Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Death of Intimacy

From time to time I meet peo­ple who say they are in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) rela­tion­ships. Their spouse has sup­pos­ed­ly agreed that they may have out­side rela­tion­ships, but the spouse does­n’t want to know any­thing about their oth­er sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers (OSOs) or what they do togeth­er. They don’t want to know when dates hap­pen, they don’t want to meet the OSOs, they don’t want to know who is hav­ing sex with whom, nothing.

DADT agree­ments seem to be most com­mon when a polyamorous per­son is part­nered with a monog­a­mous per­son, but they cer­tain­ly aren’t lim­it­ed to that sit­u­a­tion. I usu­al­ly hear about DADT from men who I feel are try­ing to get away with some­thing (that is, they seem to be actu­al­ly cheat­ing on their part­ners, rather than polyamorous)—they show all the signs of sneak­ing around.

But some­times a per­son will show up at poly events wear­ing a wed­ding band, say­ing that they have a DADT arrange­ment with their spouse. If the per­son keeps com­ing to events, the ring is usu­al­ly gone in a few months, and we hear that there’s a divorce in the works.

What­ev­er the rea­son, I view DADT as a major warn­ing sign that the pri­ma­ry rela­tion­ship is not healthy, and that we may well be hear­ing its death rat­tle. It is fre­quent­ly used when the monog­a­mous part­ner does not, in fact, want their part­ner to have oth­er rela­tion­ships but does not feel secure enough to demand monogamy from that part­ner. It is almost always a com­pro­mise arrived at when one part­ner does want oth­er rela­tion­ships and one wants a closed relationship.

The main prob­lem that I see with DADT is that it kills inti­ma­cy. It pre­vents full and hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion between part­ners. Inti­ma­cy can only occur when there is total hon­esty. When cer­tain top­ics are off-lim­its, there are bar­ri­ers between you. Most peo­ple do not live strict­ly com­part­men­tal­ized lives.

For instance, Jamie is real­ly look­ing for­ward to their week­ly lunch with their sweet­ie, Leslie. A cri­sis comes up, neces­si­tat­ing an urgent meet­ing. Jamie has to can­cel the lunch plans, leav­ing them out of sorts. When Jamie gets home that night, they can’t explain their mood to their spouse Tay­lor. Tay­lor knows that some­thing is both­er­ing Jamie, and they want to know what it is—but they may be reluc­tant to ask because they don’t want to know about it if it has any­thing to do with Leslie. There are walls between Jamie and Tay­lor, and slow­ly the with­hold­ing spreads to oth­er areas of their lives. DADT is not sus­tain­able in the long run and can lead to the cou­ple becom­ing room­mates more than partners.

DADT can also present safe­ty issues. If Jamie learns that Leslie has decid­ed to stop using con­doms with their oth­er sweetie(s), their rela­tion­ship with Leslie presents a greater health risk to them and to Tay­lor than it did when Leslie was using bar­ri­ers. Jamie needs to dis­close that increased risk to Tay­lor. If they have a DADT agree­ment, they’re like­ly to be reluc­tant to bring up the issue.

True inti­ma­cy requires true hon­esty. True hon­esty is com­plete, with­out hold­ing any­thing back. I can’t imag­ine sac­ri­fic­ing inti­ma­cy to avoid dis­com­fort. Why would you do it?

I’m the first to admit that I don’t have the One True Way to Do Poly, so obvi­ous­ly, there may be peo­ple for whom DADT works. I just haven’t seen it myself.

8 Replies to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Death of Intimacy”

  1. I enjoyed your col­umn. I am in a sit­u­a­tion that is open (we are hon­est with each oth­er), and where recent­ly one of his part­ners in anoth­er city has moved to town, lit­er­al­ly into his neigh­bor­hood. Their arrange­ment has been DADT for 12 years. And I did­n’t ques­tion it. I assessed it much as your analysis–that I per­son­al­ly would want to “know” things that impact me, such as health risks, and I see the sit­u­a­tion as one that under­mines intimacy–if I refuse to get to know who you real­ly are/what you’re real­ly doing, how can my feel­ings for “you” be valid or that I hon­est­ly accept you? So, my arrange­ment has been that I try to be respect­ful of oth­er part­ners in my ques­tions, and my part­ner is able to tell me what­ev­er he is com­fort­able shar­ing, but MUST tell any­thing that could put me at risk.

