do anything you want as long as you’re home by midnight, and you stayed over at someone else’s house.  Or whatever.  The list of examples could be endless.  Everyone has different agreements when it comes to how to do non-monogamy, and different ideas about what counts as cheating, or as a breach of the agreements around non-monogamy.  

But the upshot is, you do something with somebody else, and your partner thinks of it as you crossing a line, and as you effectively cheating on them.  And they tell you this, perhaps in very vivid, dramatic detail, and perhaps they ask you to stop what you’re doing, or issue ultimatums, or maybe they just break up with your cheating ass – your allegedly cheating ass - without even giving you the opportunity to explain your position or talk things through with them.

And your response to any of these sorts of behaviors from your partner may be something along the lines of, “What the fuck is the problem here?”  From your perspective, what you’ve been doing may not seem like cheating AT ALL.  You may think you’re doing something that’s basically in line with what you and your partner agreed it was okay for each of you to do, or at least, not that serious of a departure from your agreement.  

You might agree that their complaint is somewhat legitimate, but take issue with it – or you might think that their complaint has no real basis.  What’s the big deal if you do some other things with someone your partner already knows about your involvement with?  What’s the big deal if you get a little closer to someone else, if you still love your primary partner and continuously make that known to them?

Here's the thing.  It’s totally legitimate for you to think that you haven’t really crossed a line with whatever you’re doing.  It’s totally legitimate for you to think that in the context of a non-monogamous relationship, whatever it is you’re doing does not count as cheating.  It’s totally legitimate for you to think that as long as you love your partner ferociously, what you did shouldn’t be that big of a deal, considering that you were already non-monogamous anyway.

And, for better or for worse, it is also fair for your partner to believe that by doing whatever it is you did, a meaningful line has indeed been crossed.  It’s fair for them to have a totally different perspective on their actions than you do, and to see your behavior in a totally different way.  Let’s say there was some specific sexual thing that you and your partner agreed that you would only do together, but you went and did that thing with someone else.  Your perspective may be something like, “Yeah, we may have said that I wouldn’t do that one thing with anyone else, but all sexual behaviors are just part of the same category of behavior, so what’s the big deal if I did happen to do that one thing with someone else?  What difference does it make?  Sex is just sex, anyway, whatever you do or don’t do.”  It’s fair enough for you to think that.

But it’s also fair enough for your partner to associate tremendous meaning with that one thing that you did that you said you weren’t going to do with anyone else.  To you, it may be just another behavior in the big bucket of sexual behaviors.  But to them, it may be a cherished symbol of your shared bond.  It may have been their way of hanging onto the idea that you are ultimately theirs, no matter what else you might do, and who you do it with.  And that might have been incredibly important to them.  Sometimes, in these sorts of situations, the person who did the “cheating” tells me that they think their partner’s reaction to whatever they did is an indication that their partner doesn’t really want to be non-monogamous.  And that could be the case!  That’s possible.  But it’s also possible that the two of you just have very different orientations to non-monogamy.

The really important point here is that the two of you may see whatever you did in very different ways, and neither of you is right in any absolute sense.

But that is not often the first thing on our mind when someone we care about immensely is very upset with us for cheating on them, and we don’t even think we’ve cheated.  In situations like that, it can be very tempting for you, the alleged cheater, to attempt to convince your partner that they aren’t seeing things clearly.  Or aren’t thinking about things rationally.  It may seem obvious to you, the supposed cheater, that one or two degrees of difference in how you’re doing non-monogamy shouldn’t be that big of a deal.  It may seem so obvious to you that your relationship with your partner isn’t defined by what you do or don’t do with other people.  

And it may truly be the case that whatever the thing you did with someone else that your partner didn’t like was not terribly meaningful to you.  It might have been enjoyable, but it might not have had deeper significance than that.  It may truly be the case that your devotion to and desire for your partner has not wavered for a second.  And you may have tried to explain this to your partner, perhaps over and over again, and they may not understand it or accept it, and you may have no idea why they cannot see the logic in what you are saying.

And you may really want to solve the whole thing by convincing them that you’re right and they’re wrong, because wouldn’t it be great for everyone – including them – for them to just see it your way?

