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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Border crossing.

Lines. Everybody has them and they all seem to be different.

Think about office supplies. Most people know it is fairly common for office supplies to be "stolen". Some people think taking a stapler is no big deal, to others it is a crime. Some will take anything they can get their hands on, others think even the removal of a single piece of paper is theft.

What about relationship lines?

A partner of mine and I have each run into something of a moral dilemma recently that has made us question our relationship lines. We have each become interested in someone who is not poly and already in a relationship. For myself, the person of interest is married. For my partner, the person of interest is in a committed relationship and lives with their partner. The people we have been interested in have both made it clear they are not poly, not really interested in becoming poly, but would like to have an affair without their partner knowing.

My partner initially refused to even consider having an affair with someone we will call Lucy. Being friends with Lucy, my partner heard a lot about Lucy's failing relationship. How they weren't having sex and the relationship appeared to be more of a financial arrangement than a love situation. Of course, my partner knew they were only getting one side of the story and probably not the whole picture. After spending some time around Lucy, my partner realized most of the story was true but still held fast and refused the affair. Before long Lucy found someone else to have an affair with but was still interested in an affair with my partner.

For me, the person of interest we will call Ethel is an old friend whom I dated in High School. Having recently become reacquainted we found that we still have strong chemistry. As with Lucy, Ethel tells of how her marriage is loveless. She is unhappy but stays because of the children. But again, that is only one side of the story. I have made it clear to Ethel that I cannot have a physical relationship with her without the consent of her husband. Like Lucy, Ethel has had affairs with others. Making things even more challenging is that I run into Ethel at play parties.

My partner and I both have the strong conviction that all parties involved know what is happening with the relationships. We don't want to help others cheat, regardless of whether they are Poly. But holding that moral ground becomes difficult when we see the people we are interested in cheating anyway. While discussing our situations my partner and I both thought; if they are going to cheat on their partner anyway then would I really be helping them cheat? Obviously that question ignores our morality and instead provides us a reason to do something that may be against our morality. But it leads to the bigger question of where the morality lines are drawn.

At what point in a moral dilemma is your morality transferred to another party?

Let's talk about Ethel again for a minute. My morality says I can't sleep with her if her husband doesn't know because that is cheating and it is wrong. But wait, I'm not having a relationship with Ethel's husband so why do I have to abide by relationship rules I can only assume he has in place? I've never spoken to him so maybe he doesn't care about monogamy. And again, I'm not in a relationship with him so why do I have to abide by any rules he may or may not have anyway? I'm wanting a relationship with Ethel so as long as she agrees to sleep with me I'm not morally doing anything wrong. She may be cheating and breaking a morality based agreement with her husband, but I'm not. And what about Ethel cheating on him regardless of whether it is with me or someone else. In that scenario would it be better if she cheated with me since I care about her instead of someone just out for meaningless sex? Maybe morality at that point suggests I should sleep with her for her own safety. (Ok, the last one was a bit of a joke).

I know what you are thinking; morality is morality and if you know it is wrong you shouldn't do it nor should you try to justify doing it by placing the morality on someone else. Now, before you start throwing stones I want you to think about some things.

Have you ever known anyone who was planning to commit a crime? Even a small one like TP'ing a house with toilet paper? (Yes, TP'ing is illegal). Maybe you have even TP'd a house yourself. Did you call the police on the person? Did you turn yourself in? Why not? You know it was wrong and I'm assuming since you are capable of reading this article you know right from wrong, which is morality.
Ever broken something and hidden the fact you broke it? Maybe a dish, or a piece of your Mom's jewelry? Maybe you dented Dad's car with a baseball? Why did you hide it? Again, you knew it was morally wrong to hide it but you did anyway.
Is it because those examples are minor you did nothing? But cheating on a partner is serious, right? Wait, is it serious? Maybe to you it is but to them it isn't. To assume cheating is serious for everyone is imparting your morality on them. Do you have the right to decide which morals can be broken for everyone and which can't?

Weigh in people. Where are your moral lines? How or where would you draw them in the examples I've given?