    What has con­cerned me about this lat­est devel­op­ment is that it seems to vio­late the “DA” por­tion of the deal. If I say I don’t want to know about your oth­er part­ners, but them move, lit­er­al­ly, around the cor­ner from where you live, then my actions and words aren’t aligned. Fur­ther ear­ly in our rela­tion­ship we had STI screen­ings to deter­mine if we could stop using con­doms. His test came up with a prob­lem­at­ic pos­i­tive result that he then had to share with his DADT partner–out of pure eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. When he told her about the pos­i­tive result, she asked why he’d been test­ed. Again, ask­ing some­one why they were screened for an STI, when you say you don’t want to know if they have oth­er part­ners does not appear to rep­re­sent align­ment between actions and words.

    I’ve been research­ing this because her move to his neigh­bor­hood, from a near­by city, has now made prob­lems with the DADT sit­u­a­tion they had previously–which was more eas­i­ly kept when they were liv­ing far­ther apart. I had my own thoughts on the sit­u­a­tion, but want­ed oth­er perspectives.

    Nei­ther of us, he nor I, have had much time to process this news, as she only announced her move to him less than a week ago. But his imme­di­ate reac­tion has been very dif­fer­ent than mine. I believe the effort to be dis­creet should not include pro­tect­ing his part­ner from her­self. That is, I don’t see why *our* arrange­ment needs to change. She made the deci­sion to live with­in such close prox­im­i­ty, and she there­fore has exposed her­self to a greater risk of find­ing out about his oth­er com­ings and goings. That’s on her, and he has no oblig­a­tion to re-arrange his life for her, but has sug­gest­ed we may no longer be able to meet at his home for our dates. I see her behav­ior as “ask­ing.” And I believe that while he should­n’t flaunt the infor­ma­tion to her, he’s not under an oblig­a­tion to take extra­or­di­nary mea­sures to pro­tect her from find­ing things she has tak­en extra­or­di­nary mea­sures to find. In oth­er words, DADT means you don’t check your SO’s cell phone. That’s *ask­ing*. My solu­tion would be to note that if you check the cell phone, you may not like what you find–and if you hon­est­ly don’t want to know, then don’t check the cell phone. His response seems to be “since you’re going to check the cell phone, I guess I need to buy anoth­er cell phone and find a way to keep it hid­den from you.”

    That to me is above-and-beyond DADT. But he said as well he does­n’t want to jeop­ar­dize what he has with her–and so I have to *hear* that, and it seems that I don’t have much option oth­er than to walk in this case, and be glad I only spent a year invest­ed in this so far.

    Since he has­n’t had a lot of time to process it, and I won’t be con­nect­ing with him for about a week, I’m tak­ing the time to just check oth­er points of view and research this idea, and think/rethink things, so that when I do see him lat­er I can be clear on what is/is not accept­able to me. If his atti­tudes remain what they are as of our last/first con­ver­sa­tion about this, then I have to move along. But it’s pos­si­ble he was sim­ply react­ing to new infor­ma­tion and had­n’t processed it ful­ly him­self. If he can adjust his view to cre­ate more rea­son­able bound­aries between what’s on him and what’s on her as far as infor­ma­tion expo­sure, then I may be sur­prised and there may be a future, but to me even the idea of her mov­ing into the neigh­bor­hood is sat­u­rat­ed with dys­func­tion, and so I’m not hope­ful. I hon­est­ly believe my next con­ver­sa­tion with him will be my last and he can then focus on his new neigh­bor and try his luck find­ing part­ners who don’t mind being treat­ed like sub­or­di­nates to her, rather than peers/partners.

    But want­ed to say yours was one of a hand­ful over lev­el-head­ed per­spec­tives on this issue that I’ve come across. Thanks for post­ing it.

