Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cheating - What is It?

As this is being written, Connie and I are in the process of renegotiating our Open Relationship Agreement.  This is a living document providing us with a roadmap for our emotional and physical interactions with persons outside of our relationship, which is a dyadic partnership and legal marriage.  We review the document annually and update it as needed.  This exercise gives me an excuse to share my thoughts on this important subject.

Polyamory can be defined as: the desire for or the practice of having multiple, simultaneous romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of all concerned.  The definition contains two key elements: romantic relationships and knowledge and consent.  The use of the word romantic clearly differentiates polyamorous relationships from casual hookups, but the poly community lacks unanimous agreement about what exactly constitutes romantic relationships; however, there is little disagreement about what constitutes knowledge and consent.  Polyamory demands honesty, meaning disclosure to and approval of by all those who have a right to know and approve.  Simply stated, this means every partner knows what every other partner is doing and with whom.

The idea of having open, honest relationships is, of course, not limited to polyamory.  Poly falls under the broad umbrella of Responsible Non-monogamy, which can take many sexual and/or romantic forms, but open honesty is always required.  This is true if a person swings, has friends-with-benefits or hooks up for one night stands.  If it is done with the knowledge and consent of all concerned, relating sexually and/or romantically with persons outside of the relationship is considered Responsible Non-monogamy.  A frequently heard definition of Responsible Non-monogamy is simply stated as: not cheating.

Unfortunately, by a wide margin, the most common form of non-monogamy IS cheating.  I recently heard a TV psychologist define cheating as: doing anything with another person behind the back of a spouse or significant other.  This sounds too vague to have any real meaning, but given context, the definition becomes slightly more clear.  The speaker followed a lively panel discussion about cheating and what constitutes cheating.  Many activities and forms of innuendo were debated, including such things as flirting, sexting and meeting for drinks after work.  And while not explicitly stated in these terms, the panel was unanimous in its agreement about fucking and blowjobs; however, the debate raged on and on about more subtle behaviors.  As you might expect, at the end of the day, all of the gum flapping resolved nothing.

The TV psychologist and all of the panel members completely missed the point.  There is no universal definition of cheating.  Cheating, and inversely, acceptable behavior involving another person outside of the relationship can only be defined by agreement between the partners or spouses involved in any given relationship.  It cannot be defined by culture normative thinking and behavior.  You may have been raised to believe the only right way to relate with another romantically and sexually is to adhere to the cultural norm of lifelong monogamy.  Your spouse or partner may share the same belief, but belief and behavior don’t square up when it comes to our sexual nature.  Studies have shown that most people who cheat believe it is wrong to do so; regardless, most people cheat anyway.  Cheating is so pervasive, it is believed that cheating occurs in seventy percent of marriages on the part of one or both spouses; and of course, the consequences can be tragic, especially if children are involved.

Since acceptable behavior is defined by agreement of the parties, what then constitutes an agreement?  Firstly, it is NOT: the assumption of monogamy due to cultural conditioning; or a wedding vow, which is a unilateral promise, not an agreement (often made under duress in eagerness to get to the honeymoon); or a threat, such as: I’ll cut your balls off if you cheat.  It IS (according to my online dictionary): an arrangement that is accepted by all parties to a transaction, or a contract or other document delineating such an arrangement.  An agreement can be verbal or written, but a written agreement usually sets forth the intentions of the parties in a clearer, better thought out manner; and psychologically, if not legally, it has more teeth.

Of course, the terms of an agreement can be broken, and sometimes this happens.  In the poly community, this is essentially how cheating is defined.  However, an agreement removes ambiguity; there can be no such thing as accidental cheating: I’m sorry, honey.  I didn’t know you disapproved of me groping your best friend’s boobs at the party.  And, as mentioned, a well thought out written agreement demonstrates a stronger intention than casual verbal exchanges between partners.  Often, these exchanges are really unilateral, since they can give the other party little room for negotiation: Of course, I trust you completely and know you would never cheat on me.

What about content?  What should an agreement say?  This is a matter between the parties to the agreement, and all of the parties stand to benefit from some points of agreement.  For example, even if the parties desire a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell, an agreement void of required disclosures can still outline safer sex practices or allowable time away from home.  An agreement of monogamy can still define monogamy, something easier said than done (as expressed in common usage, meaning sexual exclusivity; not as expressed more accurately as married to one person).  Generally, an agreement should outline whatever provisions are needed to keep each of the parties feeling safe and comfortable.

Begin by deriving a meaningful title.  The title to any agreement can speak volumes, so think of an appropriate title that says more than Relationship Agreement.  The first word can be Open, Closed, Non-monogamous, Monogamous, Polyamorous, Polyfidelitous and so forth.  This sets the tone for whatever it is that is to be agreed upon.

Secondly, think about specific terms, such as allowable and non-allowable behaviors.  If the relationship is open, specifically what sexual behaviors are allowed?  Intimate kissing?  Hand pleasuring?  Oral sex?  Intercourse?  All of the above?  If the relationship if closed, specifically what is monogamy or polyfidelity?  Is flirting or sexting or drinks after work in violation of your defined meanings of these arrangements?  What lines are not to be crossed?  Think of the W’s: What? (ex., no anal allowed); When? (ex., not on our anniversary); Where? (ex., not on my bed); Whom? (ex., not with my sister).  Why seems self-explanatory, but can be used for clarification: We fucked to express our undying love, or by way of contrast, it was just meaningless sex.

Next, determine the disclosures needed to keep all of the parties emotionally safe and comfortable.  Safe and comfortable, not sameness, should guide this exercise.  Disclosures need not be the same for everyone due to differing emotional needs.  Graphic details of an outside encounter that one person might find very comfortable, even titillating, could make another person turn green and vomit.  Generally, required disclosures should be detailed enough to keep all of the parties feeling safe and comfortable, while maintaining an agreed upon right to privacy.

And don’t forget the all important safer sex provisions of your agreement.  If the relationship is open, and all of the parties are fluid-bonded exclusively with each other, condom usage is an obvious must for vaginal and anal penetration with others.  But do all of the parties understand what the CDC means by consistent and correct usage?  What about oral sex and disease transmission?  What about foreplay that might involve inadvertent genital to genital contact?  What about the possibility of blood transfer during BDSM play?  Safer sex is a comprehensive subject that deserves much thought when drafting any type of non-exclusive relationship agreement.

Relationship agreements are more prevalent in the poly community than in society at large due to the added layers of complexity inherent in multiple relationships.  However, whether you are part of a dyad, triad, quad or larger multi-member adult family, agreements, preferably in writing, usually best serve the interests of everyone concerned.  A well written relationship agreement, when honored, satisfies the knowledge and consent demanded by the poly community and functions equally well in dyadic relationships, including legal marriage.

If you have not already done so, get to work on that agreement.  If you already have an agreement in place, make sure it reflects the current needs of yourself, your partner(s) and your relationship(s).  I think you will find the exercise to be challenging, yet fun; and hopefully, you will find it to be a positive bonding experience for you and your partner(s).