Cheating: What does it mean in the world of ethical non-monogamy?

Woman with long fingernails on a mobile phone
Cheating is such a no-go area in vanilla life (or so it would seem on the outside) yet has such a profound historical precedent that it is often blamed on a biological urge to spread one’s seed. Yet is this really the underlying motivation behind it? In more polyamorous and swinger lifestyles, does cheating even still have any meaning? And why does it hurt so much to be cheated on, when one has agreed to a non-monogamous arrangement?

Cheating has been around since the dawn of time. One might say it’s from a conflict of evolutionary interests, between spreading around one’s genetics as widely as possible and ensuring that your breeding partner is not frittering away your collective resources on offspring that are not your own. Yet this rationale no longer makes sense- people rarely cheat to breed, and the fixation on sexual exclusivity is less logical than say an agreement not to spend money on other people, from a resource perspective. Rarely is anyone so insatiable as to worry that they will lose out on the chance for sex from their own partner if they are playing away from home, and it more often happens when the initial honeymoon period of regular, mind blowing sex has already faded.

Variety, ‘fresh’ sex and the importance of feeling confident, attractive and waggling one’s prowess around from time to time not only make people feel good about themselves, but it can also help keep things spicy with your regular partner. Taking out the bins for you may be sweet, but who doesn’t crave the attentions of a sensual, sex-god alpha male or female, who everyone desires, to ravage them between the sheets?

These appreciation of these elements are all part of why people are increasingly turning to systems of ethical non-monogamy, to try to capture the best of both worlds: the loving, caring security, with the thrill of the chase and the endless independence of exciting sexual options. The sex-God and the dad-bod. The Madonna-whore. Ultimately, swinging can make us feel not just better about ourselves, but about our partners, rekindling or sustaining that initial attraction and joyous, orgasmic sex that drew us to them in the first place.

Even so, there can be trouble in paradise. Monogamy is no more or less prone to cheating than non-monogamous systems, although the rationale for why one would do so can be much harder to comprehend when you’ve explicitly acknowledged an innate emotional and biological urge, and agreed to give this vent under what seem like very understanding, fair and permissive terms.

So, can you cheat in a non-monogamous arrangement? The people say:

I’d define cheating as breaking the rules you have set with your partner/s…what they are can vary wildly …but you can cheat whether you are mono, poly, open, closed, kink or swing.

Miss L, polyamorist and rope lover

Lol yep, but even swingers make agreements which can be a little challenging when broken. Stuff like “what goes on tour stays on tour,” “Play at the party but not in our bed”. Not in our bed was to make sure whatever happened the place I slept was never a trigger, it was our space and not for sharing.

What goes on tour was a reflection of the false pretences we played under, she wanted to play with women solo but I was comfortable with men or women as long as it was for hedonistic pleasure. If it was to introduce a third/4th etc into “our” relationship then I wanted to be part of the conversation from the off. But she wasn’t honest, agreed not to share contacts but did, said she wasn’t in contact but was, etc. …. I’m pretty flexible when making agreements but have a real problem once they’re broken.

For me, as the one cheated on… it basically was interpreted as 2 things: 

1) I could not trust her actions to match her words 

2) she was not interested in looking after our relationship as much as I was

Mr H, sexy, kinky swinger over 35

Cheating can just be breaking agreed parameters, eg .an agreement that any play with anyone else is always protected. Or if a couple has an agreement not to kiss others on the lips, or not to spend the night with someone else. All these things may be some attempt to set the primary relationship above all others, and a breach of that is cheating in my mind.

Breach of trust, that is usually the cornerstone of a relationship. The world is a sh*tty place, it’s important to believe that you can believe in some people.

How can you trust that they will follow what you agree in terms of consent, etc. once they’ve proven to be a cheat?

Let me clarify that I’m no angel. I’ve kissed someone else (I know it’s not much in our circles, but still a breach of trust) in every previous relationship I’ve had, I think it’s because I was always wondering if there was someone better.

Lady Rope, former swinger

Is the swing scene all about cheating? The people say:

To me swinging shouldn’t involve cheating, I feel like I am a part of the swinging community, I attend clubs events and offer help and support to others. 

