Jimmy Holloway can tell you from experience that faithfulness and exclusivity are not necessarily the same thing.
There are countless ways to break someone’s heart, and not all of them involve sleeping with someone else. I am not going to argue that sexual infidelity is not hurtful, or even that it shouldn’t be. What I am going to say, however, is that it isn’t the act of sex itself which is hurtful, but the betrayal of trust. For me, and for both of my partners, sexual infidelity would not simply involve having sex with somebody from outside the relationship, it would have to involve doing so despite us having agreed that it should not happen, doing so despite having promised not to, or doing so and then lying about it. What we demand of one another, in terms of faithfulness, is honesty, consideration and respect. We do not ask for exclusivity, but we still need something which we call fidelity, and this is something I shall return to later.
As I have implied, I am polyamorous. I live as part of a triad, a group of three people, each of whom is in a relationship with both of the others. It is far from the most common type of poly relationship, and it is not the easiest to get right. The starting conditions are unusual, and the modes of communication necessary to keep them stable and healthy are difficult to maintain. A lot of our friends, concerned for our welfare, have shared horror stories about triads which have gone terribly wrong, and each of us has personal experience of them having done so.
If you want a polyamorous relationship to remain healthy for any length of time at all, you need to spend a lot of time and effort on communication. Don’t get me wrong, monogamous relationships need communication just as badly if they are to stay healthy, but they have more which can be taken as read. If you are starting a new attachment in a polyamorous situation, then there are a thousand things that you simply have to talk about if you aren’t going to be doomed to pissing each other off forever; how do you want to deal with each others’ partners, how much (or little) time do you want to spend together, are there any restrictions or requests you want to place on one another regarding new sexual or romantic engagements? While ‘regular’ relationships have variable factors too, such as whether you get to dance with other people, or how often you talk, there are many fewer possible variations to cover. For any polyamorous relationship which is being undertaken, as my folks would call it, ‘properly’, one of the first things you do together as a couple is going to be an in-depth negotiation session, or at least a detailed discussion about why you don’t need or want one. For a very clear and well-written (and very nearly SFW) discussion of the advantages and drawbacks of each, I recommend you read GirlOnTheNet’s post on the subject. The only other place I know where this kind of communication is as vital is the BDSM subculture. Again, it’s a situation in which you cannot take for granted that your partner is going to be playing the same game that you are, by the same rules, and as such you have to talk things over exhaustively beforehand. If you are having ‘standard-issue’ sex with somebody, you can be confident that you’ll have a fairly good idea about what your partner will want, and how much of it they are likely to enjoy, at least within a certain margin of error. The further things get from ‘normal’, the less sure you can be of what your playmate wants from you, and that they know what you want. In sex, just as much as in love, if you are not following a set of rules that is universally known, then you need to make damn sure that you know you are all following the same set of rules, or somebody is going to get badly hurt.
This kind of communication can be terrifying, and it can be hurtful, but it’s no less important, and no less right, for that. There are certain things, including but not limited to nightmares, neuroses, and sexual fantasies, which you will not feel comfortable sharing unless you trust your partner very deeply, and this is where we get back to the idea of fidelity being the act of honoring trust. Every piece of personal information that is shared within a couple is reciprocated with a promise that the knowledge will not be misused. The better you know somebody, the more you are able to hurt them, and the more important it is that you restrain yourself from doing so. By telling somebody your deepest fears, you are also telling them that you trust them not to cause you pain by playing upon them. By telling somebody your needs, you are telling them that you trust them not to cause you pain by denying them. If we are to talk in terms of remaining faithful to promises made, every single act of sharing results in another promise which you need to remain faithful to. Needless to say, it is important to keep the balance of trust in a relationship roughly equal to prevent the balance of power from becoming skewed. In other words, if one of you keeps sharing and the other does not, things are going to get uncomfortable pretty fast.
Exclusivity is something that a lot of people need from their partners and , for those people, sleeping with other people will constitute infidelity. In that case, claiming that you didn’t know exclusivity was required is usually deceitful, because beyond a certain stage of intimacy it is usual, but you cannot expect somebody to respect more complex or less usual desires unless you have expressed them. The more honest you are with your lover about what you want from them, the more opportunities they will have to hurt you, but the more faithful to you it is possible for them to be. How openly you communicate within your relationship, and how vulnerable you wish to be to your partner, are every bit as much a personal preference as the type of sex you enjoy or the level of exclusivity you desire. There is certainly no correct way of doing these things, but the more similar your desires are to one another’s, the less work it will be to get along, and the easier it will be to make each other happy. It is just as possible to remain faithful to your spouse while sleeping with somebody else as it is to deceive them while remaining sexually exclusive.
—Photo Martin Beek/Flickr