Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: What Makes Non-Monogamy Ethical?


Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: What Makes Non-Monogamy Ethical?A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post called The Polyamorous Mediator, in which I mentioned that D and his wife have a “don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy” when it comes to extra-marital partners, and I commented that this is a set-up I am content to honour for their sake. Reading this, a friend of mine messaged me and asked if I would answer a question for her. Now, I don’t want to misquote her, or misread her, but put in very simple terms she expressed to me that through her eyes when a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is put on a relationship, extra-marital relationships – in essence – are affairs. She asked a lot of insightful and honest questions in an attempt to feel me out on this, and I offered my explanations and our story to the best of my ability, but at the end of our conversation she still called me his mistress, and our relationship an affair; and even though I found that a little upsetting, for all my counter-arguments (which I’m sure will always come off as defensive and self-serving) I do understand where she’s coming from.

However, this is a very complicated grey area, and there are a multitude of angles from which it may be viewed. There is certainly no way I can offer a definitive solution, but nor is this something I have justified and now keep out of sight and out of mind. It is something I consider often and deeply. So let me share some of my thoughts.

Initially and instinctively a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy doesn’t sit quite right with me. It holds at its heart an “ignorance is bliss” philosophy which I just don’t buy. For me, ideally, non-monogamy should be far more open than that. It should be about facing things with honesty, not trying to hide the parts of ourselves and the parts of our partners that we don’t want to see. However, nor am I naïve enough to believe that anything is ever ‘ideal’. I truly believe that for the vast amount of our time on this planet, we make the best with what we’re given. I may never be able to shake hands with his wife, or have a conversation where the three of us accept and enjoy the fact that, in our own way, we share something unique. But I do believe that what he and I share is worth the sacrifice, because I see how much good it does us both. In short, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is not ideal; but it’s a compromise with which I have chosen to exist.

But making my own peace with this really isn’t the issue at hand. The bigger question, to my mind, is this: without honesty, and without openness, – these two grand things which non-monogamous people have been upholding for such a long time – can non-monogamy actually be ethical? I am fairly sure that opinions on this must be hugely divided, and in the end I can only share my own views on this one relationship.

For a long time I decided to assume that my relationship with him was an affair. He told me about their policy, but since I couldn’t ask her, there was no way for me to know if that was true or not. So I decided to face the loudest music, and make my peace with the worst case scenario. When it comes to cheating I have said so many things: I’ve condemned it; I’ve cheated on people; I’ve been cheated on; I have made my peace with being the mistress, and I have taken it back. In fact I have been very harsh with people who were cheating in ways that I do regret; and also in ways that I don’t. But when I entered this relationship with D, believing that it wasn’t ethical, I made my peace with that, and I didn’t try to justify it. In fact I wrote a piece (which I have never had the courage to show anyone) in which I spoke honestly about how I felt it was unethical, but that at the end of the day I am an adult and this is something I get to decide. It is a privilege of being human that I am allowed to choose. I am allowed to choose the right thing, or I am allowed to choose the wrong thing. I am allowed to choose the good, or the bad. At that time I believed I was choosing the wrong thing, though I could never look at my relationship with him and call it bad, because at its best moments, what he and I share is such a force for good in both our lives.

As it turns out, over the time that he and I have been together, trust has grown, and I understand him much better, and as it turns out, I do believe him. I believe him when he says all his wife wants is for he and I to be discrete.

This, of course, opens up a further multitude of questions and issues. For a start, how do I know she’s being honest? How do I know this isn’t just the only way she believes she is able to keep her husband? I cannot refute that very real possibility. But I don’t know her – I can’t know her. I can’t ask, and I can’t feel her out on this. Therefore that has to be his job and his decision. The only thing I can do at this level is either bow out in fear, or accept that from here on in, I take that risk and I hold that possibility.

What I can do is respect her choice. At the end of the day, if she has said “okay, but be discrete” then I can do my utmost to honour and respect those wishes. There is even a chance that if I knew her very well, if I heard her say those words with my own ears, I still couldn’t be completely sure. In fact, there is a good argument to be made for the fact that anyone who makes that statement, is giving his/her consent, and is doing so in full knowledge of what it means.

But I digress – what I really want to comment upon, what I hold most important in our relationship, is the aforementioned respect. Because of her wishes, it is exceptionally important to me that he and I are discrete, that in accordance with her consent, she doesn’t ask, and we don’t tell.

And there does come a point where I wonder if perhaps the heart of non-monogamy – particularly when it comes to metamours – isn’t honesty and openness so much as it is respect. But either way, this is both the best and the least I can offer.


