What is cheating in an open-style relationship?

A common myth about open-style relationships is that it eliminates cheating and that cheating isn’t a thing when you’re open. This couldn’t be further from the truth – it may just look different.

It’s all about the consent

Consent – it’s a loaded term these days, as different people have very different opinions on what constitutes consent. Some subscribe to the idea that all consent must be verbal and enthusiastic. Others believe consent is implied unless otherwise stated (i.e. “Say no, if you don’t want it”).

I can’t claim to be the expert on all things consent. But in my humble opinion, if you want to succeed with an open-style relationship, you need to be very clear on what you and your partner have consented to. Nothing should be implied, unless you’re very experienced. This becomes increasingly important as you open up more, as each new opening builds on the trust built from the prior ones.

As a monogamous couple, you consent to never have sex with anyone else, nor have other romantic partners. Cheating in a monogamous couple is doing exactly that.

Cheating in open-style relationships

So what is cheating in an open-style relationship?

It depends really, but at the end of the day, cheating is just breaking consent. So if you agreed with your partner to always tell them about what happended on dates with others, not doing so is cheating.

If you agreed to only have sex with others in a club-setting, having phone-sex with someone outside of that is cheating.

If you agreed to only flirt with sex partners that your primary partner likes and approves, breaking that promise is cheating.

As a part of an open-style relationship, you are essentially navigating minefields that for most people would be considered cheating. So it’s extremely important you communicate with your partner and ensure you agree on what you’re actually consenting to. An unclear consent is not actually consent.

If you feel the need to sugarcoat things before asking for your partner’s consent, you do not actually have their consent. Doing these things are a sure-fire way of ending your relationship prematurely.

How do we talk about consent?

Communication is key. The problem is communication is also hard. A lot of the times, two different people can say the same thing, but mean two very different things. When Jennifer asks for consent to have sex with Tom, her boyfriend Mark hears “Jennifer wants to have a one-time thing in a hotel room and then that’s that”. What Jennifer means however is she wants to have Tom as a semi-permanent friends with benefits, who’s going to be taking up 40% of the energy she has for sex and she’ll at times prioritize him higher than activities with Mark.

There are many different ways to approach ensuring you mean the same thing when giving consent. I don’t recommend going the “lawyer route” and just writing down a ton of rules – nothing kills libido faster. But I do recommend some attempt to organize what you’re consenting to and crucially what you’re not consenting to. Some experienced couples can get away with doing it more implicitly, but generally trying to organize things limits the risks for conflict, jealousy and, worst-case, the relationship failing. An open-relationship is generally not a limitless buffet where each partner can do whatever the hell they want – it’s about exploring boundaries and not unnecessarily limiting each other. But limits are still present. If you’re not willing to respect your partner’s boundaries, you shouldn’t be in any type of relationship.

You might now be thinking “But Sara – shouldn’t you be able to do anything in an open relationship?” – No. Absolutely not. There are open-relationship purists out there that despise limits so much that they think they would suffocate in a relationship that put limits on their behaviour. But in reality even those people have limits. Their consent is just really broad. Even the purest of open relationship advocates would probably protest if you started dating their little sister or mother. So there are always limits in any relationship, no matter how open it is. You just need to determine what your limits are – together!

Matching desires and expectations

One quite good approach to getting at the right consent is for each partner to write down their desires, without initial input or discussion of limits. For the Jennifer, Mark and Tom example from before, that could look like this:


  • Having a casual long-term friends-with-benefits (FWB) relationship with Tom
  • Going on spontaneous sex dates with Tom
  • Going on weekend trips with Tom, without Mark
  • Having Mark as a primary partner and other partners as almost equal secondaries, currently Tom.


  • Experiencing Jennifer have sex with someone else, for example Tom
  • Having sex with another girl, as an occasional thing
  • Having Jennifer primarily for himself, with Jennifer occasionally being allowed to have sex with others

After having created these lists, the partners should give them to each other and discuss what they mean and what they can and cannot consent to at that time. By not discussing limits before writing desires, you’ll get a more honest discussion, with no partner limiting themselves beforehand. This will both lead to more precise consent, but oftentimes also broader consent, as Mark might actually be open to letting Jennifer have a friends-with-benefits setup with Tom, after some discussion. If Jennifer had just removed it from the list before showing Mark, they would never have spoken about it and frustration would build.

Consent isn’t static – building a feedback loop

While writing down desires and giving initial consent gets you most of the way there, you do also need to continously re-evaluate what you’ve consented to and how each experience felt. For the Jennifer and Mark example, letting her have sex with Tom alone is a good example of an experiment that they can do to determine if Mark is actually okay with her having a friends-with-benefits relationship or not. If he’s more okay with it than he thought, the consent might be expanded. If however he feels uncontrollable jealousy, this may be a sign to take a step back and limit the consent for a while. This, in turn, is something Jennifer needs to accept without complaint, just as Mark can’t get mad at her for acting within the limits of the consent they had discussed. Any consent can always be changed or revoked. Jealousy isn’t static either, so these feelings may change over time, as Mark grows more confident. You need to continously re-evaluate your feelings, the resulting consents and experiment together. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. It’s a journey, not a destination.


Post image courtesy of Alise Storsul – thank you.

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[…] Limits that both parties are not truly comfortable with are not true consented limits. It’s all about consent and consent can always be withdrawn. If you can’t live with that, an open relationship is […]

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