As I got older, I started to realize that my sexual drive was more limited than the people around me.
Being able to have sex with anyone should've meant that our polyamorous relationship was immune to cheating. But people lie.
When my boyfriend and I are feeling smug, we like to gloat about the fact that we’ve basically cheat-proofed our relationship. We’re polyamorous, which means we can have sex and fall in love with other people. Nothing is forbidden, though we agree to use condoms with others.
The only way we could cheat, we chortle in a self-satisfied way, is to have sex with someone and then lie about it, and why the hell would we do that?
Oh, if only we’d known.
We started dating a married couple about a year ago. Jen* and Mike* identified as swingers, but were curious about the more open-ended relationship structures found in the poly community. It was lust at first sight: My boyfriend and Jen holed up and “got to know each other” right away. It took me a little longer to warm up to Mike, but once I did, we began having fantastic sex.
In poly and other forms of non-monogamy, we have conversations about STI risks and safer sex. Most monogamous folks automatically assume that once you shack up, you’ll only be exchanging bodily fluids with each other, but that’s not the case for us.
We talk about fluid bonding, or who you’ll share which fluids with, in order to figure out if and when it feels safe to ditch the barriers. My boyfriend and I are fluid bonded since I’m on the pill. When Jen and Mike and my boyfriend and I had all been together for six-ish months and our emotional intimacy was building, we decided to fluid-bond.
Jen and Mike had decided early in their marriage not to have kids, so he got snipped and she had her tubes tied. We got the requisite round of STI tests and ditched the condoms. More awesome sex ensued.
(Oh, you want the gory details? Jen and I are both bi, so yes, there were plenty of foursomes. But mostly each couple was happy to swap partners a couple evenings a week to keep things fresh. So I saw a lot of Mike and my boyfriend saw a lot of Jen, and then we’d reconnect with our original partners on alternate nights.)
At some point, things stopped working between Mike and me. We downgraded to friends and occasional fuck-buddies, and I went back to juggling a handful of occasional outside partners while maintaining my relationship with my boyfriend, who continued to see Jen.
Things might’ve ended there, with no story to tell, except that Mike starting sleeping with another poly cluster of folks, and brought up the question of fluid bonding with them. Nobody would’ve cared who he was fucking if barriers had been used all around, because hello, we’re not the sex police, and using condoms will drastically reduce your chances of bringing home an unwanted friend.
But since my boyfriend was still fucking Jen without condoms, and he and I were still having unprotected sex, anything that any of the four of us did could impact the other three.
So we talked about what it might take to increase the fluid bond numbers from four to six or seven (depending on the shifting numbers of this other poly group that Mike was hooking up with). And you know what? Those numbers don’t look so good when people are still having sex outside the group, because it only takes one condom breaking to put everyone at risk.
It also didn’t help that we didn’t know these other people at all, so how could we trust them to honor agreements and be truthful about their STI results?
I hated to be the one to do it, but I shot down Mike’s idea of expanding the fluid bond, thus unleashing a world of angst that would take a while to manifest.
See, unbeknownst to me, Jen had started resenting me for breaking up with her husband and then not letting him be happy with this other group of chicks he was into. Because, you know, insisting that people use condoms for the safety of the group absolutely ruins their sexual pleasure.
Mike resented me for toning down our relationship, though he didn’t own up to it. My boyfriend tried to soothe everyone’s feelings and got worn down by all that emotional labor. I was too busy trying to move on to realize what was happening, which, in retrospect, probably sent the message that I didn’t give a shit about any of them.
Soon, this snarled web of interpersonal conflict was all anyone could talk about, and things got tense.
In the midst of all this drama — from what we can piece together after the fact — Mike took solace in the arms of his new lady friends. And by arms I mean vaginas. In an unprotected way.
Of course, we didn’t learn about this until Jen and my boyfriend broke up. That’s when Mike finally confessed to his infidelity.
It’s weird learning that someone had permission to fuck anyone, anytime, and the only thing he had to do was wrap it . . . but he didn’t. Or he could have been honest about not using a condom . . . but he wasn't.
You look at the infidelity rates in the supposedly monogamous world and it’s like, of course people are going to cheat when it feels sexily transgressive for rebelling against a rule. Some people crave the rush of doing something taboo. But it’s baffling to look at our situation and try to figure out what happened. (We’re no longer on speaking terms with Mike and Jen.)
Trying to assemble the puzzle pieces becomes mentally and emotionally exhausting after a point. While the women Mike cheated with are in our extended social circle, I’ve never talked to them one-on-one, and now doesn’t seem like the time to start.
That’d be a fun conversation for sure: “Hey, so, you were fucking my ex-lover for a while . . . did you know that he was still in a fluid bond with his wife, which extended to my boyfriend and me, and we didn’t get a chance to consent to y’all ditching the condoms? So, uh, how long was that going on for? Also, how’s your sexual health these days? Care to provide us with your most recent test results?”
Yeah, not a conversation I want to have. My boyfriend and I waited the recommended couple of months to go in and get tested. We were lucky. Mike didn’t transmit anything to us from his unprotected sex spree.
While we’re doing fine physically — emotionally, not so much. I’d wanted to look back on my relationship with Mike fondly, as a fun fling that ended when its time had come. I really liked Mike, and thought he was a gentle soul who would never do anything to hurt me. His infidelity really hurt.
I’m sure anyone who’s been cheated on has felt some of the same things I’m feeling, like betrayal, anger, frustration, despondence, and general yuckiness. I wish I knew what “really” happened, but I doubt I ever will. If anything, though, my hurt feelings were probably magnified by the fact that I haven’t experienced cheating since I gleefully leaped into the poly lifestyle. (Not to my knowledge, anyway; I’m now far more cynical about people’s ability to tell the truth.)
I wish I could say I’d learned something from this experience, or gleaned some nugget of wisdom to pass on to my friends both monogamous and not. People lie and cheat even when given the freedom to do damn near anything? Swapping bodily fluids with more than one person at a time is probably asking for trouble? Don’t brag about cheat-proofing your relationship unless you want to get slapped upside the head by the universe?
Sometimes shitty things happen for reasons we don’t understand, and this seems especially true when human behavior is involved. Me? I’m still happy with the way I do ethical non-monogamy. I’m still happy with my boyfriend (though this episode shook up our relationship a bit). I’m a little more reluctant to trust people, and it’ll probably be a long time (possibly never) before I agree to a fluid bond with multiple people.
*Names have been changed
Want to submit to this column? Send your pitches or stories of cheating or being cheated on to email@example.com with the subject line "Cheaters."