From Cheating to Polyamory

noelfi­gart recent­ly asked if any­one on the Poly­fam­i­lies list would be will­ing to try writ­ing an arti­cle about mov­ing from cheat­ing to polyamory. I mulled it a bit, and I’ve tried it. I’ll warn you—it’s long. But I’d appre­ci­ate feedback.

Please do NOT for­ward, copy or post this ANYWHERE. It may be sub­mit­ted to a mag­a­zine if it does­n’t suck too badly.

I don’t have a snazzy title yet.


Fre­quent­ly, new­com­ers to var­i­ous groups in the polyamorous com­mu­ni­ty intro­duce them­selves with a tale of mar­ried woe. Ah, the poor per­son has just dis­cov­ered that he is, in fact, polyamorous, after hav­ing entered into a monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship (usu­al­ly a mar­riage). In most cas­es, the new­com­er has already strayed into infi­deli­ty, and wish­es to have his cake and eat it too, by con­vinc­ing his wife to accept the rela­tion­ship with the new lover so that they can all live hap­pi­ly ever after. I’m using the male pro­nouns for the sake of clar­i­ty, but I’ve cer­tain­ly encoun­tered both men and women in this situation.

The new­com­er is usu­al­ly sur­prised to find that he is not, in fact, wel­comed with open arms. In fact, most of us are very, very hos­tile to peo­ple who cheat on their part­ners and call it polyamory, because that has absolute­ly noth­ing to do with how we are liv­ing our lives.

This per­son is fre­quent­ly seek­ing advice on how to intro­duce the top­ic of polyamory to his spouse. I fig­ure it’s bet­ter to be hon­est at some point instead of nev­er doing so here is my advice to those in this situation.

I’ll be honest—I have nev­er, not even once, known of any­one who has been able to move from an affair in a monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship to a healthy polyamorous rela­tion­ship involv­ing the same peo­ple. I’ve known of peo­ple who did cheat on their part­ners in monog­a­mous rela­tion­ships who lat­er moved on to be polyamorous, but they did not sal­vage the orig­i­nal monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship. I’ve known peo­ple whose spous­es cheat­ed on them in monog­a­mous rela­tion­ships who end­ed them, then went on to explore polyamory very hap­pi­ly. That sur­pris­es a fair num­ber of those seek­ing help in this sit­u­a­tion. What you have to real­ize is that the real issue between you and your spouse right now is not polyamory or sex. It is your betray­al of the agree­ments between the two of you, and your dis­hon­esty. You have bro­ken her trust.

Now that you’re com­ing clean, you’d bet­ter do so com­plete­ly. I mean 100%, absolute­ly, no holds barred, no lit­tle omis­sions or “fram­ing” of the facts, truth. We’re talk­ing rad­i­cal hon­esty in its truest sense, and if you haven’t yet read Brad Blan­ton’s book on the sub­ject you should do so imme­di­ate­ly. Take it to heart. Do the exer­cis­es. Devour it, digest it, and make it a part of you.

Sec­ond, accept full cul­pa­bil­i­ty. Do not even allow your­self to maybe think just a lit­tle bit of this is any­one’s fault but your own. You are an adult. No mat­ter what your emo­tions are, you are in con­trol of your actions. No mat­ter what the rela­tion­ship with your wife was like, whether she “just (did­n’t) under­stand (you)” or you aren’t get­ting as much sex as you’d like, or you just aren’t so attract­ed to her any­more, or you want to explore things that don’t inter­est her, this is your fault. It does­n’t mat­ter how much effort your sweet­ie put into seduc­ing or attract­ing you—unless you were actu­al­ly raped, you chose to cheat. It’s All Your Fault. Accept it, know it, pro­claim it.

Now—decide what you tru­ly want. Do you want to be with your wife? Do you want to be with your wife only if she agrees to you remain­ing with your sweet­ie? Be sure to think about all the ram­i­fi­ca­tions this is going to have—the effects a divorce, a polyamorous rela­tion­ship, or you break­ing up with your sweet­ie and remain­ing in a monog­a­mous mar­riage (tru­ly, with­out stray­ing again) will have on your chil­dren, your extend­ed fam­i­ly, your friends, your career—and you. Are you tru­ly will­ing to do the very hard work over an extend­ed peri­od of time that it’ll take to just have a good mar­riage, let alone to have healthy polyamorous relationships?

If you’ve decid­ed that you tru­ly want to stay with your wife and have your sweet­ie too, and you’re will­ing to do the work, it’s time to talk to your wife.

Admit all that cul­pa­bil­i­ty. Do the full dis­clo­sure thing, rad­i­cal hon­esty-style. You might, in fact, want to con­sid­er doing this with a very good mar­riage coun­selor present. I strong­ly advise it. Ask your wife to let you talk until you’re fin­ish, and tell her every­thing. When you’re done talk­ing, it’s her turn to talk until she’s fin­ished. Let her say any­thing she wants to say, ask ques­tions, etc. Answer any ques­tions she has ful­ly and hon­est­ly. I’d sug­gest hav­ing some kind of print­ed mate­ri­als on hand about polyamory. Ask that she read them and con­sid­er the idea. You most cer­tain­ly can­not present your­self as any kind of author­i­ty or as an unbi­ased source, now can you?

She may want some space at this point, because she’ll need pro­cess­ing time. That’s nor­mal. I’d cer­tain­ly need it!

