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Design your ideal open relationship: disclosed or Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell (DADT)?

Dr Zhana Vrangalova

November 3rd, 2023

Why controlling what, when and how you know about your partner's other partners is the key to successful open relationships.

This is the fourth instalment in a series of blog posts about relationship design and how our unique personalities affect our relationship choices. Click here to read the firstsecond and third posts.

One of the most important decisions facing any open relationship where partners see other people separately is how much each partner tells the other about what they’re doing with these other people. The amount of disclosure can range from not knowing anything (otherwise known as Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, DADT) all the way to knowing all the details, with many intermediate levels in between. Agreements around disclosure greatly shape the dynamic of any CNM (consensually non-monogamous) relationship and getting them right is important; sharing more or less than what is ideal for the people involved is often a major source of pain and conflict. 

Disclosed Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM)

The most common approach in open relationships is for partners to share at least some information about the other people they are seeing, what I call disclosed CNM. The exact rules for how much, when and the manner in which this information is disclosed vary quite a bit among couples. Some people want to know all the details. I would ask my ex-husband about everything: the person, the conversations, the sex, any feelings. Many others ask for ‘just the basics’, like who their partner is seeing, whether and when something sexual happened and whether they’ll see them again. 

Some take a fairly ‘laissez faire’ approach to the timing and way of disclosing, operating on a ‘tell me whenever you get a chance’ rule. Others require advance notification, or even permission before something planned happens, and/or immediate notification after something unplanned happens. Many settle for something in between. For the first couple of years of our relationship, for example, my ex-husband and I had an OTWA (Only-Tell-When-Asked) policy for him. I would share the detail of my experiences only when he asked about them, and that way he was in the right headspace to hear about them. 

There are important benefits to disclosed CNM. We get to share these exciting and meaningful aspects of ourselves and our lives with our partners, which can make us feel closer and more connected to them. For many of us, it’s a way to give us a sense of control and manage our anxiety about our partner’s non-monogamy; the more we know, the less we wonder, and the calmer we are. For some, hearing about it can even be a sexual turn-on. Disclosed CNM is also consistent with the values of honesty and transparency to which many of us subscribe today. It also prevents the creation of secrets which could otherwise be potentially discovered and have the capacity to cause trouble in the relationship.

At the same time, knowing about our partner’s experiences with others isn’t always easy. For many folks, having more information feeds their anxiety rather than reducing it. Even for people who are not particularly jealous, knowledge of their partner’s life with others can cause some amount of emotional discomfort and require emotional processing. And for those who are more jealous or feel less secure in their relationships, knowing can be distressing and it can require significant emotional labour to subsequently resolve the situation. All this requires time, energy and emotional bandwidth from both partners that they may not have. 

Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell (DADT) Relationships

Although there are different ways to structure the specifics of disclosure in a CNM relationship, in all of these cases, partners have a general idea about what they are doing with others. But some people prefer not to know anything or almost anything about their partner’s non-monogamy. They are ok knowing that something might be happening, but don’t want to be confronted with any specifics. These DADT relationships operate on the policy: ‘I don’t ask questions about what you do with others, and you keep your adventures discreet, so I don’t accidentally find out’. 

There are different ways to establish a DADT relationship. The safest way is to have an initial conversation, set some ground rules and then not talk about it again. Some common-and commonsense-rules include using condoms, not having sex with people you both know, keeping things with others casual or only seeing others when one of you is travelling (this is often called the 100-mile-rule, or however many miles you want to put in between you and your partner having sex with others). Setting clear rules and boundaries at the beginning is important for any CNM relationship, but it’s even more important for DADT relationships because there’ll be fewer opportunities to recalibrate and renegotiate.

The riskier way is to start DADT with minimal or no conversation, negotiation or agreement. I recently heard about a woman who wasn’t getting enough sex from her husband, so one day she just said ‘If you don’t start having more sex with me soon, I’ll start having sex with other people’. He shrugged it off at the time, but didn’t start initiating sex more, so she started seeing others. They never discussed it again. With another couple, the wife was convinced they had a DADT policy based on a few ambiguous indicators. When five years later they started to officially open up, it turned out her husband had had no idea they had a DADT. He’s still processing the reality of her extracurricular experiences.

Many CNM folks are sceptical or even downright disapproving of DADT relationships, considering them too close to cheating and also difficult to pull off without outright lying. And then when some information does surface, as it sometimes does, things can get ugly. DADT policies also often mean people are not truly embracing CNM, they’re just tolerating it, so it doesn't feel like an enthusiastic commitment. 

DADT agreements certainly have some unique challenges compared to other types of CNM. But they also have some benefits. Disclosure can cause emotional discomfort, even suffering and require a lot of time and energy to process. Not knowing means not having to do that emotional labour. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’. It also provides more time and energy to focus on other things in life. When working well, DADT can be particularly useful in the context of long-distance relationships, open-mono relationships (where one partner is non-monogamous and the other is monogamous) or as a temporary ‘stepping stone’ phase in the opening up process.

Which one is right for me?

As with everything else in relationships, different levels of disclosure will work for different people and couples, depending on personality types, personal preferences and logistical circumstances. 

Greater disclosure is good for people who like to share all the intimate details of their lives with their partners, who don’t find it too distressing to hear about their partner’s interests in and experiences with other people and who have a lot of time, emotional bandwidth and are happy to process that type of information. They are also good for those who are not good at keeping secrets, or whose lives are structured in a way that would make that difficult.

Less disclosure is good for people who are fairly distressed by hearing about their partner’s extracurricular experiences and don’t have much time and energy to process that information. It’s also good for those who prefer to be more private in their erotic life and are psychologically capable of keeping things private.

Finally, keep in mind that, as with other aspects of openness, disclosure rules and agreements do not have to be the same for both members of a couple and they don’t have to stay the same. Ideally, they will be determined by how much each partner prefers to hear about what the other one is doing and will change as people’s preferences and life circumstances change. 

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