Coming Clean; Transitioning From Cheating to a Polyamorous Relationship
By Cynthia L. Armistead
Copyright © 1996-2005, Cynthia L. Armistead, All Rights Reserved.

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 married woe. Alas, after entering into a commited 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. In fact, most of us are very, 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.

Now—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, 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 really 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 get pissed off at 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.

I'll repeat that 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 Poly-Friendly Professionals site 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!