  1. In the novel "The Kite Runner" there is an idea I like a lot: every sin is a variation of theft. When you kill a man, you steal others' rights to have that person in their lives - a wife to have a husband, a child to have a father. When you cheat, you steal others' rights to fairness. When you lie, you steal others' rights to have the truth.

    I grew up in a household where we were expected to admit to the small stuff and the big stuff that we did that was wrong. If the small stuff was allowed to slide, it was indicative of a general lack of respect for others. Which wasn't okay.

    So, I don't think it's so much about whether cheating is seen as minor or major by you or by the people who are unhappy in their marriages (but who are apparently not doing anything healthy about it). The bottom line is that it's wrong. I think you already know that. And it's very much against what poly stands for, in my opinion. It is not ethical.

    I am human, I have made mistakes, and I'm sure will continue to do so. However, there is no spin that you can put on cheating that allows me to place the responsibility for morality on the other party. I will not enable their cheating. I will not allow them to be morally bankrupt by using me to satisfy their needs while they refuse to satisfy their responsibilities. As they say, it takes two to tango - and that is true for cheating as well. It's impossible for these people to cheat without another party who is willing to cheat with them. I refuse to be that party.

  2. Polly,
    Thanks for another great comment!

    Obviously, I hope, the conversations I wrote about were intellectual discussions about morality and ethics rather than attempts to justify actions by myself and my partner. You are right; we know the bottom line is that cheating is wrong. Neither of us wants to knowingly help someone cheat or even be involved in a relationship that might hurt others.

    The questions that arose from our conversations though were a bit more broad and ended with us both asking the question: Where do you draw the line?

    I think each person draws the line at a different place and the grey areas are where it becomes interesting. I could armchair debate the morality and ethics of relationships all day long but in the end I know that relationships are emotional aspects of our lives which often defy logic and sometimes even morality.

    (continued, darn comment limits!)

  3. (continued)

    I’m going to pick on you for a moment but please don’t take it personally. I think a familiar example will help make my point better is all. You recently came out about being poly. That means that in the past you have hid your lifestyle, either directly or through omission. Some people might consider that deceptive which is only a baby step away from being considered lying. Something that would conflict with morality for some people. But I’m assuming since you hid being poly you either were morally okay with doing so or otherwise were able to justify it with your morality. The bottom line in the discussions I was writing about becomes; why is it okay to hide (lie) about your lifestyle but not hide (lie) about an affair? I think the answer is in where you draw your moral lines. Isn’t lying lying regardless of the lie itself? To quote a brilliant woman “When you lie, you steal others' rights to have the truth.”

    Another part of the equation in my mind is the projection of our own morality. Take your statement “but who are apparently not doing anything healthy about it” for example. To make that statement requires you to apply your morality and ethics to a relationship in which you aren’t involved. From your perspective, based on your morality and ethics, maybe they aren’t doing anything about it. But from their perspective maybe having an affair is the best option. Maybe it is even morally objectionable to them but they have overcome that objection because it is the least offensive alternative they can find. Personally I avoid judging the relationships of others and think that doing so devalues their relationships. How their relationship is designed and lived is their choice. Though it may not be a choice I would make (I do believe cheating is wrong, as is lying to your partner), judging it as wrong is, to quote you, “very much against what poly stands for, in my opinion. It is not ethical.”

    Overall I hear what you are saying. In your opinion cheating is wrong and it is obvious you don’t want any part of it. It also appears you draw your line at being involved with cheating. I can’t argue with that a bit. But does that only mean you wouldn’t sleep with the cheater? If you know about the cheating and it offends your morality so deeply I would think you would want to get involved by telling the innocent person in the relationship that their partner is cheating on them. As you said “It's impossible for these people to cheat without another party who is willing to cheat with them. I refuse to be that party.” But if you know about their cheating and don’t do anything to stop it aren’t you by default a party to the cheating and allowing it to happen? Again, I think the question is where you draw the lines. Most people would probably agree that cheating is wrong and they wouldn’t sleep with someone who is cheating. But I think a lot of those same people who knew about the cheating would continue to allow it and not tell the innocent partner.
    Let me finish by saying I don’t really disagree with you much. I actually think you and I are much on the same page about cheating, as is my partner. None of us want to help someone cheat nor is cheating our idea of a relationship. I think we all have pretty good moral and ethical barometers as well. I’m really taking more of a Devil’s Advocate position here in the interest of a good discussion. Honestly, I’m not sure that anyone could ever create a set of moral or ethical guidelines that anyone and everyone would agree with and be able to follow.

