Coming Clean: Transitioning From Cheating to a Polyamorous Relationship

Note: I use male pro­nouns in the fol­low­ing arti­cle for the sake of sim­plic­ity, but I’ve encoun­tered both men and women in this sit­u­a­tion. My advice is the same to both.

Fre­quently, new­com­ers to var­i­ous poly groups intro­duce them­selves with a tale of woe. Alas, after enter­ing into a com­mit­ted monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship (usu­ally a mar­riage), the poor man has just dis­cov­ered that he is, in fact, polyamorous. In most cases, the new­comer has already strayed into infi­delity, and wishes to have his cake and eat it too now. He asks for advice regard­ing how he can con­vince his wife to accept the rela­tion­ship with the new lover so that they can all live hap­pily ever after.

The new­comer, who I’ll call Phil, is usu­ally sur­prised to find that he is not, in fact, wel­comed with open arms. Most of us are very hos­tile to peo­ple who cheat on their part­ners and call it polyamory, because that has absolutely noth­ing to do with how we are liv­ing our lives.

Phil is fre­quently seek­ing advice on how to intro­duce the topic of polyamory to his spouse. I fig­ure it’s bet­ter to be hon­est at some point instead of never doing so, so here is my advice to Phil.

I feel a need to be utterly hon­est about sev­eral things right up front: in over 20 years of being polyamorous and know­ing other poly peo­ple, I have never, not even once, known of any­one who has been able to move from an affair in a monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship to a healthy polyamorous rela­tion­ship involv­ing the same peo­ple. I’ve known of peo­ple who did cheat on their part­ners in monog­a­mous rela­tion­ships who later moved on to be polyamorous, but they did not sal­vage the orig­i­nal monog­a­mous relationship.

I’ve known peo­ple whose spouses cheated on them in monog­a­mous rela­tion­ships who ended the monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship, then went on to explore polyamory very hap­pily them­selves. (That fact sur­prises a fair num­ber of those seek­ing help in this sit­u­a­tion.) What you have to real­ize is that the real issue between you and your spouse right now is not polyamory or sex. It is your betrayal of the agree­ments between the two of you. It is about your dis­hon­esty and dis­hon­or­able behav­ior. You have bro­ken her trust.

Finally, as you will no doubt notice, I can­not see any­thing good about dis­hon­or­able peo­ple. I think it’s pos­si­ble for peo­ple to reform, and applaud efforts to do so, but I do find infi­delity offen­sive, to say the very least. I have no sym­pa­thy for cheaters. I have been cheated on in the past, but have not ever cheated on a partner.

Now that you’re com­ing clean, you’d bet­ter do so com­pletely. I mean 100% truth, absolutely, no holds barred, no lit­tle omis­sions or “spin­ning” any­thing. Tell the raw truth about who, where, when, what hap­pened, how long, etc. Don’t even think about leav­ing out past indis­cre­tions. Don’t fool your­self that she doesn’t need to know all of that or that you’re “pro­tect­ing her.” We’re talk­ing about rad­i­cal hon­esty in its truest sense. If you haven’t yet read Brad Blanton’s book on the sub­ject you should do so imme­di­ately. Take it to heart. Do the exer­cises. Devour it, digest it, and make it a part of you.

Sec­ond, accept full cul­pa­bil­ity. Do not even allow your­self to maybe think just a lit­tle bit of this is anyone’s fault but your own. You are an adult. No mat­ter what your emo­tions are, you are in con­trol of your actions. No mat­ter what the rela­tion­ship with your wife was like, whether she “just (didn’t) under­stand (you),” you aren’t get­ting as much sex as you’d like, you just aren’t so attracted to her any more, or you want to explore things that don’t inter­est her, the trans­gres­sion is com­pletely your fault. It doesn’t mat­ter how much effort your sweetie put into seduc­ing or attract­ing you. Unless you were actu­ally raped, you chose to cheat. It’s All Your Fault. Accept it, know it, pro­claim it.

Your next step is to decide what you truly want. Do you want to be with your wife? Do you want to be with your wife only if she agrees to you remain­ing with your sweetie? Be sure to think about all the ram­i­fi­ca­tions this is going to have. What effects will a divorce, open­ing your mar­riage to polyamorous rela­tion­ships, or you break­ing up with your sweetie and remain­ing in a monog­a­mous mar­riage (truly, with­out stray­ing again) have on your chil­dren, your extended fam­ily, your friends, your career, your­self? Are you truly will­ing to do the very hard work over an extended period of time that it’ll take to just have a good mar­riage, let alone to have healthy polyamorous relationships?

