It's Not "Cheating" If You Have an Open Marriage

Perhaps I have this wrong, but I’ve always understood cheating as behaviors outside a relationship conducted without the knowledge and/or consent of your partner.
Publish date:
July 16, 2013
marriage, polyamory, cheating, open marriage

I had a long conversation about open relationships this weekend, so it seemed fitting when Emily sent me this story by our friends at The Frisky this morning about Andrei Kirilenko of the Brooklyn Nets, who apparently has an open arrangement with his wife Masha Lopatova. I confess that I had to look up what sport the Brooklyn Nets played (this is why Daisy, not me, covers sports for xoJane), but once I had that straightened out (basketball, if you were wondering), I could focus on the story.

The big sports news here is that Kirilenko was just picked up by the Nets, but the human interest angle is in a 2006 “Salt Lake Tribune” story Mary Odell drug up; Lopatova apparently grants her husband an “allowance” of one dalliance annually with another woman.

A couple of things came to mind for me when I read the Frisky piece. For one thing, we don’t know if Lopatova and Kirilenko still have that agreement (unused, according to both parties), given that the “Tribune” article is getting pretty long in the tooth. For another, it’s odd to me to see it framed as “cheating” in the context of the story, because it doesn’t sound like cheating to me, and it got me thinking about how people view cheating, emotional, physical, and otherwise.

Perhaps I have this wrong, but I’ve always understood cheating as behaviors outside a relationship conducted without the knowledge and/or consent of your partner. If Kirilenko was getting some on the side without telling his wife, that would be cheating; if he had sex with another person and told her after the fact, it would be cheating. If he took a mistress and she was not okay with that, it would be cheating.

But if they negotiated the terms of an open relationship, he met an interesting woman while on the road, and he subsequently decided to have sex with her within the terms of their agreement (whatever those terms are -- maybe he’d need to call home, for example), how is that cheating? Is it cheating because of the implied assumption people are making that she can’t trust her husband to be faithful so she’s granting him an out?

Or is it “cheating” because people view any activity with someone outside a marriage as wrong, no matter what the terms of the marriage are?

Lopatova sounds like a rather forthright and very cool woman, outspoken and bold in a rather conservative area of the country. She was open about some of her reasoning in an interview “ESPN the Magazine,” quoted in the Tribune:

What's forbidden is always desirable. And athletes, particularly men, are susceptible to all the things they are offered. It's the same way raising children -- If I tell my child, 'No pizza, no pizza, no pizza,' what does he want more than anything? Pizza.

So she’s saying “Sure, go ahead and take a slice of pizza, honey, just remember where your salad is.” And she herself doesn’t define the agreement as cheating, which is why I find it puzzling that so many people are talking about it like it is. Instead, it’s a decision between two mutually consenting adults about how they want to conduct their relationship, one made public because of the high profile of the parties involved and her decision to be open about it.

Notably, it was her decision to talk about it, not his. Her decision to be very open about a private area of her life with the media. Her decision also to note that the agreement is not reciprocal, which is a bit unusual but not unheard of. And normally I am rather grossed out by the media fixation on the lives of celebrities, and wish that they could be allowed some privacy, but in this case, I can’t really hassle journalists for talking about their open marriage, since she’s the one who brought it up in the first place.

And, more importantly, talking about open marriages and the numerous forms that relationships and love can take is an important step in the direction of destigmatizing them. It’s clear that these two love each other very much, with a passionate, long-lasting relationship that’s worked well for both of them despite hardships like long time away from each other. And it’s also clear that their open agreement is one that functions well for them within their marriage.

That doesn’t mean everyone should run out and set up an open marriage, because it’s not for everyone. It requires a lot of communication, negotiation, trust, and love, not to mention a polyamorous orientation; and it’s something that may evolve over the course of years. Opening up an originally closed relationship can be fraught with complexity, as can changing the terms of a currently open relationship that needs to be adjusted to keep people safe and happy.

Though having an open marriage doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to engage in nonstop bawdy debauchery. As illustrated in this case, where Kirilenko is choosing not to take on additional partners. The very fact that his wife is willing to talk about it, however, makes it easier for him to make smart decisions for himself, his wife, his family, and his marriage.

By making it clear that she’s open to the idea of a casual secondary partner, Lopatova is opening up a discussion with her husband while simultaneously setting boundaries. She knows what she is and is not comfortable with, and is communicating that clearly so there can be no confusion in the marriage. This is definitely preferable to cleaning up the messy aftermath of actual cheating.

And by opening up to the media about it, she’s also sending a message about open marriages and their role in society. She’s creating a discussion and encouraging people to challenge harmful social attitudes about polyamorous people and the structure of their relationships. She’s challenging the attitude that athletes cheat, or that cheating is the only way to have physical or emotional intimacy outside a marriage.

And she's flying in the face of the idea that she should feel ashamed about having an open relationship, that they should remain closeted to avoid upsetting people.

I hope their agreement still stands, and I hope it’s still working well for them. Because a woman courageous enough to discuss such personal details in front of a hostile public sounds like a pretty amazing wife to have.