Pre­pare your­self to accept her anger and resent­ment, and to acknowl­edge her right to those feel­ings and sup­port her in express­ing them in a healthy way.

Your wife real­ly has sev­er­al deci­sions to make now. First—does she trust you at all? Is she able to for­give the harm you’ve done, and is your mar­riage even worth the work it’s going to take to sal­vage it? It is high­ly like­ly that her friends and fam­i­ly will be telling her to dump you, or at the very least to not even con­sid­er open­ing your rela­tion­ship in any way. Expect a lot of neg­a­tiv­i­ty from them towards you, and accept that you deserve it.

Second—if she trusts you, what does she think of polyamory? She’s like­ly to have a pret­ty neg­a­tive view of it if her first intro­duc­tion to it is from a phi­lan­der­er. Many peo­ple assume that polyamory is just a way of pret­ti­fy­ing swing­ing or infi­deli­ty any­way, which is one rea­son those of us who are polyamorous get pissed off at phi­lan­der­ers who want to claim that they’re real­ly polyamorous.

Third, if she’s will­ing to try polyamory—is she will­ing to try it with you? 

Fourth—if she’s will­ing to try polyamory with you, is she will­ing to agree to your involve­ment with your sweet­ie, who has already shown a total dis­re­gard for her rela­tion­ship with you? Remem­ber, she prob­a­bly has no pri­or his­to­ry or love for your sweet­ie, so there’s absolute­ly noth­ing to ame­lio­rate the stark betray­al she has expe­ri­enced at the hands of your lover.

You don’t get to uni­lat­er­al­ly change the rules of your rela­tion­ship with your wife. If you decide that you must remain involved with your oth­er lover, and your wife wants a monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship, then you’re look­ing at a sit­u­a­tion that does not con­tain any pos­si­bil­i­ty for compromise. 

If your wife says that she is will­ing to stay with you in a monog­a­mous mar­riage, that’s her choice. It is her right to make that choice with­out being bad­gered by you. If you agree to it, do not do so with any kind of ulte­ri­or motive or long-term agen­da of chang­ing her mind. Break things off with your lover for­ev­er. It would be safest to avoid any con­tact with the lover at all.

If you can’t agree to the monog­a­mous mar­riage your wife wants, the mar­riage is over. You should both pro­ceed to work­ing out the most ami­ca­ble and least dam­ag­ing way to move forward.

If both of you decide that you want to be togeth­er and are will­ing to try polyamory, then both of you real­ly need to prac­tice rad­i­cal hon­esty as you pro­ceed. Inves­ti­gate the dif­fer­ent ways that oth­er peo­ple live polyamory. Meet poly peo­ple and get to know them—no, I don’t mean look for more lovers. Talk to peo­ple who are will­ing to open up and tell you about how they work out issues like jeal­ousy, resources, child care, safer sex, etc. Meet peo­ple face to face, not just online—a net search should find a poly group in your area, or at least in the near­est major met­ro­pol­i­tan area. You want to get to know peo­ple well enough to tru­ly see how they live, not just the faces they choose to present online.

Be extreme­ly hon­est with each oth­er about what you do and do not like, and what you want to try. If some­thing does­n’t work for both of you, be will­ing to give it up and move on to some­thing else. There’s no One True Way to live polyamory oth­er than being hon­est, open, and lov­ing with all the peo­ple with whom you are involved.

Keep try­ing. Remem­ber that this is a com­plete­ly new rela­tion­ship par­a­digm for both of you, and that you prob­a­bly haven’t grown up with any role mod­els as to how it “should” be done. That’s actu­al­ly good, but it can cause you to feel lost in the woods.

Real­ize that while you are look­ing at what you want and don’t want in your rela­tion­ships, you’re like­ly to find your­self ques­tion­ing a lot of things you may have tak­en for grant­ed in your life. Every­thing from how you will live, to just what sex means to you, to what con­sti­tutes a rela­tion­ship, is up for rede­f­i­n­i­tion now. Some peo­ple find that their reli­gious beliefs are not sup­port­ive of polyamory, and end up seek­ing a new spir­i­tu­al path.

Go very, very slow­ly. Do not rush. This is worth tak­ing your time to do right. Be patient with your­self, your partner(s), and your relationships.

I’ll repeat that a good mar­riage coun­selor can be a god­send in this process. Some­one who is accept­ing and sup­port­ive of both polyamory and monogamy is best. It isn’t always easy to find poly-friend­ly coun­selors, but I have found that good ther­a­pists are often more open to con­sid­er­ing polyamory as a work­able rela­tion­ship mod­el than you may think. The Poly-Friend­ly Pro­fes­sion­als site is a good place to start looking.

If you’re intro­duc­ing the idea of polyamory to a coun­selor with whom you already have an estab­lished rela­tion­ship, print out copies of What Psy­chol­o­gy Pro­fes­sion­als Should Know About Polyamory and Work­ing With Polyamorous Clients in the Clin­i­cal Set­ting to give to the ther­a­pist. If you’re seek­ing a new ther­a­pist, ask them on the phone about their past expe­ri­ences, if any, with polyamory, and ask that they read those arti­cles before your first appoint­ment if they are will­ing to work with a polyamorous per­son or cou­ple in a sup­port­ive way.

Good luck!

Cur­rent Mood: 😯ner­vous
Cyn is a proud Mommy & Mémé, professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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