  2. My only request was if he became sex­u­al­ly active with oth­er women, that we use con­doms togeth­er. I nev­er asked him to use them with oth­er women, that was a deci­sion between them. That way, what­ev­er deci­sions they made did­n’t impact the deci­sion we made. He was upset to have to go back to using con­doms after 20 years of mar­riage, but it was my only request regard­ing sex.
    So our DADT should­n’t have had the “health” draw­backs you men­tioned. In terms of inti­ma­cy, that’s just bull­shit. I have a deep con­nec­tion with my mom with­out know­ing all the details of my par­ents’ sex lives. I have very close friend­ships with­out hav­ing blow-by-blow descrip­tions of their sex lives. Inti­ma­cy cov­ers so much more than talk­ing about who’s doing what to whom. Peo­ple leave out details of large sec­tions of their lives with­out it dam­ag­ing the rela­tion­ship. I’d be will­ing to bet you don’t know every lit­tle detail about every per­son you’re close to. It’s sim­ply not nec­es­sary to know every­thing in order to build inti­ma­cy with some­one. What is nec­es­sary is trust and respect. Nei­ther of which is shown when you demand to share inti­mate details with some­one who does­n’t want to hear them.

    1. Hi Angel. This would be much sim­pler if you would keep your com­ments to one arti­cle, rather than con­tin­u­ing your thoughts from one arti­cle to the next. In any case, I’m glad you came to an arrange­ment that did­n’t have that draw­back. And I think you know that the kind of inti­ma­cy one has with a par­ent or friend is entire­ly dif­fer­ent than that which one has in a rela­tion­ship that includes sex. Bring­ing up the oth­er kinds of rela­tion­ships is a red her­ring. Appar­ent­ly your agree­ment did­n’t work out, or you would­n’t have writ­ten the com­ment on the oth­er article.

    2. @Angel: I don’t think it’s about “need­ing” to know every­thing about a per­son. It’s about hav­ing some parts of the per­son lit­er­al­ly off-lim­its. That is, I may not need to know every­thing about my friends or rel­a­tives to be inti­mate­ly asso­ci­at­ed with them–but they are open to tell me any­thing they would like to share. We don’t have bound­aries around what they are or are not allowed to come to me and share. When I lit­er­al­ly say to some­one “I don’t want to know about X aspect of your life–don’t tell me about it,” I am reject­ing a part of them–of who they are. And sex­u­al expression–how peo­ple inter­act sex­u­al­ly with others–is an inte­gral part of a per­son. If I tell my gay child, for exam­ple, “I don’t want to hear about your gay affairs, because I don’t want to know about your gay stuff, because I can’t deal with it,” I’m lit­er­al­ly telling my child that I reject a major part of who they are.

      1. THIS!! This com­ment is every­thing. If I tell my part­ner I want DADT, I am reject­ing a part of who they are and telling them that part is bad, that they are wrong, and that they can­not feel safe to share in the hap­pi­ness, sad­ness, joy, and pain with regards to their var­i­ous para­mours. If a para­mour is ask­ing for DADT, my obser­va­tion is that they want to pre­tend to have a monog­a­mous or at the very least closed rela­tion­ship (V, or tri­ad, etc) in their head because they real­ly aren’t poly or they are unwill­ing to unpack the dis­com­fort of all the emo­tions one feels when their para­mour choos­es to spend time with anoth­er (para­mour or meta­mour). Stick­ing one’s head in the sand does­n’t alter reality.

  3. I am in an open mar­riage. Mar­ried for 8 years. My wife and I love sep­a­rate but love each oth­er very very much. She has a monogamish rela­tion­ship and I have fall­en in love with anoth­er women who lives far away and also has anoth­er partner.

    I have been open for years, but my love for this oth­er women is intox­i­cat­ing and the long­ing is painful at times. That said — every­thing is amaz­ing and she longs for and miss­es me too.

    With my wife, our com­mu­ni­ca­tion style pret­ty much full dis­clo­sure. Though she Does­n’t care to know about lit­tle hookups and things. Though in the right con­text, I let her know stuff and we laugh about it. All good there. She knows I am in love with this oth­er women — who also hap­pens to be her friend. All good there.

