You Can Still Be Cheated On In An Open Relationship — I’d Know

Photographed by J Houston.
It’s 2022: monogamy is out, non-monogamy and polyamory is in. How could you miss it? You’ve likely seen poly plotlines in mainstream media (hello, Gossip Girl reboot), read about celebrities like Bella Thorne opening up about their non-monogamous journey and, if you’re dating, witnessed the acronym CNM (consensual non-monogamy) popping up on Hinge profiles left, right and centre. Even if you’ve missed all of these, you’ll probably have caught wind of the internet obsessing over an imagined throuple between Paul Mescal, Phoebe Bridgers and Daisy Edgar-Jones.
Most of us are aware that love comes in more shapes and sizes than we’ve traditionally been taught. In fact, many are increasingly open to exploring what that might look like in practice. A July 2022 YouGov poll suggested that 17% of people in the UK are either interested in open relationships or have already dabbled in them. Over in the US, a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2021 suggested that one in six Americans want to be poly. 
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One of the evident plus sides of non-monogamy is the chance to sleep with and explore romantic connections with more than one person – a clear benefit for people who feel stifled by conventional relationship styles or struggle to be faithful to one partner. However, that’s not to say that cheating would not exist if we lived in a completely non-monogamous world. Yes, polyamory or CNM breaks down the traditional, monogamous understanding of 'cheating'. That doesn't mean infidelity doesn't happen in open or non-monogamous relationships, despite the options and flexibility they provide.
So in a relationship where you can sleep with or date multiple people, what does cheating look like?
According to Marianne Johnson, a couples therapist and director of The Thought House Partnership, there is a united definition of cheating that we can employ across all relationship styles. "Cheating can be thought of as a digression from the contract and the rules of the relationship, whether those rules are tacitly or explicitly defined," she explains. 
In monogamy, she explains that cheating is about violating the relationship’s central contract: sexual and romantic exclusivity. While the rules in non-monogamy are different and vary hugely from relationship to relationship, they do still exist. Whether it’s respecting boundaries set by a partner or promising to tell everyone involved about your sexual and romantic activities, breaking relationship rules set out by your partners can be a form of betrayal and even infidelity
After all, non-monogamy sounds carefree but it’s not about having the wildest, most spontaneous sex of your life, every single day. Even if you’re in a 'don't ask, don't tell' open relationship, being meticulous about sexual health will likely be a non-negotiable requirement. If you’re solo poly or a relationship anarchist, being upfront and honest about what you can offer – even if that limits your dating pool – is central. And if you're more into polyamory and having multiple relationships, you’ll probably find yourself devoting plenty of time to relationship admin: shared Google calendars, prolonged processing sessions and check-ins.  
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At the time I thought we had to be honest about who we were seeing and when. It turned out this was not his understanding.

Jackie*, 26
Really, non-monogamy is about carving out new sets of rules that differ from the social default and trusting yourself and any partners to stick to them. Violating that trust can be seen as a form of cheating. Ana Kirova is the CEO of Feeld, a progressive dating app with over 20 sexuality and gender options. "Cheating to me is not solely defined by physical boundaries but transcends into a more nuanced realm," she says. "Any breach of trust or dishonest act can be considered cheating."
You will see common themes of lying and a disregard for a partner’s feelings across all forms of cheating. This was true for 26-year-old Jackie*, who was formerly in an open relationship with a man she met on Hinge. He floated the idea of non-monogamy when they first met and it became the early basis of their relationship. However, they appeared to have differing ideas of what this meant. "At the time I thought we had to be honest about who we were seeing and when. We didn’t need to give specific details about the individual but our partner should know if we were going on a date," Jackie recalls. "It turned out this was not his understanding, and he thought it was more of a 'don't ask, don't tell' situation."
Jackie's ex refused to keep her aware of the realities of his dating life, all while expecting a level of disclosure from her. She explains that this double standard progressed towards him actively hiding his outside love interests from her even after he asked to close the relationship – a move she consented to for his sake but wasn’t enthusiastic about. "He was controlling and didn’t want me to go on dates, while himself dating and keeping it from me," she says. "I found out while we were breaking up that he was messaging sexually with a number of people he had seen when we were open."
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The dishonesty Jackie outlines will sound familiar to anyone who has experienced more traditional definitions of cheating. However, communication and openness aren’t necessarily a magic salve for broken promises. This, at least, was the experience of 26-year-old Amina* whose former partner undermined her boundaries while exploring deepening romantic connections elsewhere. "He met someone else and wanted to pursue that relationship. At first, he came to me and asked how I would feel about that and what I needed to feel comfortable," she explains. "Because I was most comfortable as his primary partner, the rules I stated for his new relationship were that I didn’t want her to meet family or stay over on a weeknight." 
Amina’s partner agreed to these boundaries but despite this initial clarity and consensus, things became murky after Amina moved to another city and her partner’s other relationship intensified in her absence. During a phone call, Amina's partner revealed that the woman he was seeing had stayed at his home for an entire week. This provoked feelings of jealousy, confusion and insecurity for Amina, particularly as it went contrary to boundaries they had previously discussed. "It was weird, even though boundaries were broken, they were fully communicated to me," she says. "It made me really uncomfortable. We clearly set out a boundary for our relationship and even though he told me about it, he completely broke that rule."
Much like Jackie, Amina’s relationship ended after rule breaks were made known to her. However, not all non-monogamous partners will split up after these kinds of infractions. Just like in monogamous partnerships, some individuals will choose to keep the relationship going and will work on making amends and rebuilding trust. Yet sometimes betrayals such as these are a sign that the relationship contract isn’t working for all parties and one partner may wish to change the terms. 
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Deviating from the social script of monogamy isn't about not owing anyone anything. It's really an exercise in responsibility, accountability and trust towards both your romantic or sexual partners and yourself.

It’s important to remember that the best way to avoid hurt feelings is to be open about potential changes to the relationship contract rather than ignoring a shift in feelings or priorities and reneging on commitments. Johnson says: "Non-monogamous relationships require more communication and an openness to renegotiate the terms of the 'contract' as members of the polycule [all of the people linked through their relationships to one or more of a polyamorous group] may evolve their needs and desires." Ultimately, if through talking and remodelling the relationship you discover that your ideal version of the relationship no longer aligns with your partner's, it might be worth calling time on things and devoting your energy elsewhere. 
At the end of the day, deviating from the social script of monogamy isn’t about not owing anyone anything. It’s really an exercise in responsibility, accountability and trust towards both your romantic or sexual partners and yourself. Yes, it’s about living authentically but, like in monogamy, it’s also about trying not to screw anyone over. Naturally, it doesn’t always work out that way. Amina sums it up: "People who are not necessarily the most considerate find themselves in all kinds of relationship dynamics."
*Name has been changed

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