Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It’s only cheating if you’re supposed to be monogamous … right?

 If you’re in a committed relationship, how many partners are you allowed to have?

Chances are you answered only one partner is allowed. If so, you fit with the majority of people in our society who agree that humans should be monogamous with only one partner if you’re married or in a dating relationship.
So what does this have to do with cheating you may ask? Well, when someone cheats on their partner, they’re no longer monogamous. So in defining cheating, we’re also defining something outside the bounds of a monogamous relationship. I’m not going to delve into the details of whether or not humans SHOULD be monogamous or not (I’ll leave that to the evolutionary scientists and others like that). However, it’s clear that, although monogamy is the norm in our society, it’s not the only way people chose to live. When I discuss cheating, for the most part I’m discussing it in relation to monogamous relationships. But, cheating can still occur in nonmonogamous – or open – relationships too.
In an article aimed at therapists who may come across clients in open relationships, Kevin Zimmerman outlines the various types of nonmonogamous relationships:
  • Partnered nonmonogamy – “a committed couple that allows for extradyadic sex”
  •  Swinging – “nonmonogamy in a social context”
  • Polyamory – “partners have more than one relationship that is sexual, loving and emotional”
  • Solo polyamory – “nonmonogamous individuals who do not want a primary partner”
  • Polyfidelity – “three or more people who have made a commitment to be in a primary relationship together”
  • Monogamous/nonmonogamous partnership – “one person is monogamous and the other is not”
(Zimmerman, 2012, p. 273)
The key to all of these open relationships is honesty and boundaries, according to Zimmerman. For partners to be successful in a nonmonogamous relationship, they must be honest with their partner about what they want and the actions they partake in outside of the primary relationship. There must also be clear boundaries set and continually negotiated between the partners to make sure neither is unhappy with the situation.
A study of gay male open relationships by Tony Coelho found that rules about what is allowable outside of the primary relationship may vary greatly between couples and deviate from the norm of monogamy. However, as long as they are established and understood by both people then relations – either sexual or emotional – can be allowed and not constitute as cheating.
So in open relationships, much like in traditional relationships, cheating is whatever deviates from the rules about the relationship set down by both partners. In monogamous relationships these rules can be unspoken and are understood based on societal ideas of monogamy. In open relationships they often need to be worked out in a more explicit fashion. We see this level of ambiguity and variation more when it comes to emotional cheating in monogamous relationships too so perhaps those couples, as I’ve previously recommended, could benefit from more explicit rules about what constitutes cheating for both partners.
In my discussion of infidelity I’ll continue to operate under the assumption that cheating is actions of an intimate nature outside of a primary committed relationship. I wanted to look into the idea of open relationships for a brief time however. Given the information that emerged in this blog, I’m now amending my research question to include the more specific explanation of the type of committed relationship I’m researching.
New RQ: What motivates people in committed, monogamous relationships to cheat?

Coelho, T. (2011). Hearts, groins and the intricacies of gay male open relationships: Sexual desire and liberation revisted. Sexualities, 14, 653-688.
Zimmerman, K. J. (2012). Clients in sexually open relationships: Considerations for therapists. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 24, 272-289.


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    1. To answer your title question—No. And, yes, this is a complicated situation you have written about. I try to put myself into a situation like this so I can understand it better. And I also put myself into the place of a counselor—what would I say to someone presenting this problem? For one thing—I believe it would take a specialized counselor to deal with these types of relationships. Not just your ordinary therapist would be equip. So, that rules me out being the counselor—I just would not do that type of therapy. Then I put myself into the individual roles and I just can’t do that either! BUT, I can relate to this by assuming it is a game. Let’s pretend it’s a game where we do not want to follow the customary rules. (This is sad, because it is real life—real people live like this and don’t they see they are setting themselves up for future & not so future emotional, physical & spiritual problems—big time!??) Oh, well, back to the game. We will talk about the rules that we want before we start to play. We play the game until someone thinks of something different that hasn’t been thought of before. Do they just go ahead and do it? Or do they bring it up to talk about it first? The right thing would be to talk about it first—but if I’m playing with our own rules, maybe it gives me the freedom and right to make changes and do what I want? No, the rules have to be talked about first before they are acted upon. When mistakes are made and the other feels you have cheated in those “gray” areas, a true, sincere apology should be able to patch up a relationship.

      I’m glad you saw the need to revise your RQ. Good observation. And thanks for helping me with my theory/model last week! You’re great!