I want to suggest that instead of focusing the question of who is right, or the question of whether what you did counted as cheating or not, you may be better served by considering the question, “What now?”

I want you to consider that your perspective is reasonable, AND your partner’s perspective is reasonable.  They didn’t like what you did.  So now what?  Do you and your primary partner want to stay together?  Do you want to have a different agreement about how you do non-monogamy?  If so, what specifically do you want to be different?

Sometimes, what happens when non-monogamous couples hit upon a situation where one person thinks their partner has cheated, but that person does not think that what they did really counts as cheating, is the couple discovers that their individual orientations to non-monogamy and to the relationship were more different than they’d thought they were.

And sometimes people find this kind of shocking.  Sometimes people say things to me like, “But we DISCUSSED the parameters of our non-monogamous relationship, and we both were cool with it, and I really thought we were on the same page.”

The first thing I will say about that is that this goes two ways.  For you, being on the same page might seem to mean that you and your partner should be able to accommodate a deviation from the agreement you had about being non-monogamous without it being too big of a deal.  But for your partner, “being on the same page” might mean that you both should religiously adhere to the letter of the law, no matter what!  So first of all, there is that.

But the second thing is, whenever we make an agreement with someone, we do so based on where we stand in that particular moment.  And we only know what we know in that moment.  We’ve only thought through what we’ve thought through in that moment, or up to that moment.  We may have thought through what being non-monogamous means to us only to a certain extent, or have only thought through certain elements of it.  We may have thought through what we want our primary relationship to be like only to a certain extent.  So even if you and your partner really were on the same page at one moment in time, that was one moment in time, and things may be different now.

The third thing is similar to the second thing.  Relationships, like many things in life, are figure-it-out-as-you-go endeavors.  We can only live them out moment by moment.  And in each of those moments, we as individuals are changing, and our partners as individuals are changing, too.  And it may be the case that what you want, or what your partner wants, in regards to your relationship and your opportunities to have experiences with other people, may have changed over time, and it’s possible that the two of you have not really talked about that.  It can be a lot nicer, and a lot easier to assume that you and your partner are on the same page, or at least pretty much so, when it comes to where you stand with doing non-monogamy.

But then sometimes things happen that show us that we really aren’t on the same page with our partner to the extent that we thought we were.  Our understandings about important matters may be more different than we thought.  And for some people, having a different understanding than their partner seems like a problem in and of itself, or a tragedy simply for having occurred.

But I want to suggest that you and your partner having different understandings about many things, including important things, is pretty much inevitable.  The questions that I think are more important are, what do you make these different understandings mean, and what are you going to do with these differences?

So for instance, if it turns out that you and your primary partner have different ideas about what it’s okay and not okay for each of you to do with other people, what’s the significance of that?  You could decide that this difference of opinion, or misunderstanding, means that the two of you fundamentally don’t understand each other, and therefore you aren’t meant to be together.  That is an option!  You could decide that your differences in understanding of how it’s okay for you to do non-monogamy means that the two of you are fundamentally incompatible.  Forever.  

But you could also make the incident mean that the project of navigating non-monogamy is an ongoing one.  The same could be said about monogamy or any other way of organizing your relationship, or relationships, of course.  Whether we’re non-monogamous or not, the project of figuring out how to be in partnership with someone is a continuous thing, for the life of the relationship.  You could decide to believe those things.  You could decide to believe that it might be inevitable that people in relationships are going to have big disagreements at times, and you could believe that yours are not indications that your relationship has to be doomed to failure.

Even if your partner doesn’t share these kinds of thoughts, that doesn’t stop YOU from believing them.  Your partner may be convinced that you’re a bad cheater, and you intentionally did something to hurt them, or at the very least, you’re totally insensitive their needs and you don’t value the relationship as much as they do.  Or something like that.  And in saying this the way I am, I’m not dismissing or belittling their perspective.  Their perspective is legitimate.  But right now we’re talking about YOUR perspective, and what I want you to know is that you can respect and empathize with whatever your partner thinks without agreeing with them OR disagreeing with them.  Instead, you can believe - if you want to - that the two of you bumped up against the edges of what was working for you both, in terms of how you do non-monogamy.