I feel some people use swinging as a way of cheating maybe because they are feeling mentally or physically unsatisfied. 

If they formed a relationship where all their needs were met they wouldn’t be looking to meet swingers or attend swinging events, whereas my interests are to be to be a part of this community, regardless of if that is by myself or with a swinging partner.

To me swinging is a lifestyle, not a way to get a sexual itch scratched behind a non- consenting partner’s back and I feel it is unfortunate that some people don’t always consider the emotional damage that can be done.

Miss Sparkle, sexy swinger

For some I guess they cheat… as their own life with their partner is boring and mundane. And the swingers scene is a no-strings consenting adults play fest. Where you can get to do those things your wife or partner won’t allow!! But when you’re at a swingers party you’re free sexually to explore.

Mr S, sexy single man

Why do people in non-monogamous arrangements cheat? The people say:

In my head it takes a real a**hole to cheat when you’re in an ‘alternative’ lifestyle. And I’ve met a couple of them! And known of several from my days on the swing and BDSM scenes.

Maybe it’s payback, I was never well behaved in the vanilla dating scene…. so my first foray into a Dom/sub relationship may have been payback. A man well versed in the swing scene, and myself a newbie (back then). His need to cheat and lie knew no boundaries. And even when found out would lie his way out of it. Blaming my insecurity!


Unfortunately the scene is filled with its share of narcissism, insecurity and people who can’t help but lie. But when you have an element of freedom, or an open relationship, honesty really is the best policy. Some people just get off on the clandestine. But this is true of all dating scenarios.

So what drives someone to cheat, when they are given free reign? For me it is simply one thing….. ego.

People cheat for many reasons, and each motive can result in several different behaviours. Some of those behaviours can become habitual. But it can always be boiled down to ego. The man feeling misunderstood and alone….. the woman who fears commitment…. the person whose needs are not being met. At the end that’s about your ego taking control and not wishing to discuss your thoughts… and heading off to find an artificial high somewhere else.

Lady R, magnificent single lady & swing scene veteran

One might imagine that after some time in the swinger lifestyle, any sense of jealousy or need to feel in control of a partner’s sexual actions would have long been released and numbed, yet it is often the opposite. Indeed, arrangements between couples (from the casual party partners to the happily married swingers) are often complex and detailed, even if they are not centred on sexual exclusivity. For example, they might agree to only play when both partners are present. They might agree to only play with one gender. They might agree to always use a condom when playing with others, to limit frolics to parties, or to even just tell the other whenever they intend to play.

What is the purpose of such agreements? Ultimately, though they are often very arbitrary rules, the purpose is to shift the meaning that is normally associated with sexual exclusivity and monogamy onto a different act. It is fine for my partner to have fun elsewhere, we say, provided it isn’t in my own bed. My partner is not my sacrosanct property, but my bed is. The human mind is a strange place.

man and woman in bed together

Ultimately, the setting and following of seemingly odd rules is not differently based to the feelings about sexual monogamy in conventional vanilla relationships. A kiss is just a kiss. Flirting is just flirting. Sex is just sex. It is the meaning we apply to these acts that gives them value.

It has often been said that I analogise food and sex fairly often (sometimes you just fancy a kebab, etc). I’m about to do it again.

roast chicken dinner on a plate

A strange story of food non-monogamy

If we replace the act of sex (or many acts of sex, unless it’s a rather dull session) with the act of eating food, we can lay bare the elements that make up cheating in a consensually non-monogamous relationship.

We all need to consume food. We could probably get by on eating once every few days, at a pinch, though more often is preferable. Sometimes we may love a full 3 course dinner of our favourites, cooked lovingly to perfection and served by someone we know, adore and who is truly a fantastic cook. Yet life is busy, and sometimes you might just fancy a quick snack at the office. Sometimes you want something simple. Sometimes your new exotic co-worker spontaneously brings around a tray of delicious foreign pastries to share. Should you say no? Does it mean that you don’t enjoy a three course meal of your favourite foods from your spouse anymore? Of course not. Yet variety in the food and the chef keeps our pallets satisfied in the way monotony never can.

food offering of a cone filled with dessert

Perhaps you should call and check with your spouse whether they mind you trying this sudden offering? But then you might miss the chance. Surely they won’t object. You go home, and honestly tell your spouse that you’ve tried a new pastry, made by your co-worker. They go crazy. How could you? Cooking dinner is YOUR SPECIAL THING TOGETHER. They cook you whatever you want, whenever you want it. Why on earth would you need to go elsewhere? Was her cooking so much better? What’s wrong with the food you have at home?