    2. Nancy, no problem on the help, I hope that theory will work out for you, it seems like an interesting one! I’m excited to hear how it goes :)

      I’m glad this blog related to you on a counseling level. I know you are doing a family certificate but is that with a goal toward therapy or counseling? If so then this is relevant to you, especially if relationships will be part of your focus. In reading these articles I’m not sure how prevalent this idea of open relationships is so I’m not sure if you would have to deal with it or not but it’s definitely important to be open minded and accepting in that kind of role so people can be helped through their problems.

      With regard to your comments about the “physical, emotional and spiritual problems” that an open relationship might cause, I would say that this is not really a topic covered in the articles I looked at. In fact, for those studied, it seemed that the nonmonogamous relationship was a better option for them and did not have negative effects (at least no more than a conventional relationship would). Evolutionary wise, some of the research I read implies that humans (or human men at least) are not anatomically developed to be monogamous but actually they are more likely to tend toward nonmonogamy. I didn’t want to delve into that aspect of it since I was focused on the infidelity aspect, but it is interesting to consider the benefits of monogamy versus nonmonogamy.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Im completely impressed with your adaptation to your research question and feel it adds a level of clarity as well.

    The evolutionary notion of humans as monogamous creatures has puzzled as well as fascinated me most of my life; and now with my research and all, the idea of cheating and deception is starting to turn me to a more cynical perspective. Not sure if that's a good or a bad thing, but its certainly informational and educational.

    Your research points on cheating in "open" relationships is eye-opening and educational as well. The rules being set and communicated upfront seems more than crucial in the open relationships; it also seems mandatory. It's funny to me that in these open relationships the rules are discussed and boundaries set in the beggining yet in traditional relationships they are sociatal. I agree with your notion that maybe the traditional monogamous relationships could benefit from these discussions of 'boundaries of cheating' and such as well. Even the ideas of flirting, nonverbal, and other "cheating" or inapproriate acts and aspects should be communicated upfront to alleviate any ambiguity down the road.

    I could see how cheating with "the heart" could also be defined in open relationships. I think sex is seen as simply physical often times in these types of "open" relationships, so having certain emotions of love with someone other than the main partner, could actually be seen as fully cheating eventhough the sex was acceptable.

    Our studies work well together...I'm learning from you.

    1. Mike, thanks for your comment, I agree that our topics are related and I learn a lot from your posts too! Ideas about deception and cheating are linked, partly because the former is necessary for the later and partly because they both involve negativity in relationships.

      I think your idea of cheating “from the heart” is fascinating and I think that is often what scholars mean when they are referring to emotional cheating. It’s a challenge to determine what that kind of cheating includes since it’s is less overt and more subjective. Having sex with another person is easy to pinpoint but being in love with another person is harder to prove unless they own up to it! I think you’re right that sometimes emotional cheating can be more serious for couples in nonmonogamous relationships, partly because it’s understood that it’s OK to have sex outside of the primary relationship but it’s not OK to be intimate with someone else. It depends on the type of nonmonogamous relationship there too (see the list above).

      I think that’s relevant somewhat for sexually monogamous couples too though. Emotional infidelity can be difficult to lay down as a rule but it’s clear that cheating with your heart and not just your body can be upsetting to a partner, even if it’s more covert. I found it fascinating that there can still be issues of cheating, even with open relationships!

    2. I would suggest that consider that "having sex with another person is easy to pinpoint..." is very subject to what "having sex" means to people. I have known people that consider a kiss 'having sex'. If you mean PIV sex, then it is best to be explicit about it and not use a euphemism. Otherwise, you are going to be getting 'Bill Clinton' answers messing up your data.

  4. I agree with the others that your RQ is getting better by the week! I also like the title you picked for this blog. You continue to do well at drawing the reader in.

    1. Thanks! It's a tricky business trying to get the right tone for a blog - sounding like I know what I'm talking about and incorporating the research but making it personal and interesting too! I'm enjoying the practice and glad to hear I'm still doing well :)

  5. I like that you pointed out that what we consider "cheating" is different in all relationships, it depends on the rules you and your partner (or partners!) have set up. Who knew there were so many relationship options? It's smart for you to narrow and define the type of relationships you are researching. A fun and enlightening read!

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the blog! I've been wanting to look into this idea for a while in relation to cheating so it was interesting to work out the different types of relationships.

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