I was recently asked “Do you think it’s wrong to cheat in a poly relationship?” which was clarified to “Is it wrong to not tell your partner about sleeping with someone else and second of all, do people do it anyway?”
Here’s my take.
The polyamorous community is not monolithic. There’s lots of variation and that’s worth getting into a little bit here.
There are some relationships that actually have a rule against telling each other about their other partners.
I do not endorse this kind of relationship. I (and many others) think this is a bad idea.
In these relationships, the expectation is that you won’t say anything about your other relationships.
This deserves a post on it’s own, but I’ll give the short version here.
More Than Two also gives a very good exposition of this distinction
There is a difference between on the one hand rules, where you are imposing a restriction on your partner (and they on you), and on the other hand agreements, where everyone who is affected by the decision actively agrees to uphold it.
If someone breaks a rule the “correct” response is to be angry about it, to punish them, to break up with them, etc.
If someone breaks an agreement, it’s still not great. But the attitude tends to be very different. Now the question is: why did they break it? Is the agreement not working for them anymore? Should it be renegotiated?
In a relationship based around rules (monogamy is usually a special case of this), cheating, and breaking those rules, tends to be a big, potentially relationship-ending event.
If you have agreements regarding sexual practice with other people, then breaking them is something that should be talked about and the agreement renegotiated. It’s still cheating of a sort, but it doesn’t have to be as big a deal.
Certainly it is better to not break the agreement, and talk about why you’re having trouble with it instead.
With the exception of the don’t ask don’t tell structure mentioned above, polyamorous relationships are rooted in a foundation of open and honest communication.
If you, for whatever reason, are actively withholding information or lying about things that your partner should know about,* then that’s a problem in the relationship that should be worked out ASAP. Withholding that information is a violation of trust and will not be good for your relationship.
* maybe you’re uncomfortable telling them about a one night stand you had that increases STI risk
I don’t get very jealous, and so I tend to take a really laid back approach to these things.
My partner and I have no rules, and very little if anything in the way of agreements (though I suspect we would have more agreements if we lived together, or even in the same city).
Instead, we rely almost entirely on open and honest communication.
The way we think about disclosing lovers is that having a lover is an important event in our lives, and we want to share important events with each other. Just like I would tell her about meeting a new friend or starting a new hobby, I’ll tell her if I am amorous with someone.
If I’m keeping someone from her, that indicates a problem.
If I felt the need to keep a relationship from her, I might start by telling her “hey, there’s something big going on in my life right now, but for some reason I’m feeling really uncomfortable telling you about it. I need to figure out why I’m feeling that way over the next week or so. But I didn’t want to keep you totally in the dark. Is this okay, how do you feel about this?”
But sometimes it just slips my mind, and I might forget to tell her. That usually doesn’t reflect a problem in our relationship, so it isn’t a big deal.