Affair Help: When Non-Monogamy Isn’t an Affair

Defining Affairs & Infidelity

Defining Infidelity: Consensual non-monogamyThere are numerous attempts at definitions for what constitutes an affair, and cheaters find holes to worm through in all of them.

Typically, the term ‘affair’ is inferred to suggest suggest a consistent interaction between the cheater and another person over a period of time, and are often categorized as:

  1. an emotional affair
  2. a physical affair
  3. a physical and emotional affair

Infidelity & Affair Help: PolyamoryThese labels alone (or even the term ‘affair’ itself) aren’t sufficient to describe the gamut of behaviors that include the drunken one-night stand, the impersonal use of ‘professional escort services’, or even certain cultural concepts of adultery. The umbrella term “infidelity” covers the much broader range of behaviors than the term “affair” (which suggests love and a lengthy relationship), though the two terms are often used interchangeably.

The lack of a single definition of infidelity is often used by cheaters to deny their ‘cheater status’. I’ve heard many attempts to deny ‘an affair’ and they all tend along the same lines:

  • A blow job isn’t really sex.
  • I never touched her.
  • I only knew him online.
  • He kissed me, I didn’t kiss him back.
  • I was coerced.
  • It was only sex.
  • It was never sex.
  • It’s not an affair, it’s love.
  • It’s not a love affair, it’s just sex.
  • I love him.
  • I don’t love her.
  • I only watched, dogging doesn’t count.
  • She’s a blow-up doll.
  • We’re just friends.

The list of denials can go on ad nauseum.

This is my definition of infidelity (and there are as many wormholes in my definition as there are in others, for those who want to snake their way out of it):

Where one party in a mutually agreed emotionally and physically monogamous relationship makes a unilateral decision to enter into an emotional or sexual relationship or activity with someone (or even someTHING) other than their partner, without that partner’s consent.

The problems start when one person wants to change the agreed foundations of a relationship and acts without agreement to that change, often while pretending that they are abiding by their original promises. Cheating doesn’t permit the other partner to veto or agree proposed changes, and denies them the opportunity to exit with dignity if the proposals don’t align with their requirements of the relationship.

Infidelity & Affair Help: PolyamoryConsensual Non-Monogamy

Let’s be clear: Having multiple concurrent relationships is not necessarily infidelity. Having more than one sexual or emotional partner at a time does not necessarily constitute having an affair. Not all relationships start out with the intent of monogamy.

Consensual nonmonogamy contains multitudes [of definitions]. It includes sex-only arrangements, such as two committed partners agreeing that they’re allowed to seek no-strings-attached sex with other people. It also includes polyamory, which involves multiple committed relationships at once with the consent and knowledge of everyone involved.

Consensual nonmonogamy does not include cheating, in which one partner steps out without the permission of the other.

Stephanie Pappas, Live Science: New Sexual Revolution: Polyamory May Be Good for You

Whilst that might prompt a slew of judgments about morality from some, I’d ask the question, Where’s the immorality: Betraying an agreed monogamous relationship, or having an agreed, honest, non-monogamous relationship from the outset?

Polyamory is not an attractive concept for many, and I suspect that most would probably respond to the idea of compersion with an, “Oh hellllll no.” However, we must accept that others have different views and inclinations and that it is an attractive and reasonable concept for some who are not interested in having a sexually monogamous relationship.

Cheating and Safe Sex

Often, social judgment and religious outrage against consensual non-monogamy is masked by presenting it as a public health issue. There is a lot of finger wagging about the sexual health risks of having multiple sexual partners, but it could be argued that singles engaged in casual sex and those in non-monogamous relationships take less risks with their sexual health than cheaters.

The University of Michigan’s Moors has found that people who cheat on their partners sexually are less likely to engage in safe sex while doing so than are people in consensual nonmonogamous relationships. The findings, published in March 2012 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, apply to condom use, use of gloves for genital touching, discussion of sexually transmitted disease and sexual history and sterilization of sex toys.

“Individuals in consensually nonmonogamous relationships were just safer across the board,” Moors told LiveScience. A second study, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Sexual Health, found that individuals who had permission to “cheat” were more likely to use condoms correctly than actual cheaters.

Stephanie Pappas, Live Science: New Sexual Revolution: Polyamory May Be Good for You

A very real part of the damage cheating can cause is the risk of STIs. Cheaters frequently expose their spouse to sexual health risks and unfortunately, many faithful spouses do contract some form of STI.

[Finally,] skipping safe sex may be a way for cheaters to rationalize their behavior, Moors said.

“If they had gone out and gotten protection then it might have seemed more planned,” she said. “It might have been like, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be cheating on my partner if I have to walk to CVS to pick up condoms.'”

