Open relationships

Why a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Relationship Is a Terrible Idea (From Someone Who’s Been There)

Published: DECEMBER 13, 2018 | Updated: AUGUST 29, 2021
Keeping secrets is inherently harmful and seems especially counter-intuitive in an open relationship.

A handful of years ago, I got involved with a colleague. We met on a work trip. He lived in Vancouver, B.C., and I lived in Seattle. We agreed that if we found ourselves in each other’s city, we’d connect. There was a spark between us, so it wasn’t long until our paths crossed.


Fast forward – we found ourselves in a serious relationship. Up until this point, he hadn’t dated a non-monogamous woman, although he dated multiple women himself. “You openly dating other guys while seeing me is a brand-new experience for me,” he said in an email.

From what he said, the women he saw were monogamous – to him. They didn’t want to hear about his extracurricular involvements. Whether or not this was true or simply a means for him to cheat, I will never know. He sure wanted to hear about and weigh in on my relationships.

This is how I became involved in a one-sided “don’t ask don’t tell (DADT)” dynamic. This style of open relationship is when a couple has agreed to be intimate with others outside of their relationship as long as they don’t have to share any information about these interactions with their partner. Based on this and prior DADT experiences I can tell you with certainty: they don’t work.


When I visited him, we met up at hotels. He rarely stayed the night. I never once saw his place. When he came to Seattle, he stayed at my apartment. The whole hands-off, six levels of secrecy was kind of odd. Many aspects made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t question it too much. I’m into a lot of alternative things and try to approach every situation as open-mindedly as possible.

An Abundance of Red Flags

Still, there were a lot of red flags I chose to ignore. For many months, we communicated only via email and had a separate Gmail account set up for NSFW communication. (Fair enough on the latter, though it was the first of many items on a long list of paranoid precautions.) In the pre-FOSTA/SESTA era, we placed ads on Craigslist looking for threesomes. While he advocated just how ethically non-monogamous we were in our ads, I questioned his understanding of the word “ethical.”

Sure, we made decisions together. For the most part, our goals were aligned, but there’s a fine line between balancing disclosure and privacy. He withheld important information from his other partners, while I was 100% transparent about my dating and sexual activities. I understand that DADT dynamics may work for some couples, but I was never on board, and it became a pain point in our relationship.


We practiced super-vigilant safer sex – think gloves for any genital contact, condoms for blow jobs, and dental dams for oral sex and, of course, condoms for penis-in-vagina sex. He said that he hadn't had intercourse for a decade before me, and I trusted that these practices carried over to other partners. I wasn’t too worried about STIs.

I Didn't Feel Heard or Valued

In the end, I broke up with him because I couldn’t invest in a dynamic where my feelings weren’t heard or valued. We all have sovereignty over our bodies, minds and personal choices. In this relationship, I felt like a mistress, the dreaded side piece.

In one of my last emails, I wrote: “I have no interest in investing in a non-monogamous primary partner* if all parties aren't aware of what's going on. I'm not going to be a secret. We keep coming back to this sticking point, and I'm done talking about it. If you want to have a casual relationship with me, I will consider scaling communication way back and playing if the stars aligned and we find ourselves in the same place at the same time. I get that your dynamics work for you, but they feel very dishonest and disrespectful to me. I hope you find what you're looking for, but it's not me. I’m not going to make compromises that make me feel crappy. Period.”


Needless to say, our breakup wasn’t pretty.

I have no idea what he told other partners when I was visiting, when we traveled together, or when he came to see me in Seattle. I’ll never know if his partners were aware of my existence. He was a spinner of fantastical tales. I mean, we rarely had a sexual encounter that didn’t involve elaborate role play. I enjoyed it immensely. In retrospect, I feel like I dated a carefully-crafted veneer of a person who deftly compartmentalized his life versus ever going off-script. The line between reality and fantasy was blurred right from the beginning, and there are so many things I'll never know.

My successful non-monogamous and polyamorous relationships happened because of trust, honesty, and communication – even when it’s uncomfortable. I’m all about being vulnerable and sharing fears. I may not always have direct contact with my metamours, but they know I exist. All of my partners were aware of Vancouver’s existence and fully supported the relationship. (Hello, compersion!)


Honesty Is Key

There’s no one right way to do open relationships but I do think honesty is key to any successful relationship. Keeping secrets is inherently harmful and seems especially counter-intuitive in an open relationship. It’s damn near impossible to make informed choices or be on the same page with a partner when there are so many unknowns. Truth and transparency has always been the best operating system for my non-monogamous relationships, which is why I steer clear of DADT dynamics now.

*I’ve since ditched hierarchy in my relationships.

Ryn Pfeuffer

Ryn Pfeuffer is a versatile print and digital writer specializing in sex, lifestyle, and relationship topics. She got her start in the mid-90s at the Philadelphia Weekly, managing a 10-page section of the newspaper and more than 500 lonely hearts.Her professional stock skyrocketed when she started writing a saucy (and pre-Carrie-Bradshaw-era) dating advice column called “Ask Me Anything.” She appeared regularly on local radio stations and late-night TV as an expert on everything from grooming...

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