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 thoughts on “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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