If you’ve decided that you truly want to stay with your wife and have your sweetie too, and you’re will­ing to do the work, it’s time to talk to your wife.

Note: DO NOT con­fide in any­one other than a pro­fes­sional ther­a­pist until after you have come clean to your part­ner. No mat­ter how tempt­ing it is and how much you want some­one else’s advice, hav­ing another friend or fam­ily mem­ber know about your infi­deli­ties before she does will be another kind of betrayal. If she hears so much as a whis­per about your affairs from any­body but you, she will be humil­i­ated and you will be in even deeper trou­ble. No, you don’t owe any other lovers a warn­ing that you are com­ing clean to your pri­mary partner.

Admit all that cul­pa­bil­ity. Engage in full dis­clo­sure, rad­i­cal honesty-style. You might, in fact, want to con­sider doing this with a very good mar­riage coun­selor present. I strongly advise it. Ask your wife to let you talk until you’re fin­ish, and tell her every­thing. When you’re done talk­ing, it’s her turn to talk until she’s fin­ished. Let her say any­thing she wants to say, ask ques­tions, etc. Answer any ques­tions she has fully and hon­estly. I’d sug­gest hav­ing some kind of printed mate­ri­als on hand about polyamory. Ask that she read them and con­sider the idea. You most cer­tainly can­not present your­self as any kind of author­ity or as an unbi­ased source, now can you? You may need to con­fess in one ses­sion, and then talk about polyamory in another.

She may want some space at this point, because she’ll need pro­cess­ing time. That’s nor­mal. In fact, she may not want you in the home you share together. Be ready to stay else­where if she doesn’t want you any­where near her. If you arrived in one vehi­cle for a coun­sel­ing ses­sion, con­sider ahead of time how you will get home or to your alter­nate des­ti­na­tion. If you can have an overnight bag ready with­out alarm­ing her, do that.

Pre­pare your­self to accept her anger and resent­ment, to acknowl­edge her right to those feel­ings, and to sup­port her in express­ing them in a healthy way. Don’t assume that she’ll for­give you, or that she’ll be will­ing to do any­thing to work on sal­vaging your rela­tion­ship. She might, in fact, walk out to call a divorce lawyer. She’s cer­tainly within her rights to do so.

Your wife has sev­eral deci­sions to make now. The first is to deter­mine whether or not she can trust you at all now. Is she able to for­give the harm you’ve done, and is your mar­riage even worth the work it’s going to take to sal­vage it? If she con­fides in them, it is highly likely that her friends and fam­ily will be telling her to dump you, or at the very least to not even con­sider open­ing your rela­tion­ship in any way. Expect a lot of neg­a­tiv­ity from them towards you, and accept that you deserve it.

One cau­tion: many peo­ple, when faced with the knowl­edge that their spouse has been unfaith­ful, will have a “revenge affair” of their own. It’s never healthy, but it is common.

Next, if she has decided that she can trust you or that the trust between you can rebuilt, what does she think of polyamory? She’s likely to have a pretty neg­a­tive view of it if her first intro­duc­tion to it is from a phi­lan­derer. Many peo­ple assume that polyamory is just a way of pret­ti­fy­ing swing­ing or infi­delity any­way, which is one rea­son those of us who are polyamorous are so offended by cheaters who want to claim that they’re really polyamorous.

If your wife decides to for­give you, there’s some­thing you need to keep in mind: “for­give­ness” does not mean, “I’m for­get­ting what hap­pened and every­thing is like it used to be.” Expect peri­odic recur­rences of any ini­tial explo­sions of anger, shame, grief, and pain.

If she’s will­ing to try polyamory, is she will­ing to try it with you? Polyamorous rela­tion­ships require even more trust, respect, work and healthy com­mu­ni­ca­tion from those involved in them than monog­a­mous rela­tion­ships do. Part of that is because they are not our cul­tural norm, and part of it is because every per­son added to a rela­tion­ship or net­work of rela­tion­ships increases its com­plex­ity and poten­tial for prob­lems. You have already demon­strated a great lack of respect for her, your com­mit­ments, and your­self. You have bro­ken the lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between you. You are not look­ing like a great can­di­date for healthy polyamory right now.

