The title assumes of course that the married person isn’t married to you.
In light of the recent Ashley Madison revelations, apparently millions of people in North America would have to answer yes to this question.
This is a multi-layered question. Let’s peel off some of those layers and look at them individually, so you can better understand this choice.
The first layer is: Do you believe there’s anything inherently wrong about being intimate with someone who’s already in a relationship?
Is it necessary for a potential intimate partner of yours to have no other relationship commitments or entanglements? Does that person have to be single for you to be willing to explore an intimate connection? Or could you explore with someone who already has a partner?
Assuming the other person is willing, assuming you share mutual attraction and enough compatibility, and assuming his/her other partner(s) are aware of what’s going on, would you have any immediate resistance to intimately connecting with this person?
Is your answer different if you ponder the question with regards to emotional intimacy instead of physical intimacy?
If you would resist or decline such an opportunity, why is that? Why would you say no?
When I was younger, I’d have resisted such an opportunity. I was raised to believe that it would be wrong. I believed that the only good relationships were strictly monogamous and heterosexual, and everything else was deviant. Those beliefs followed me into my 20s and probably into my early 30s as well. For the most part, I wasn’t consciously aware of these beliefs though, and I didn’t give much thought to possible alternatives.
Eventually I realized that I no longer had any issues with other people who wanted to engage in such pursuits, but I didn’t personally feel comfortable doing it myself. It wasn’t due to jealousy. I felt this way because I was personally uncomfortable with the idea.
What shifted me further was spending time with people who didn’t find anything wrong with this at all. I met men and women alike who seemed genuinely happy and fulfilled with an open relationship posture. This made me curious, and I gradually leaned into the experience. For the past several years, most of the women I’ve been intimate with already had a boyfriend or spouse who was fully aware of the situation and totally fine with it.
For me this was largely an experiential issue. To get clear about my feelings, I had to allow myself to experience both sides. Gaining experience with unfamiliar situations led me to update my beliefs. Today I see nothing inherently wrong with being intimate with someone who has one or more other intimate partners.
Generally speaking, I like it when a woman already has another partner. That suggests that she’s capable of sharing emotional intimacy and maintaining a stable relationship. If she’s in an open relationship, it tells me she’s probably gone through a lot of personal growth to reach that point, which means we’re likely to have some shared values in the areas of growth, exploration, and experiential learning. The fact that someone else finds her pleasing enough to want to continue connecting with her is a good sign as well.
Usually I have better and more fulfilling connections with women who already have relationship partners or who otherwise have significant previous relationship experience as opposed to women who’ve been single for years or have kept mostly to themselves. So if a woman is currently in a relationship, on balance that usually makes me feel better about connecting with her.
I also know from experience that human relationships can be very fluid. Someone who’s in a relationship now may not be in one a few months from now. Change is inevitable. So I don’t regard a person’s current relationship status as being a barrier to connecting, at least not by itself.
The next layer is: Do you believe there’s anything inherently wrong about being intimate with someone who’s married?
For some people this layer is virtually no different than the previous one. For others the marriage aspect is a big deal.
Would you answer this question any differently than the last one, assuming that the only real issue is the existence of a marriage, and if we assume that everyone is aware of and is okay with your dalliances?
Marriage is a legal arrangement. When you get married, the state is now involved in your relationship. In the case of adultery, there can be added legal risks that wouldn’t otherwise exist in a non-married situation.
Did you know that adultery is actually illegal in many places? Sleeping with someone else’s spouse is still considered a crime in 21 U.S. states. In most states it’s only a misdemeanor punishable by a fine, while in others it could subject you to up to four years in prison. In Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, adultery is a felony. This situation is gradually changing though. In the past five years, three states have repealed their anti-adultery laws. I was surprised to learn that adultery is still illegal in New York, where it’s classified as a Class B misdemeanor; I had thought New York would be more progressive. In my home state of Nevada, adultery is legal.
To clarify this a bit further, in some states a single adulterous act wouldn’t be considered a crime. It’s only when cohabitation is involved, thereby establishing a pattern of ongoing adulterous acts, that it crosses the legal line.
Legal prosecution of adultery is becoming increasingly rare. Massachusetts, for instance, hasn’t charged anyone with such a crime since 1983. Even when public figures are involved, prosecution normally isn’t pursued.