    The prob­lem is the pain of want­i­ng to be with my lover.… I feel lost at times!!! With just pure long­ing. We have a vaca­tion planned, we talk for hours… and still I want more.

    She is in anoth­er rela­tion­ship and tech­ni­cal­ly she is hav­ing an affair. I don’t real­ly involve myself and try to just sup­port her in what­ev­er she feels is right for her.

    Now… the idea of open­ing myself to oth­er peo­ple (in addi­tion to my wife and lover), makes me feel bet­ter. It makes the pain hurt less.

    The idea of telling her about it is a devis­tat­ing one. I would hate to ini­ti­ate a dis­tur­bance between her and her love for me. She does­n’t need to know either. 

    The fact also remains, that I want her so bad, I would explore monogamy even. With pleasure. 

    I believe in free­dom and she should always do what­ev­er she wish­es. She does­n’t need to tell me. Though if she want­ed to — she could also. I can han­dle it.

    what’s hard­er to han­dle is the idea of telling her about oth­ers.… espe­cial­ly when I am most­ly inter­est­ed in see­ing oth­er peo­ple only to keep some lev­el of cool and san­i­ty.… it’s almost for her I am doing it in a strange and twist­ed way. It’s for her because it’s the only thing that seems to keep me from cling­ing and attach­ing to her.

    The last point is, can you be tru­ely free and main­tain full disclosure?

  4. I don’t ful­ly fol­low some of your com­ment, I’m afraid. You seem to have free­dom, and with the excep­tion of your lover’s affair, dis­clo­sure. In my expe­ri­ence, those are not incompatible.

    If you’re say­ing that you want to be with your lover to the exclu­sion of all oth­ers — you men­tion pos­si­bly explor­ing monogamy — then tell your lover that, and see what hap­pens. Be aware, though, that if she’s will­ing to have one affair, she’ll be will­ing to have others. 

    As for your oth­er lovers, it is unfair to them that you see them only “keep me from cling­ing and attach­ing to her” (your lover, I take it).

  5. This was an inter­est­ing per­spec­tive, but as some­one who has been research­ing the sub­ject a lot late­ly I can’t help but feel that there is an obnox­ious­ly evan­gel­i­cal tone to a lot of poly/open advo­ca­cy. My wife and I have been strug­gling with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of open­ing things up, she wants it more than I do, and what I found most off-putting about the con­cept was not that my wife would have sex with oth­er peo­ple on occa­sion, but that I’d have oth­er peo­ple and rela­tion­ships invad­ing our men­tal and/or phys­i­cal space and our fam­i­ly (we have two small kids). I don’t want a dif­fer­ent “lifestyle.” I don’t want to hear about some stranger, his wife, her lover, etc. I love my wife and want her to be hap­py, I don’t care about the oth­er peo­ple and don’t want to spend two sec­onds of my emo­tion­al or men­tal ener­gy on them. And the thing is, she does­n’t want that either. She wants fun on the side, a release and that’s it, a lit­tle explo­ration before she gets old. I know that does­n’t guar­an­tee feel­ings don’t come in, but we decid­ed we would be hon­est with each oth­er if they do, and fig­ure out what to do with it then, but until that hap­pens, we’d rather not know. There’s a rea­son that for cen­turies peo­ple had “under­stand­ings” and “arrange­ments” but that open mar­riage and poly are much new­er and seem more preva­lent among peo­ple whose lean­ings are already away from non-tra­di­tion­al mar­riage and fam­i­ly. Great for you, but stop being so preachy to every­one else. I want my wife to have fun and not have to think about it too much. I don’t want to deal with oth­er peo­ple’s crap. I want some­thing com­part­men­tal­ized, I know that’s not 100% pos­si­ble but I’d rather aim for that. It’s ok for peo­ple to have some space to them­selves, not every­thing has to be 100% shared. If any­thing, I think it’s more self-indul­gent of a non-monog­a­mous per­son to *expect* a monog­a­mous per­son to share in their experiences.

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