A few months after my husband and I opened our marriage I fell for a guy (let’s call him S) who told me that he was polyamorous, and that it was just a matter of time before his wife would come to terms with that. I really liked the guy so I patiently waited for him to explain to his wife why it was okay for him to date someone else. “Patiently waited” meant stealing kisses on staircases, going on romantic walks, holding hands, and having borderline appropriate text conversations.
At some point S did tell his wife he liked me. It turned out that not only she wasn’t okay with his polyamorous nature, but she also wasn’t okay with me specifically, and that she was an extremely jealous person. She sent me snark messages via social media, blocked me, unblocked me, blocked me again, and made me feel quite uncomfortable. I shared my discomfort with S, but he was very convincing and kept telling me that she’d come around soon and that I just needed to be patient.
After a few months of no progress I ran out of patience and stopped talking to S all together. Almost a year later I randomly ran into him on the train. He sat next to me, held my hand, cried, told me how miserable he was and how he missed me. I still don’t understand why, if he was so miserable, he was still in the exact same spot where he‘d been a year earlier and why he hadn’t actually done anything to change his situation.
During my involvement with S, I sometimes wondered whether my behavior was ethical. I explained what was happening to myself this way: my husband was in the loop and told me I could only control my choices, definitely not S’s or his wife’s, and therefore I shouldn’t worry about their relationship getting affected — it’s between them. I wasn’t sleeping with S so technically there was no cheating. Holding hands never killed anyone, so there! I was able to find proof in my brain that justified what I was doing and told myself stories that made me feel okay about what was going on. Looking back I see many issues with those stories. I have since redefined what being ethical meant for me.
Cheating, for example, doesn’t mean having a sexual intercourse with someone behind someone else’s back, but rather it means the breach of trust between two people. Cheating can be completely unrelated to sex.
Being in control of my own and not other people’s choices is always true, but my choices might support unethical behavior of somebody else. Would I still do something if I knew it would break the trust of somebody else?
Sometimes even simply holding hands can be such an intimate experience that it could mean more than sex. It comes down to trust and what everybody involved is comfortable with.
The more I thought about all this, the more clarity I got around my ethical boundaries. Recently I got to test my moral code again.
I met someone (let’s call him D) through a dating app. His profile said “married, non-monogamous”, no red flags there. He explained that their marriage had been open for a few months so far and that his wife had been seeing a couple of people. He told me had yet to feel connection with someone and that he’d love to get my thoughts about being polyamorous and what my experience had been like. We started talking, eventually met for coffee and felt the butterflies. We went on a couple of dates, then D told me that his wife started feeling jealous. At first I didn’t pay too much attention to it — I’ve felt jealous before, I knew it was a temporary feeling that would eventually pass. The way I see jealousy is as an opportunity to work through my insecurities and fears. No one else has control over my feelings or has the power to make me feel jealous or secure — I am the only one who has any control of my emotions. From the way D described what was going on with his wife I thought the jealousy would pass with a bit of time as his wife worked through her fears and insecurities. I also knew she continued seeing someone else, so I believed she would work through her emotions and come to terms with D’s feelings towards me. We talked about what that meant for us and agreed to just be friends until the wife felt comfortable about my presence in D’s life. A few weeks later the wife told D that the processing is finished and gave us the green light. We went on an amazing date and had a wonderful time but it turned out that the wife actually wasn’t okay with us dating after all and that our date made her realize she wanted a monogamous relationship.
I had a choice. I could try to continue seeing D knowing that his wife wasn’t comfortable with us seeing each other, or I could let go of that relationship right then and there.
I got a very clear idea about what I felt ethically comfortable with vs. not: I felt okay to keep seeing him as long as he didn’t keep our relationship a secret and could openly talk about me with his wife. Turns out that’s where the line between cheating and ethical non-monogamy is for me— if everyone can talk openly about what’s going on — then everything can be solved and dealt with. I can’t control other people’s reaction to my actions, but if at least there are no secrets and there is open communication, then I am okay with how things are.
Despite my best intentions and being completely open with D about how I felt and where my boundaries were, we eventually had to stop seeing each other. His wife was in too much pain and couldn’t handle our relationship at all. Not only I didn’t want to contribute to anyone’s suffering, but I also didn’t want what was happening to affect my family, which I felt I couldn’t guarantee unless I stopped seeing D. I had multiple opportunities to define where my personal boundaries were during this process and think about what is and isn’t acceptable to me from the moral standpoint. Now it’s up to D to figure out what he wants in his relationships and define some boundaries for himself or let go of his desires that conflict with the other aspects of his life.
In her article on CBC, Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin defines “ethical” non-monogamy as a relationship(s) where all parties are being treated respectfully, and have given their consent to the arrangement. In my mind, ethical choices can happen even earlier than that — before everyone has had an opportunity to give their consent — it begins with those involved giving their partners time and space to process as needed and then eventually, hopefully, giving their consent.
By this definition my “relationship” with S was not ethical, since even though we didn’t cross the line, his wife never felt okay about us dating. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong at the time, but I believe my logical judgement was clouded with hormones and my desire to hold S’s hand overpowered my desire to be ethical.
In my relationship with D, however, I didn’t feel like I crossed any ethical lines since we did get consent from everyone involved. In that relationship I had a great chance to learn my own boundaries — I know now, for example, that if my partner’s partner changes their mind, especially more than once, about whether or not they are non-monogamous, it means they are not ready for any kind of open relationship and that I’m in for a ride which, chances are, I don’t really want to jump on. I know that I have a very clear boundary around my and my family’s safety and that I am willing to do anything it takes to protect myself— even walking away from something meaningful and beautiful. I also learned that there are people that place responsibility for their well-being externally, but no matter what anyone else does it will not make them feel satisfied. And finally, I learned that just like while growing up my ethical check was thinking whether I could tell my mother about something I was doing, now in adulthood in poly relationships my ethical boundary is being able to tell my partner about something and for my partners be able to tell their partners about what they are experiencing with me.