The more realistic risks are social ones, especially if you maintain relationships with other people who’d seek to shame and punish your “sinful” ways. I find that these consequences are more a result of dishonesty than of actual adultery. It’s the attempt to hide and cover up the adultery that seems to create the worst consequences.
Due to my own open relationship explorations, I occasionally receive some negative feedback from readers about it, but I receive many times that volume in positive feedback and follow-up questions from people who appreciate my honesty even more. The condemnation I receive for this lifestyle choice is minimal and mostly limited to one-liners with curse words.
While some people may prefer to avoid adultery due to the potential social consequences, my personal experience has shown me that it’s really no big deal. From far away the scarecrow looks intimidating, but it’s really just a stuffed shirt.
Lying about adultery and covering it up, however, usually invites more serious consequences. Social disdain for dishonesty is much greater than for adultery.
Legal and social consequences notwithstanding, is physical intimacy with a married person okay with you?
What about emotional intimacy?
For me it doesn’t make a meaningful difference whether or not someone is married. By itself, the existence of such a legal arrangement wouldn’t be enough to rule out an intimate connection. But if there is a marriage involved, then I would understand that there could be significant legal consequences for the other person due to exploring outside the marriage, such as the potential for a divorce. So I’d want to be sure the other person was aware of those consequences and was willing to explore without being reckless and impulsive.
The next layer is: Do you believe there’s anything inherently wrong about being intimate with someone who intends to hide your connection from his/her partner?
Now we’ve taken this from an open connection that all parties know about to one that involves hiding the truth. While you wouldn’t necessarily have to lie, your intimate partner might have to tell lies or significantly bend the truth to hide your connection.
Would you be okay with that? Would it depend on the specifics?
What if no lying was ever necessary?
What if there was a risk that you’d get pulled into actively hiding the truth to keep things covered up?
Would it make a difference if this was just a one-time event versus an ongoing affair?
As far as I can recall, I’ve never had this particular situation come up. I’ve often wondered how I’d handle it since it’s likely to come up eventually.
In general I could see myself possibly exploring such a connection, such as with a woman who was having serious doubts about her relationship and/or experiencing a significant disconnect with her partner. I wouldn’t hold it against her if she wanted to explore with someone else on the side for a while. I have a lot of respect for people struggling to grow through challenging situations, having been through a number of such situations myself. I understand that some people find themselves in relationships with partners who are more closed and less growth-oriented than they are, and this creates pressure to explore outside of the relationship in order to rekindle that spark of growth and avoid suffocation.
I already experience such connections on the emotional intimacy side because many people email me about their relationship challenges, often sharing feelings with me that they can’t easily share with their partners. In a few cases, I’ve even had both partners emailing me. It was eye-opening to see how each person interpreted the same events from their own point of view.
One question I’d ask myself is: Would exploring an intimate connection with this person likely do more good than harm? If I can truthfully say yes to this question, I’d probably say yes to the connection.
Is the other person making a conscious choice to share intimacy with someone else? If they’re making a conscious choice and doing it willingly, with eyes open, and they seem to understand the potential risks and consequences, I could probably handle the exploration if it seemed likely to be an important growth experience for us both. But if they weren’t ready to accept such responsibility and could go no further than baiting me into seducing them (such that they could later deny responsibility for initiating), I’d leave the bait dangling on the line for someone else to nibble.
I know some people who’d gladly share an intimate connection with someone who needed to be seduced and who didn’t want to feel responsible for their actions. This is a line I haven’t crossed and do not desire to cross. It seems like an invitation for hurt and drama, and it doesn’t align well with conscious growth.
In this kind of situation, I’d need more than a passive nod. I’d want to see conscious consent. It’s been my experience, however, that when people are capable of consciously consenting to such an exploration, they’re usually capable of being honest with their primary partner about it as well. It’s difficult to separate responsibility and honesty.
Another place where I’d draw the line would be lying on behalf of the other person to conceal the secret. I wouldn’t be willing to actively lie, but I could agree to keep the connection private. It would be up to the other person to either share or not share the truth with their partner. I wouldn’t push them to share anything if they preferred to hide that aspect from their partner, especially if I felt they had valid reasons for exploring privately for a while.
