Can ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Relationships Work? Relationship Therapists Weigh In

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The phrase “don’t ask, don’t tell” may bring to mind the discriminatory policy from the '90s that kept LGBTQ+ folks in the U.S. military from sharing information about their sexuality or non-cis gender. But the phrase has another meaning in polyamorous circles: a non-monogamous relationship structure that allows some kinds of physical, sexual, and/or emotional connections with people outside the core (or primary) relationship.

Thankfully, the former interpretation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed by Congress in 2011, while the latter is a relationship agreement practiced by many lovers today. But what does a DADT relationship look like exactly? And can it work? Due to the down-low nature of the extra-relationship flings involved, the answers to these basic questions can feel nebulous—so we asked relationship therapists to set the record straight.

Experts In This Article

"Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" relationships, explained

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) is a relationship agreement where both (or all) people in the relationship have enthusiastically consented to a relationship structure where one or more of the people in the relationship are free to pursue and engage in sexual, romantic, and/or emotional mingling with someone(s) outside of the relationship.

The catch, however, is that the people in the “original” relationship do not discuss these extra-relational connections, and therefore do not know what their partner is up to, explains psychotherapist and sex and relationship expert Rachel Wright, LMFT, host of the podcast The Wright Conversations: A Podcast About Sex, Relationships, and Mental Health. “Someone in one of these agreements, for example, might say things like, ‘I don’t care if my partner has sex with someone, but I don’t want to know anything about it’,” she says.

“Someone in one of these agreements, for example, might say things like, ‘I don’t care if my partner has sex with someone, but I don’t want to know anything about it.’” —Rachel Wright, LMFT, psychotherapist

Exactly what the individuals in the relationship are allowed to pursue will vary, says Brett Chamberlin, executive director at the Organization for Polyamory & Ethical Non-monogamy. “Some agreements will allow the partners to have intercourse with other individuals so long as they use barriers, while other people may limit activity to kissing in public places, like on the dance floor,” he says. In the former example, it would be considered a breach of the relationship agreement (aka cheating) if one of the partners did not use protection, while in the other it would be considered a breach if someone went home with the cutie from the dance floor, he says.

How little (or much) the individuals in the relationship ask and tell also varies among DADT relationships. “Some people might want to know who their partner is seeing and where they are going, but not any of the specific details of what happens on the date,” says Chamberlin. Meanwhile, other people might be okay simply knowing that their partner is going out—and not knowing whether that’s with a right swipe, friend, or ongoing boo, he says.

Regardless of the exact agreements at play, a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" relationship structure allows people to receive only the information they actually want to receive, within a container that is safe, loving, and consensual. “It offers a clear and intentional way to create a filter valve on the flow of information,” says psychotherapist and board-certified sex therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT, CST.

Is DADT a form of non-monogamy?

Great question. “If everyone involved is consenting to it being a DADT situation, then yes, it is a form of non-monogamy,” says Wright.

As a refresher: Non-monogamy is any kind of relationship wherein people are allowed to, within the agreements of their relationship(s), form romantic and/or sexual connections with multiple people, explains Wright. You may have heard non-monogamy referred to as ethical non-monogamy (or ENM), but many polyamorous educators, therapists, and practitioners are moving away from that nomenclature, she says. Simply, because there is no such thing as unethical non-monogamy—if it’s not ethical, it’s not non-monogamy at all, but cheating.

“If not everyone is consenting to the DADT situation, then that would be cheating,” says Wright. Cheating, she explains, is about breaking a relationship agreement. “If the agreement is ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ then there’s nothing being broken when nothing is asked and nothing is told, and therefore it is not a form of cheating, but a style of non-monogamy.”

No, DADT relationships aren’t (usually) just lying in disguise

DADT relationships are often stereotyped for being used by monogamous folks to excuse away affairs and other extramarital lies, says Francis.

But there are many (many!) ways for folks to set up their DADT relationship that don’t involve lying, says Francis. “There is a common understanding that being honest means sharing all information possible at all times, and under this perspective, privacy—especially when there are firm lines around it—is deception,” she says.

But in actuality, it's possible to be honest with your partner(s) without sharing absolutely everything. People with all different relationship structures actively filter out details of what they share and don’t share with their partner, says Francis. For instance: Do you volunteer all your financial activity to your partner? Do you share with them the details of your conversations with your friends? Do you talk about your bowel movements? “Every person and relationship has different agreements about what they do and do not choose to be shared,” says Francis.