You tell your spouse how sorry you are, and try to come to an agreement that keeps you both happy. Obviously, it’s fair that you can both try spontaneous pastry offerings when they come up. But you promise not to have the tiramisu made by anyone but her, and of course nobody else is allowed to cook it for you in her kitchen. Your spouse agrees, and you now have a non-exclusive culinary arrangement, with rules and limits in place that allow you to both exercise your own independence, enjoy the spontaneous indulgences of life and protect the feelings of each other. Congratulations, you are now ethically non-monogastronomous.

So far so good.

Man with head in his hands

You adhere to the rules. No tiramisu, no one else cooking in her kitchen. Should be easy enough. The most fabulous tiramisu you’ve ever seen comes up, you are tempted but you stick to your agreement. What a faithful spouse you are. Yet you start to wonder about what she’s eating. She tells you she had a sandwich from a cute delivery boy yesterday. You feel a flush of insecurity, and question her about it. What was in the sandwich? How did it taste? How big was it? You tell her to describe the story of how she bought it and ate it. Finally your curiosity and jealousy are satisfied. You are sure that now nobody is going to be telling you about the amazing sandwich yesterday that your wife had, leaving you surprised, embarrassed and humiliated that you didn’t know. You feel in control of things. It’s weird, but it’s okay. You go out to get the ingredients to make a sandwich to show her that you can do a better one.

The next day, you ask your wife what she had for lunch. She’s had a long day and gives you some sketchy details. You aren’t impressed and want to know all about it again. She gives you the answers, and again you feel satisfied and in control.

The next day, you ask her what she had for lunch, and she says nothing. She feels controlled, inspected, uncomfortable and like you are building unspoken resentment towards her every time you make her do this. Your wife is now cheating on your arrangement.

Why, you ask yourself, would anyone ever feel the need to cheat when you’ve agreed a consensual open-eating arrangement? She laid down the rules! She chose them! Why the secrecy? Why the lies? She must be a special kind of evil to do this to you.

man in cloak on beach

See, here is the thing. Although all the poly literature in the world will talk about the importance of communication, openness and honesty, these are morals and skills that need a hospitable context to flourish. If your partner says they are okay with something, then acts like they aren’t, it is difficult and uncomfortable to keep having to satiate their jealousy, and responding to their behaviour and emotions about it. It is simply easier to keep things to yourself. You start to separate yourself, or parts of yourself, from them.

Most people don’t set out to deliberately hurt the people they like or love. In fact, it is for this very reason that cheating can seem easier. When you feel like your words and actions are hurting someone, making you feel guilty, making you feel resentful or impinging on your own sense of self and enjoyment of life, one’s first natural response isn’t generally to calmly sit down and re-write the rulebook over and over. To thrash it out with tears and fights, every week. It’s uncomfortable to keep having to hurt somebody because of the value they place on an arbitrary measure that separates them, in their own mind, from ‘everybody else’. The one thing you hold back, just for them, that means they are special, valued, and that their plans and dreams with you together aren’t ultimately just a wild folly. The random sacrifice that gives them personal validation. It becomes easier to say nothing. To hide things. To keep things separate. This is not due to a lack of respect, lack of care or wish to cause pain and humiliation. Conversely, it is done to try to protect feelings.

Unfortunately, when things then do come out, as often they will, the hurt is magnified by the sense of betrayal; a torrent of insecurities warping the experience for them and the devil on their shoulder telling them that they should have known, they are a fool, and that all along you did not rate them as being special. After all, you had an agreement. Why on earth would anyone need to play away secretly when you’ve made arrangements to allow it? They must get off on making you look an idiot to the world. An emotional sadist. A selfish, lying, untrustworthy scoundrel of the lowest order.

broken hearted red robot

That is certainly how it feels. But it is almost never true. And in pain we act, severing the connections we have with the people in our lives we value the most, because we are tired of hurting them, or being hurt by them. After the anger, comes the regret. And the lasting sorrow. And the baffling, ongoing inability to comprehend why this has happened, and how we can reconcile the notion of the person we once loved with the monster who casually destroyed us with their deceit.

