I’m going to go out on a limb here, and disagree with the usual polyamorous ‘party line’ as it were, and say that cheating is not always wrong. Now, before you get outraged and condemn this as nonsense, do let me explain myself.
Firstly, I am not saying that cheating is ever the ideal choice of action. I do not encourage, condone or forgive those who cause harm to those they love by cheating on those they love. Communication, consent and compassion are far more likely to solve problems in a relationship than cheating ever will. I do not, however, blindly condemn those who engage in non-monogamous encounters without the consent of their significant other. To say that something is always wrong would, for starters, be a very two-dimensional approach; and it would never sit well with my incredible aversion to absolutist ethics. In short – humans and the lives we lead are not so simple that one can judge all actions based on a pre-defined set of rules, without consideration of context.
For the context of this article I’m using the definition of cheating as generally understood by most people; the betrayal of trust in a relationship by engaging in sexual behaviour with someone other than your lover(s – yes, poly people can still cheat) without their consent. I’m not going to go into further depth by analysing all the non-sexual betrayals of trust that can and do occur in relationships, though I believe the same principles can apply when analysing their ethical value.
Let me give an example of an instance in which I believe that cheating on ones partner can be considered as not necessarily ‘right’ as understood by the usual right/wrong dichotomy most ethicists use, but at least not wrong.
I introduce a hypothetical young lady to you. This young lady has a new partner, but this partner is incapable of fulfilling her sexual needs at the current time, because of issues that partner has. The issue has been discussed, and her partner is working, slowly but inevitably towards solving this problem – but the partner does not consent to her fulfilling her needs elsewhere. Clearly the best path for her is to be patient and wait for this to work itself out – her long term happiness with her partner being guaranteed that way (hypothetical situation, remember? Other issues may cause problems, but we are only examining one issue here). Humans being humans, (particularly young ones) she finds this extremely difficult, and there are always more than two options in any situation of this kind. She could wait for her partner to solve the issue; she could go out and sleep with miscellaneous people with no connection to her life – risking both her relationship and her health; she could go to an escort; she could have an affair with one person attracted to her whose sexual health is known to be fine – which may result in significant hurt being inflicted on the other person she brought into her life if they become emotionally attached.
What this woman wants is someone to help her with her sexual frustration for a time without risk of hurting that person, or risking ruining her relationship. Fortunately, she is on very good terms with an ex-partner who has a clear view that sex and emotions are not necessarily things inevitably entangled, and whom she trusts to keep her confidence without fault. She clearly explains to this person what she needs, and they engage in occasional sexual activity when her patience is wearing thin with her current partner. The individual with whom she is having the affair (for want of a better term) is fully aware that they only fulfil a physical need, but are happy to do this for someone they consider a close friend – though they did attempt to dissuade the young lady initially, they were convinced that it was the best for all. They tell absolutely no-one of their encounters, maintaining complete secrecy.
When her partner has conquered their problem and their sexual relationship fulfils both their needs, she explains this to her other sexual partner, who congratulates her and they no longer have sex. Everyone is happy with this outcome.
Yes, this is a rather special situation, in which all the risks were kept to a minimum, and no-one was hurt at the end of it. This is a rare occurrence where cheating is concerned, but the variety of life does allow for such things to occur. Should the young lady have simply been patient and waited for her partner to come to terms with their issues? Quite simply, yes. That would have been the best option, as I said. But did this course of events lead to a long and prosperous relationship, where her patience with her partner was aided by the fulfilment of her sexual needs? Yes. The ideal path of waiting was not one she felt was open to her, admittedly by her own lack of patience, but it is my opinion that people’s failings are not things that should be condemned if they are being dealt with responsibly – only flaws that people fail to recognise and refuse to work on should be condemned.
So, the young lady had her needs fulfilled and was able to help her partner through their issues with great compassion; her partner was not harmed because of the great lengths taken by her and her other sexual partner to maintain secrecy; the other sexual partner was not harmed, and was able to provide support for their friends. So if one takes the outlook that the consequences of ones actions dictate their ethical value, this hypothetical situation has not done any wrong.
The young woman acted out of compassion for both her partner and her other sexual partner, choosing the path of least risk to all, while striving to have her own needs fulfilled. The person with whom she had an affair also acted out of compassion for a friend. If one takes the view that motivations define the correctness or otherwise of an action, then one must concede that they acted in a manner that was not without merit. Certainly they can be called out in the fact that they both also acted selfishly in putting the feelings of her partner at risk in order that their needs be fulfilled. Having said that, dealing with ones flaws is a difficult thing: had she not fulfilled her sexual needs, would she have run out of patience with her partner and hurt them more so than this course of action?
The actions taken by the young lady, and her sexually involved friend, can be judged to be wrong only on the basis that they deceived her partner. This is a view only really taken by those who hold an absolutist belief that deceit is always wrong, and in this situation they would surely declare that the young lady’s lover has a right to know the truth. If this is your view, I ask you just one thing – would you inflict suffering onto these three people by telling them, when all problems have been concluded and they are all happy?
Most occurrences of cheating do not play out like this – secrecy is a difficult burden, and most people are incapable of keeping such things between just two people. In most cases the partner will find out, great amounts of pain will be inflicted upon all parties, and the act of cheating is always an unwise choice because of this. I do not advise anyone to take this path, but I provide this examination as food for thought to those that would judge harshly on those that cheat.