Let's Talk About Emotional Cheating in Queer Relationships

“As a rule of thumb, if you're hiding something… then you're likely cheating to some degree.”

By Sophie Saint Thomas

Within the queer community, we like to joke that the straights are not okay. But if they can’t handle West End Caleb, the guy who went viral for “love bombing” New York City women with Spotify playlists before ghosting, how could they handle navigating emotional cheating within a polyamorous queer triad? Has a straight person ever needed to identify one’s bisexual identity, in terms of both romantic and sexual attraction, when pinpointing what constitutes emotional cheating? I once watched an ex have her out-of-town ex-turned-best-friend (it’s confusing, I know) platonically stay with her, in her bed, during Valentine’s Day weekend, then accuse me of being emotionally unavailable.

The straights are just fine, with a few notable but vocal exceptions. But the LGBTQ+ crowd needs to discuss emotional cheating — especially after the lonely lockdown and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While having an ex sleep over, even if you don't have sex, might be too much for my Scorpio heart, my Gemini friend Zachary Zane, a bisexual activist and Lovehoney sex and relationship columnist, would probably call me a prude. "Since queer people exist outside of traditional, heteronormative constructs, we've had to create and define our own relationships," Zane tells Logo. "Queer people understand that a multitude of relationship types exist between a platonic friend and romantic and sexual partner. You can deeply love your best friend. You can sleep with your best friend periodically. You can be polyamorous and have casual sex partners, platonic life partners, and romantic partners. The options really are endless."

I asked Zane if he's ever felt emotionally cheated on. "LOL — no one cheats on me. All my partners are obsessed, and it's hella annoying." Geminis.

From a heteronormative, monogamous perspective, it's probably hard to understand how emotional cheating could even happen to a queer person in a poly relationship. After all, doesn't polyamory translate to "many loves?" It does, but the whole "ethical" part in ethical non-monogamy (ENM) necessitates communication to ensure that boundaries are respected.

"Emotional cheating can occur in ENM when expectations are not communicated properly," Zane explains. "As a rule of thumb, if you're hiding something, lying to your partner about something you're doing or feeling towards someone else, then you're likely cheating to some degree."

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Of course, not every queer person is in an open relationship, and it’s rude to assume so. But it is true that queer people — many of whom couldn’t even marry their long-term partners until recently — tend to find new and chosen families. “These relationships are frequently emotionally close and, for some folks, can at times seem to blur lines of what is strictly friendship and what may cross into something different or more,” says Dr. Laura Obert, a licensed psychologist and LGBTQ+ coach. “For those who have a primary committed relationship, this may lay the groundwork for emotional cheating being inadvertently more accessible if the relational boundaries are not clear.”

Bisexual “Sober Sexpert” Tawny Lara notes that while it is important to establish boundaries to prevent emotional cheating, in her experience, it’s also crucial to remember that one person cannot fulfill all of your needs, even if you are monogamous. “It's important to have strong friendships outside of your partner(s). Expecting one person to satiate your every desire is unrealistic. It's also important to discern healthy, external friendships from what you know in your gut to be emotional infidelity. And that's a line that only you can draw for yourself.”

Lara says she has emotionally cheated in the past to satisfy a romantic void which she wasn't getting at home. "On The Office, I see Jim and Pam's relationship while she was with Roy as emotional infidelity. She confided in Jim, cried to Jim, had an intimate connection with Jim for years before they finally kissed, and she left her fiancé." Not only can Lara pull fantastic pop culture references out of thin air, but she has been on both sides of the emotional-cheating equation. Lara found out that a former partner was texting his ex for weeks, including during a surprise birthday party she threw for him.

“I saw the ‘I miss you too’ texts pop up on his phone and was completely devastated,” she remembers. “It's hard to compare that pain to the pain felt from a physical affair, but I definitely think there's a difference between having a long-term emotional connection with someone versus a one-time fling. They can both cause pain, but an emotional affair has a particular sting to it."

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During the isolation of lockdown, physical cheating became more high-stakes than ever. While emotional pain and STIs are always risks, now you could get the potentially fatal COVID-19 virus from kissing. Unless you live with your partner, you likely couldn’t even regularly have sex with them.

While we couldn’t go to bars or sex clubs, we certainly could spend time on social media — perhaps too much time. Who didn’t end up at least chatting up an ex after sliding into their DMs one lonely night to make sure they were still alive? “It would make perfect sense that people reached out virtually and emotionally to find a sense of connection and meaning in a world that seemed to have gone sideways,” says Shut Up and Listen to Yourself author and LGBTQ+ therapist Dr. Joshua Estrin. Does this count as emotional cheating? Maybe, or maybe it would be par for the course in your queer friend group. We are pretty good at staying friends with our exes, after all. Ultimately, it’s up to you and your partner(s) to decide what kind of digital communication with current or former paramours is or isn’t permissible.

There’s truth to some stereotypes. Yes, some queer relationships between two women can provide more emotional availability than what your average straight girl is used to receiving from the West Elm Calebs of the world. And sure, some queer men are probably better at handling jealousy than the presumably cis, straight girls West Elm Caleb attracts.

Being part of the LGBTQ+ rainbow is fabulous, but lines can get blurry with all of those colors. Like everything, defining and identifying emotional cheating within a queer relationship requires communication and boundaries. You’ll hurt yourself and others without boundaries, whether it’s the fallout after your secret Zoom dates with an ex during the pandemic inevitably explode, or after you end up telling your boss things your partner doesn’t even know. Boundaries are essential, which is why I’m proud of my aforementioned ex for blocking me even though we ended on rough terms.

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