So, my baby ducklings, there are hard lessons here. Ultimately, these are they:

love unconditionally, without need for control or expectations, or for them to fit our plans. Do not set limits for the lives of those you love. The tighter you hold onto them, the faster they will break. Each person is a tree, and they have a trunk that holds them together to themselves, with many branches, to make many connections. All people must sway in the winds of life, sometimes towards us, and sometimes away. If we hold too tight onto the branch that reached towards us when the wind was in our favour, something will break. It will likely be the branch you are holding, severing your connection. Worse yet, you will uproot their trunk, disconnecting them from themselves and who they are, by forcing them to stay where you wish. Or it will be your own hand that does the breaking.

forgive the people who hurt you. Not for them, but for yourself. It’s such an cliche, but it’s true. Connection, love and closeness are flowing things, and not static in the way that society seems to insinuate they should be. People are complex, evolving creatures, and nobody is all good or all bad. Often, when people hurt us, they do it by accident. Just as we accidentally hurt those around us all the time. Even when we care for them. Especially when we care for them. If things between you have become so toxic that one or both of you are actually taking pleasure in causing the other to suffer, it is long beyond time to step away.

understand that the way you feel about something that someone else did is only your interpretation of it. We tend to give ourselves very dark narratives. Pain, abandonment and confusion bring out the worst in the dark creativity of our ingenious minds. We tell ourselves stories that are simply not true. Where we are the victim, we have made terrible, unforgivable mistakes, we cannot trust our judgement or we are doomed to eternal bad luck, unhappiness and that we are fools for ever caring about someone who could damage us so. Often, the more balanced truth of matters was there in front of us all the time. We just chose not to notice it, or didn’t have the eyes with which to really see it yet. Those eyes grow with time, and long years. After all, a happy ending simply depends on where you stop the story.

Do not equate actions or sacrifices with emotional connection. This sounds counterintuitive. After all, words are cheap, but actions speak volumes, right? Yet the ability to follow set (or in some cases intuitively guess) rules and appropriate responses to keep you happy is just a knack. It doesn’t actually mean someone cares. Bringing back flowers once a week is just a learned behaviour. Some people are naturally very ordered and have a set view of themselves as a law-abiding, reliable person. They may not care for you deeply, or want a true melding of hearts and souls, but never cause you problems with nasty surprises. Some people are naturally much more freedom-centred, and need to act spontaneously in order to feel themselves and enjoy their life. Whichever end of the spectrum a person is, does not correlate with depth or intensity of feeling for you, whatsoever. It is just the nature of who they are. You can accept them this way, and love them for it, or tolerate them through gritted teeth hoping they will change. If you are hoping they will change, then they are simply not the right person for you. Not at the moment anyway. And you can’t change people. Sometimes they just change themselves. Mostly they become more how they already were. So how will you really know how deep someone runs for you? You don’t. And ultimately, that’s not a problem. You do you. Feel whatever you want to feel. Everyone else is far too complicated, and ultimately, nobody else’s unspoken opinion of you should really matter. It’s a poor place to centre one’s own sense of worth.

Is cheating bad? Well it really depends. Some partners really, simply, just want to get on with life and not know about it. In a way, they have made the choice for you. They have cut you out a swathe of space, never to discuss, but also abandoned a part of you that they don’t want to know or acknowledge.

The urge to cheat? It means something in the situation is not ideal for someone. That’s often a really hard thing to clarify to oneself, let alone act on productively with a partner, when it’s such an emotionally-charged topic. As with most fights and resentments, the issue is never really with who didn’t do the washing up, or went to the pub on Friday and came in late. It’s about managing our own insecurities, and developing our own ability to assert what our real needs are, rather than blaming others for the way we feel.

It’s a complicated world, baby ducklings, whether vanilla-monogamous or a kinky poly. We sink and swim in equal measure.

Enjoy this blog? You might also like:

Attachment Styles and the Swing Scene

Sociopathy and the swing scene: a non-narcissist’s guide to self defence against vampires

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