Harper Eliot is a writer and podcaster whose work mainly centers around eroticism and social observation. You can find an archive of work, and links to all her other projects, on her website Harper Eliot. Harper lives in London, but rarely sees her own house, spending most of her time on public transport, listening to podcasts and tweeting too much. Her vices include cigarettes, lubricant, Earl Grey tea, opera, nail polish, and pinwheels.


  1. I don’t quite understand why you are equating DADT with non-honesty. just because they have a DADT agreement between them doesn’t mean they are not being honest with each other. that is just their way of setting things up which is perfectly viable and if it works for them, who are we to judge?

  2. I agree that it’s a bit of a grey area and having experienced both, I must say I find it more pleasant to be open and honest. It’s refreshing and I find it trust building. Both works though and especially dealing with jealousy it can be a good solution to DADT

  3. I have read this very carefully and I am unsure as to why you feel the description of you as his mistress is wrong. It is, of course, possible that I have a different definition of what a mistress is to you. Nothing in your explanation defines your relationship in a way that doesn’t fit that. People can have permission to have a mistress.

    • Well first of all I don’t think I said it was “wrong” per se; it just doesn’t sit well with me, and that should be enough. It’s not a label I choose, and I should be allowed to choose. Also, my friend was using it to denote unethical non-monogamy, and there’s no denying it does have some very negative connotations that are hard to get away from. I understand that there may be people who would like to reclaim it for themselves, but personally… it’s not for me. It doesn’t sit right, and it doesn’t feel true.

  4. We can definitely see and agree where this is a gray area. While we have used DADT in a way to add a layer to our kinkier non-monogamy relationship in more of a cuckold situation, I don’t see your current situation as the same. We have run into married guys telling us that is the way their relatioship is, although we don’t typically believe them. Unfortunately, you are at their mercy at this point and have to decide for yourself what you choose to believe. I can see where some ethically non-monogamous relationships can thrive in this situation if the trust level is really high and niether one wants to put a face or story to their partners exploits. So the ethical part is the honest consent to be open and if you trust they are being honest with you and each other, then that is just another way that people can be non-monogamous. We choose on the side of caution in these situations and avoid DADT relationships for the mere fact that we are afraid of deception and the ramifications that could come back on us. That is just a choice and not a judgement. And somewhere is this long rant of a comment, we were trying to say that this can be ethical if you honestly believe them that consent has been given for a DADT open relationship.

    • Can’t believe I missed this comment before…

      Well, that was my point exactly. I’ve been with him for almost a year now, and that makes a difference. Where I was once left to guess, I can now trust him.

  5. I thought this was a “swinging” website, as in the typical swinging that most people do, which is be open and honest and experience things together. That is what most people consider swinging. This, in my opinion, is cheating and does, in fact, make you a mistress whether you like the label or not. Get some respect for yourself and find someone that doesn’t HAVE to and WANT to keep you a secret.

    • I recommend you go and listen to the podcast at the heart of this site to get a better picture of the varieties of non-monogamy we all live and talk about here.

      As for the rest of your comment, I’m more than willing to talk and even debate over issues of ethics when it comes to non-monogamy, – that’s why I wrote the piece – but I don’t want or need to engage with thoughtless, inflammatory accusations.

  6. Monogamous, married 21 years, polybomb dropped on me 5 months ago. I never wanted this, to share my husband with whom I’ve been my entire adult life with another woman. But he feels very strongly that he must honor this part of himself; and even though I feel dismissed, demoted and quite possibly replaced, I love him and want him to be happy. So I gave acceptance, not blessing, just an acceptance that this is going to happen and I have to deal with it the best way I can. Which is DADT. I simply can’t bear knowing the woman who’s taking my place in my husband’s heart and bed. A few of the women he was interested in simply couldn’t respect this need for me, and walked away. We had some arguments over this with him accusing me of controlling him through this one request. (I also requested he use condoms, but I think it’s probably wiser to use them with him than to trust him and whomever to use them). This is another thing I’m working through, not cringing and pulling away when I know he’s been with his girlfriend before me. I’ve managed hugs and handholding when we’re in public, a couple of kisses, but not within a day of him being with her. I don’t know if they’ve had sex yet, I don’t want to know. I’m just assuming. Still not able to have sex with him, so she’s pretty much got that all to herself. But she does respect the DADT. We worked through the question of whether or not I knew, etc., through a letter. I was brutally honest about the situation and how I felt about everything, promised that my fears, jealousies and inadequacies would be handled by myself and not manifest as a key down her car or a boiled bunny. I told her I loved my husband very much and was accepting this for his benefit. And to please never contact me and be discrete. And she’s been careful to abide by that. So on the days when the pain overwhelms me and I hate her for being part of it, I have at least that much to remind me that she’s honoring my needs and I can let go of a little of the anger, at least towards her. She’s doing what I’ve accepted and doing it within the boundaries I set. What more can I realistically ask?

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