Stephanie Pappas, Live Science: New Sexual Revolution: Polyamory May Be Good for You

It just happened” is far more palatable language than, “I decided to fuck my affair partner on Tuesday night, booked the hotel, and popped into Rite Aid for condoms and lube on Saturday while I was taking the kids to lacrosse practice. I called you to ask if we needed milk - I mean, I was there, after all.

Far easier to skip the gargantuan red flag that you’re considering screwing someone who is a potentially diseased he/she-gross-skank, and just go with the flow and tell yourself you were swept away by the sordid torrid passion of the moment.

Societal Fear of Consensual Non-Monogamy

Indeed, one reason monogamy is so important to us is that we are so terrorized by what we imagine are the alternatives to it. The other person we fear most is the one who does not believe in the universal sacredness of—usually heterosexual—coupledom.

Adam Phillips: Monogamy

It’s easy to find alarmist nonsense that non-monogamy will erode the very foundations of western society, ruin our children, or somehow cause the earth to spin off its axis. It’s seen as a religious and cultural threat and, as such, people hold very negative views about those who engage in consensual non-monogamous relationships.

Despite an estimated prevalence of between 4.3-10.5% of relationships being non-monogamous, a series of studies revealed that people hold negative stereotypes of consensual non-monogamy and those who engage in these relationships. For example, in one study, “Sarah and Dan,” a happy monogamous couple were compared to Sarah and Dan, a happy consensually non-monogamous couple. Despite the fact that both couples were represented as being happy with their agreed upon relationship, participants had a much more negative perception of non-monogamous Sarah and Dan than monogamous. As a non-monogamous couple, others perceived Sarah and Dan as more sexually risky, less morally acceptable, and as having a less trusting and less meaningful relationship. The non-monogamous couple was even rated less positively on many arbitrary traits, such as paying taxes on time and daily flossing!

Dr. Amy Muise: Science of Relationships

In truth, polyamory is a lot of work - it’s complex and challenging, and is probably unlikely to become the primary relationship type in western society, but clearly the estimated prevalence suggests that people are finding it to be a viable alternative.

Consensual non-monogamy is an ethical solution for those who wish to enjoy the benefits of a stable emotional relationship without also confining their sexual experiences also to that relationship. Open marriages may be ridiculed, dismissed, and denounced but those agreed extra-marital relationships are NOT punctuated by the attendant partner abuse and damage that is caused by cheating.


For those who believe that marriage must always be an agreed commitment to monogamy, the idea of open marriages and monogamish marriages is simply unacceptable, no matter the terms. This is often founded in a Christian view that marriage is between one man and one woman, till death do they part, and which no one should put asunder. This view may well be coupled with disgust, fear, and condemnation of homosexuality, divorce, same sex marriages, and non-monogamy. It’s a traditional Christian view to which people are, of course, entitled but they are not entitled to force that upon the rest of society.

I don’t personally share any religious doctrines or dogma: If a couple agree terms for extra-marital sex at the outset of a relationship, equally, with full participation and agreement of the rules associated with that, have at it. That’s not cheating, it’s a mutually agreed non-monogamous relationship with boundaries and rules that the couple have devised, and to which they both agree. To go outside those mutually agreed boundaries IS cheating.

Unfortunately, cheaters do love to latch on to ideas that excuse or justify their infidelity. Monogamish is one of those terms. Let’s be super clear here: Monogamish does NOT mean to engage in extra-marital emotional relationships or sexual activities when you’re in an agreed monogamous marriage, whether you you pretend that your promise of fidelity is secure, unbroken, and rigorously upheld or not.

A Note About Adultery

Adultery is a term that I find widely misused - it continues to surprise me how often this word is incorrectly applied.

Adultery has specific and legal definitions by individual state and national statues, but in western statutes it generally refers to a married person having sexual intercourse with someone other than the spouse. What constitutes sexual intercourse varies per statute, but it is not the use of pornography, masturbation, using sex cams, or emotional infidelity. If you’re surprised that I’ve listed what may seem obvious specifics, it’s worryingly common to find these things being called adultery. In fact, there are even movements that advocate for the inclusion of these things into the legal definitions of adultery (yes, masturbation -incredibly- being one of them).

I also find a common abuse of the word ‘adulterer’ when it is applied to the unmarried affair partner. The single affair partner may be a participant in the cheater’s adulterous affair, but they are not themselves an adulterer.

In might seem pedantic and somewhat irrelevant to be overly concerned about the language used to describe non-monogamy and infidelity. I disagree - I believe that it’s important to use the correct language and terminology especially where it can be highly emotive. Infidelity is not synonymous with adultery or non-monogamy.


“I'm not a teacher, only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead - ahead of myself as well as you.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

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