The difference: In a relationship marked by honesty, the people within the relationship have created agreements about what needs to be shared—and what does not need to be shared—in order to honor each individual's wants and boundaries.

The potential downsides of DADT

“There can be many problems with DADT, however it isn’t an inherently flawed relationship modality,” says Francis. Still, if you’re considering the structure for yourself, certain potential issues are worth acknowledging.

Generally speaking, DADT relationship structures work best when one (or all) of the people in the primary relationship travel for work, or the individuals do not live (aka nest) together, says Zane. Without these built-in separations, you’re more likely to fall into the pitfalls of lying, he says.

DADT dynamics also generally work best when the amount of sex, romance, or other agreed-upon form of intimacy you want to have outside of the relationship is relatively low. “If you're constantly having sex with others, and then needing to lie about what you did and where you were to your partner, it's likely that your relationship will explode rather quickly,” sex educator Zachary Zane, sex expert for the dating app Archer, previously told Well+Good.

Given the nature of the arrangement, DADT can offer particular challenges when a boundary is broken. After all, it can be tricky to disclose that a boundary was breached without sharing information that is normally deemed off-limits. That’s why Francis says it’s important to preemptively have a plan of action in place for moving forward if this happens. (More on this in a sec!)

A "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" relationship can work—here's how to tell if it's for you

1. Reflect, reflect, reflect

Sure, this type of agreement might sound perfect to you (and your partners) upon first glance. But before you implement it, Wright recommends digging a little deeper to understand why, exactly, this relationship set-up is appealing to you.

Start by analyzing your current relationship, she says, assuming you’re in one. Is a DADT relationship something that uniquely excites you... or is it your first-stop solution to a component that currently feels like it is missing? Are there other things you could implement—for instance, a weekly date night, mutual masturbation, a vibrator, etc.—that could also fill the same void? In general, introducing third (fourth, or fifth) parties is a messier, less effective way at fixing existing relationship issues than solving for the issue within the pre-existing dyad (or triad).

2. Think about your communication skills

Next, noodle on your comfortability communicating with your boo. Does this relationship structure have appeal to you because you don’t trust that your partner can share about their dalliances in a way that honors your feelings? Or, maybe it’s because you don’t trust yourself to tactfully share about your other bonds with your boo?

While these are both *fine* reasons to come to a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" relationship, they do hint at other communication break-downs within your dyad that will likely continue to come up, no matter your relationship structure.

“In an ideal situation, the folks practicing DADT are not using the label to shield themselves from honest communication, from the vulnerable process of relationship negotiation, or to ignore one another’s boundaries by doing things in secret,” says Francis. But rather, they are open to vulnerability, have strengthened their communication skills, and are choosing this structure because they’ve discerned it's best for them after thoughtful deliberation, she says.

3. Negotiate for success

Given that the degree of discretion in DADT agreements can range from complete secrecy to, “I’d rather not hear about details of how you spent your time together with others until I’m in the right headspace to listen,” Francis notes that you and your partner(s) will need to get granular about what the DADT framework means for you specifically.

Here, Francis offers some questions to consider together:

  1. What information do you want to know for your health, safety, or well-being?
  2. What information do you need to know to feel respected, loved, and invested in this relationship?
  3. What information do you not want or need about my other relationships?
  4. Under what circumstances should I make something known, or signal to you that I want or need to share something with you?
  5. How will you signal to me that you’d like to know more details or information?

“Asking these questions bi-directionally can help you build a solid foundation for your non monogamy, and keep your choice to practice DADT,” she says.

4. Work with a couples therapist or polyamory coach

PSA: You don’t have to make this decision all on your own. A non-monogamy-informed couples therapist or polyamory educator can help you and your partner(s) figure out exactly what kind of relationship agreement(s) make sense for you.

“I work with a lot of couples who are opening up their monogamous relationship into a non-monogamous relationship and help them come up with agreements around what they want to ask and share, if anything,” says Wright.

5. Research other forms of non-monogamy

A DADT style relationship may be what you and your boo(s) decide works best for you. However, you won’t really know if that is the case until you learn about other forms of relationship agreements.

“There are some great discord servers, meet-up groups, online educators, and written resources on these topics,” Chamberlin says. Some great starting points are listening to the Multiamory podcast, reading books like Polysecure by Jessica Fern, and following polyamorous and non-monogamist sex educators like Remodeled Love, Gab Alexa, Bear & Fifi, and Chill Polyamory on Instagram.

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