I generally don’t share details about the private connections I experience with people because by default, I assume everyone wants privacy unless they tell me otherwise. I like hearing the unvarnished truth from people whenever possible. I don’t want people to feel compelled to hide important details when discussing their growth challenges.
Where would you draw the line here? What would you consider okay versus out of bounds?
I’d expect that some of my readers may feel I’m drawing the line too far out here, perhaps expecting me to be more resistant to exploring with someone who intended to hide it from her partner. I can understand such feelings since I used to feel similarly. Going through my own separation and divorce made me more sympathetic towards others who find themselves in challenging relationship situations. I was especially grateful that other people were willing to explore intimacy with me while I was still married. It was extremely helpful for me to have the opportunity to connect with others who were nonjudgmental and understanding of my situation. I grew tremendously because of that.
I was lucky to have a conscious and understanding wife who was able to talk about these explorations openly along the way, so I didn’t have to hide anything from her. We invested a lot of time in open communication throughout the process.
Many people aren’t so lucky though, finding their partners unwilling to discuss and/or work on resolving their challenges. What are they supposed to do if they can’t engage in open dialog? What would you do if your partner was stonewalling your attempts to discuss and transform the relationship? What if you loved him/her very much? What if the situation was depressing you, lowering your energy, and hurting your self-esteem?
It’s too easy to exclaim, “That’s wrong! That’s cheating!” But will such a response lead to healing and resolution? Will it help someone transition to a more fulfilling relationship?
In many situations, I think it’s actually a good idea for people to explore outside the boundaries of a hurting or numb relationship. I know it can be risky, but it can also lead to positive growth and change.
Am I suggesting that the end justifies the means? No, in this case I’m saying that the means are reasonable unto themselves. You have the freedom to explore your path of growth. If a relationship is blocking you from growing, it’s simply intelligent to go around it. A plant that keeps growing in the direction of the sunlight is growing intelligently; it would be foolish to condemn such a plant for being disloyal to the soil.
Our final layer is: Do you believe there’s anything inherently wrong about being intimate with someone who deliberately wants to hurt his/her partner?
What if the other person’s relationship has become so damaged that s/he is now seeking an affair to intentionally hurt or sabotage the relationship?
What if s/he seems to want to get caught? What if the intent is to shame, embarrass, or humiliate his/her partner?
Would you allow yourself to share an intimate connection with such a person?
This would be a dealbreaker for me. It might still be a growth experience for the couple, probably leading to a forced and abrupt relationship transition, but I wouldn’t want someone to use me as leverage to do something mean-spirited towards another person. While I understand that some people feel desperate enough to use this as a transition strategy, it’s not a match for my values. Depending on the circumstances, I might also be inclined to warn the partner, especially if I felt doing so could prevent him from suffering further damage.
How do you feel about this situation? Is there any possibility you might find yourself involved with such a person?
What other variations on these themes would help you clarify your values and beliefs? What are the remaining gray areas for you?
What if someone’s partner was going through a major illness, and their current relationship offered no outlet for physical intimacy? What if someone’s partner was away on business for several months? What if someone’s partner was lonely and simply wanted to feel good again?
When I’m faced with a challenging situation and want to make a conscious choice, I keep coming back to the same core principles: truth, love, and power.
Here’s how I’d apply them to situations like those described above.
Truth – What’s the reality of the situation? What’s the status of the person’s relationship? If I connect with this person, what outcomes and consequences are likely? If we don’t connect, what outcomes and consequences are likely?
Love – Do we have compatible desires? Do we want to explore together? Are our reasons for connecting positive and honorable? Do I feel good about this connection? Does she?
Power – Can we help each other grow? Will connecting empower us? Can we help each other become stronger? Can we serve as a source of strength for each other? Can we teach each other and learn from each other?
As a shortcut just ask yourself this one question: Is it intelligent to explore an intimate connection with this person?
Usually when I ask myself that last question, the answer aligns pretty well with my intuitive feelings. I perceive a connection to be intelligent when it increases the emotional health and/or the experiential wisdom of the people involved.
What are your standards? What are your limits for a connection you’d consider worth exploring?
How adulterous are you?