If you get past those hur­dles you have another big one. If she’s will­ing to try polyamory with you, is she will­ing to agree to your involve­ment with your sweetie, who has already shown a total dis­re­gard for her rela­tion­ship with you? Remem­ber, she prob­a­bly has no prior his­tory or love for your sweetie, so there’s absolutely noth­ing to ame­lio­rate the stark betrayal she has expe­ri­enced at the hands of your lover. Yes, your lover has betrayed her if she had any idea that you were in a monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship. Your lover has proven her­self to be a dis­hon­or­able per­son every bit as much as you have.

You don’t get to uni­lat­er­ally change the rules of your rela­tion­ship with your wife. If you decide that you must remain involved with your other lover, and your wife wants a monog­a­mous rela­tion­ship, then you’re look­ing at a sit­u­a­tion that does not con­tain any pos­si­bil­ity for compromise.

If your wife says that she is will­ing to stay with you in a monog­a­mous mar­riage and you’re will­ing to do that, that’s her choice. It is her right to make that choice with­out being bad­gered by you. If you agree to it, do not do so with any kind of ulte­rior motive or long-term agenda of chang­ing her mind. Break things off with your lover for­ever. It is safest to avoid any con­tact with the lover at all.

If you can’t agree to the monog­a­mous mar­riage your wife wants, the mar­riage is over. You should both pro­ceed to work­ing out the most ami­ca­ble and least dam­ag­ing way to move forward.

If both of you decide that you want to be together and are will­ing to try polyamory, then both of you really need to prac­tice rad­i­cal hon­esty as you pro­ceed. Inves­ti­gate the dif­fer­ent ways that other peo­ple live polyamory. Meet poly peo­ple and get to know them. Don’t even con­sider look­ing for more lovers right now. Talk to peo­ple who are will­ing to open up and tell you about how they work out issues like jeal­ousy, resources, child care, safer sex, etc. Meet peo­ple face to face, not just online. A net search should find a poly group in your area, or at least in the near­est major met­ro­pol­i­tan area. You want to get to know peo­ple well enough to truly see how they live, not just the faces they choose to present online. Be hon­est with them about your situation.

Be extremely hon­est with each other about what you do and do not like, and what you want to try. If some­thing doesn’t work for both of you, be will­ing to give it up and move on to some­thing else. There’s no One True Way to live polyamory other than being hon­est, open and lov­ing with all the peo­ple with whom you are involved.

Keep try­ing. Remem­ber that this is a com­pletely new rela­tion­ship par­a­digm for both of you, and that you prob­a­bly haven’t grown up with any role mod­els for it. That’s actu­ally good, but it can cause you to feel lost in the woods.

Real­ize that while you are look­ing at what you want and don’t want in your rela­tion­ships, you’re likely to find your­self ques­tion­ing a lot of things you may have taken for granted in your life. Every­thing from how you will live to just what sex means to you and to what con­sti­tutes a rela­tion­ship is up for rede­f­i­n­i­tion now. Some peo­ple find that their reli­gious beliefs are not sup­port­ive of polyamory, and end up seek­ing a new spir­i­tual path.

Go very, very slowly. Do not rush. Your rela­tion­ship is worth the invest­ment of time, care and energy it will take to heal your pri­mary rela­tion­ship and explore new options. Be patient with your­self, your partner(s), and your rela­tion­ships. Go as slow as is com­fort­able for the most con­ser­v­a­tive, slow­est per­son involved.

Again, a good mar­riage coun­selor can be a god­send in this process. Some­one who is accept­ing and sup­port­ive of both polyamory and monogamy is best. It isn’t always easy to find poly-friendly coun­selors, but I have found that good ther­a­pists are often more open to con­sid­er­ing polyamory as a work­able rela­tion­ship model than you may think. The Open List is a good place to start looking.

If you’re intro­duc­ing the idea of polyamory to a coun­selor with whom you already have an estab­lished rela­tion­ship, print out copies of What Psy­chol­ogy Pro­fes­sion­als Should Know About Polyamory and Work­ing With Polyamorous Clients in the Clin­i­cal Set­ting to give to the ther­a­pist. If you’re seek­ing a new ther­a­pist, ask her on the phone about her past expe­ri­ences, if any, with polyamory. Ask that she read those arti­cles before your first appoint­ment if she is will­ing to work with a polyamorous per­son or cou­ple in a sup­port­ive way. If so, drop off, mail, or fax the arti­cles imme­di­ately to give her time to read them.

Good luck!

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