    We all draw different lines.


  4. Don't worry, PP. I know you like to be devil's advocate. And I like your efforts at discussion.

    I do apply my values and morality to others' relationships. I do my best not to do so without reason, though. I would condemn a pedophile, I would condemn someone engaging in bestiality, and I would condemn a dishonest person who is cheating. I think the former two are much more serious than the latter, but they're all in the category of "definitely not okay" in my mind. Definitely crossing your proverbial line.

    While I may not take it upon myself to tell the "innocent" spouse about a cheater, I also wouldn't encourage the cheater, either. I would be vocal about my disapproval of their relationship, and I would remove myself from their presence. That is not a friendship that would continue. I respect that they have their own relationship issues to work out, and therefore would not become involved in "tattling" on the cheating partner, but I also would not be going out for drinks with the cheater. (And yes, this is something I've done before - I have ended friendships with cheaters who see no problem with what they are doing.)

    In terms of being "in the closet" as a lie of omission, I submit that it is more of a truth that has to be handled delicately. If society were such to be supportive of polyamory, there would be no closet to come out of. I think you probably understand this, too, and I'm preaching to the choir. By considering when and how to come out, it is an effort to *avoid* lying, or the appearance of lying, about one's life. Coming out with awareness of the effects it could have on others is a smart thing to do, if only to avoid casualties of other important relationships. I came out to Stuart's family a few short weeks after starting a relationship with Gabe. We were lucky that our very young relationship with Gabe survived the emotional holocaust that ensued. And we came out to the rest of my family and friends on a schedule that seemed reasonable and do-able. Coming out is not so much about "Gee, we need to stop lying," as "How do we share information in an appropriate way?"

    Anyway, I don't think I disagree with you much either. Perhaps my way of looking at things is slightly different, but that's the spice of life.

  5. Hi Polly,

    Thanks for the reply!

    I think applying our values and morality to others is just human nature. How else could we decide who to be friends with, who to love, and who to avoid? I think (hope?) most people do so without judging others but sometimes that is difficult as well. Where I think the challenge appears is with how we each draw the lines I keep talking about. If we all drew them in the same place things would probably be much easier. And a lot more boring. It is the delicate blend between two people and their lines that defines the friend/love/avoid category into which each is placed for the other. What I question sometimes, as I’ve done in this article, is whether I have drawn my lines in the appropriate places or not. In the end, for me anyway, looking at who defines me as a friend helps me to know if my lines are in the right place. If they aren’t I find myself around people I don’t enjoy or who do things I find questionable and I know it is time to adjust my lines. If I admire and respect those around me then my lines are probably okay. Of course, my own needs have to be met with my morality and ethics as well but, if my friends and loves accept my lines and I accept theirs then I feel like they have been drawn appropriately.

    Tattling on the cheater is one I have struggled with before. I know the cheating is wrong and don’t approve. It also disturbs me to know that the innocent party will be hurt sooner or later. But like you, I also realize they have their own relationship issues and often I just don’t want to be involved. I have tattled in the past, and kept my mouth shut as well, and really don’t know which way is “always” right so it ends up being a case by case decision for me.

    You make a very good point that because of how society views polyamory hiding it isn’t so much about withholding the truth as it is about protecting yourself. Hand in hand is that sometimes withholding information does more to protect others than letting things out. I have to concede the point to you on that one. But that brings me right back to talking about lines again. If your morality is such that withholding information, no matter how explosive, is wrong you will probably be open about your lifestyle regardless of the result. There is no clear cut right or wrong; it is different for each person. I tend to believe that is true for a lot of questions like the ones we’ve been discussing.

    Thanks again, you always get me to thinking!