If you think about your situation this way, it will inform the way you actually talk to your partner about what’s going on.  If you think that you have to convince them that you’re right, and talk them out of their perspective, your conversations with them are going to be very different from how they will be if you don’t get into that debate.  You can acknowledge your differences of opinion, and you can empathize with their hurt feelings without agreeing OR disagreeing with their perspective.  

Instead of trying to determine who is right, or who has been wronged, what I would suggest it may be most helpful to focus on is what you want right now.  This “cheating” incident may be an indicator that it’s time to think about what you currently want in terms of freedom to be non-monogamous.  And I encourage you to think about that without constraint first, and talk about it with your partner second.  Sometimes people rush to try to work things out with their person before they have given themselves a chance to be honest with themselves about what they really want, going forward.  And this can lead to big trouble.

Yes, you want to talk to your person.  But before you try to re-work your agreements related to non-monogamy with them, you’ve got to allow yourself to get really clear about what you want.  People sometimes skip this step because they’re in such a hurry to preserve their primary relationship, but guess what, you can want something and choose not to pursue it.  Let’s say you decide you want more freedom in the non-monogamy realm than your partner wants to give you.  You can want that without that being a problem of any kind.  You could choose to relinquish that freedom because it’s more important to you to maintain your relationship with your partner than to have the opportunities to do other stuff.  But making that choice consciously and willingly is totally different from making decisions without having allowed yourself to honestly and comprehensively acknowledge what you want, and deem those desires legitimate first.

Now of course, it’s also possible that this “cheating” incident may be an indication that it’s time to take a close look at your relationship with your primary partner, too.  Does your “cheating” point to big differences between the two of you that neither of you might want to bridge?  Or is it just an indication that it’s time to talk about some things that you may not have talked about in a while, and revisit some of your agreements?

To echo what I said a moment ago, these are matters that you may well want to talk through with your partner.  But you can think about all of these things independently, too – and you might want to do that before you talk with your partner.  

Your partner may be more interested in getting mad at you than in having a constructive conversation about the future.  But you don’t have to make that your problem to solve.  You can be kind to them, you can care about the fact that they’re hurting or mad at you or both or whatever, you can apologize to whatever degree you believe is appropriate.  But you don’t have to make their feelings your problem to solve, and, if they’re unwilling to talk about the future, you don’t have to make that your problem to solve either!  You can keep your focus on figuring out what you want now, and if your partner does not come to the place of being amenable to talking about that with you, well, you get to deal with that as you see fit.

It may be the case that your “cheating” ends up being something you and your partner can work with and work around, and it may end up that it ends up indicating that you and your partner want different things right now, and those differences present a gap that neither of you wants to bridge.

The bigger point here that isn’t specific to cheating – “cheating” – in non-monogamous relationships is that there may be times, in a relationship, where something happens that no one could have anticipated.  And as each person in the relationship makes sense of what’s happened in their own unique way, they may find that they and their partner are farther apart on some important matters than they thought they were.  

And this can seem awful, and indeed, it might be sad, because sometimes being far apart on important matters means the relationship doesn’t have a future, and that might be a super-sad thing.  But it may also be the beginning of both you and your partner moving towards the love life/sex life/romantic life that’s more in line with what each of you most want right now.  And it may have taken your “cheating” for both of you to discover what that looks like for you.

But of course, it’s also possible that your “cheating” ends up being the catalyst for you and your partner to renegotiate the terms and conditions of your non-monogamy in a way that allows your relationship to flourish for years to come.  And it may also be the catalyst for you learning how to talk to your partner about what’s important to you without making your conversations a matter of who is right, or whose perspective is more reasonable or rational.  And that can be an immensely wonderful shift to make.

All right everybody!  That’s it for today.  If you have enjoyed what you have heard, I’d love it if you would take a moment to rate and review the show on iTunes.  Your ratings and reviews help other people who would benefit from hearing what I have to say find this show.  So please share the love and take the time to give the podcast a five-star rating if you are so inclined.

And of course, if you’re ready to start making choices and changes in regards to your infidelity situation, I am here to help you do those things.  When you’re ready to work with me, the first step is to schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphphd.com.  Together, we will find a way of resolving your infidelity situation that’s truly right for you.

Thank you all so much for listening.  Have a great week.  Bye for now.


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