Despite our continued fascination with it, cheating is something we’ve always struggled to define as a society. Does it count as cheating if, as The Killers might say, it was only a kiss? Is it cheating if you watch porn, or like someone else’s thirst traps on Instagram? In recent years, the concept of “emotional infidelity” has swept the discourse: is it cheating if you’ve never touched someone else, but have instead been emotionally unfaithful, and if you have, is that maybe even worse?
But in an age of increasingly mainstream discussions of consensual non-monogamy — which encompasses everything from polyamory to the various kinds of open relationships that are gaining popularity among modern couples — our questions about infidelity are no longer limited to what acts or transgressions count as cheating, but also ask what role cheating itself occupies in the grand scheme of non-monogamy.
In recent years, as “consensually” or “ethically” non-monogamous relationship styles have entered mainstream discourse and gradually become more viable options for otherwise traditional couples, non-monogamy has often been presented — or interpreted — as a morally favorable alternative to infidelity. Why cheat when you can just have an open relationship, one in which all parties are aware of and agree to the terms of any non-monogamous activity that may be taking place?
It’s sound logic, to be sure, and in many (generally very positive) ways, so-called ethical or consensual non-monogamy actually has provided a better, more transparent alternative to infidelity for the many people in relationships who would like to explore sex outside of those relationships.
But with this increased awareness and acceptance of non-monogamy has come a reluctance to include cheating under that umbrella, something Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, LELO Sexpert and NYU professor of Human Sexuality, addressed in a recent tweet: “Call it what you want, cheating is a form of nonmonogamy.”
According to Vrangalova — who is also the creator of Open Smarter, an online program that guides individuals and couples through a safer and more pleasurable opening up journey — with increased acceptance of consensual non-monogamy has come an increased stigmatization of what we might call “non-consensual non-monogamy,” i.e. cheating. Vrangalova cites recent data from the General Social Survey (GSS) suggesting that American attitudes toward infidelity have only soured in recent years as other forms of non-monogamy have entered the mainstream. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or a bad thing at all, really. Cheating, on the other hand, is.
“Infidelity needs to remain stigmatized on some level — it’s a bad thing, right? It’s objectively a bad thing,” Vrangalova tells InsideHook. “I think we all agree on that more or less, even the people who do it generally agree that it’s a bad thing.”
The problem, however, is that with increased attention paid to non-monogamy has come a tendency to conflate what is usually referred to as consensual or ethical non-monogamy with the broader, ethically neutral umbrella term of non-monogamy. In other words, “non-monogamy” has, for some, become a stand-in for morally and/or socially preferable forms of extra-monogamous activity — i.e. open relationships in which all parties are aware of the circumstances — one that precludes infidelity from falling under that umbrella.
For a brief crash course, non-monogamy is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of behaviors and relationship styles that involve having sex with more than one partner. It is a neutral term that covers all kinds of non-monogamous activity, from “consensually” non-monogamous open relationships and polyamorous arrangements to casual sex and, yes, even infidelity.
“The umbrella of ‘non-monogamy’ encompasses a spectrum of relationship types, including polyamory, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ‘monogamish’, swinging and infidelity,” says Isabella Mise, Senior Director of Communications at Ashley Madison. “The key difference between infidelity and other non-monogamous relationships is that the former is carried out, almost exclusively, in secret.”
Forms of non-monogamy that are practiced openly, with full disclosure and consent among all involved parties, are often referred to as “ethical” or “consensual” non-monogamy, which thus differentiates them from infidelity. Recently, however, some sex educators have initiated a push to drop qualifiers like “ethical” or “consensual,” instead simply referring to all forms of non-monogamy as “non-monogamy” proper. This, says Vrangalova, is because “there’s a lot of non-consensual stuff that happens under the premises of ‘ethical’ or ‘consensual’ non-monogamy.” For example, rape or coercion of a third party within an otherwise “consensually” non-monogamous relationship, which certainly doesn’t constitute “consensual” or otherwise “ethical behavior.” Moreover, as Mise adds, “even amongst the consensually non-monogamous, infidelity can occur, as an open relationship can still have protocols that both parties are expected to adhere to.”
The problem with dispensing with these arguably inappropriate qualifiers, however, is that many proponents of doing so are simultaneously reluctant to continue to house cheating under the bare-bones “non-monogamy” umbrella term that would replace them.
“As long as cheating is then considered one of the forms of ‘non-monogamy,’ well, they don’t like that,” says Vrangalova. “They want to distinguish non-monogamy as the ‘consensual, ethical,’ without calling it that, and keep cheating and infidelity as a completely different thing.”
It’s a reasonable distinction to want to make, and Vrangalova agrees. Obviously, there’s a major difference in intent and potential impact between cheating and other forms of non-monogamy, one that deserves to be recognized. The problem, however, comes with replacing the admittedly ill-fitting qualifiers of “ethical” or “consensual” with the umbrella term of “non-monogamy,” and neglecting to include infidelity under that umbrella.
Why? Because words have to mean something. According to Vrangalova, other species within the animal kingdom obviously don’t differentiate between behavior and intent. Non-monogamous behavior is non-monogamous behavior, and any moral or value judgment ascribed to those behaviors represents a secondary level of assessment. “We’re not unique. There’s a whole evolutionary history across species that uses these terms,” says Vrangalova. “And those terms have to mean the same thing.”
Moreover, understanding infidelity and the impulses behind it are key to understanding and accepting alternative forms of non-monogamy. While Vrangalova agrees that qualifiers like “ethical” or “consensual” are ill-fitting, she also rejects a version of unqualified “non-monogamy” that refuses to acknowledge infidelity under the same roof.
“You have to accept reality. However bad reality is, it is so much better than some impractical idealism, because there’s no way that we can fix bad reality unless we accept it for what it is and deal with it,” says Vrangalova. While she agrees that some distinction should remain between infidelity and non-monogamy — though she’s unsure at this point what more appropriate qualifiers might be — she doesn’t think that a version of unqualified non-monogamy that fails to acknowledge infidelity altogether is in order.
“What’s our goal? If our goal is to reduce infidelity, you have to accept it for what it is, because that’s going to allow you to understand it. And by understanding it, and by giving people these other [non-monogamous] options, it’s going to help you reduce it,” says Vrangalova. “Everything else is deluding ourselves.”