I've met a few poly couples and read about many more who have a Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy in their relationship. They both date other people, but have a rule that they should share as little as possible about their outside relationships with each other. I can't decide if this is a brilliant idea or a really terrible idea for a relationship.
In my relationships, they tend to be the exact opposite of DADT. If anything, we overshare. I am well-known for sharing too much – my urge is to share lots of details of every interaction, every word exchanged. My boyfriend, Julian, is even more of an oversharer than I am. My husband, Alex, doesn't naturally share a lot, but I've told him that I want to hear everything about his other relationship that he's willing to share. I have several reasons for wanting to know as much as the people I care about want to share with me. First, for me part of being close to someone is knowing the intimate details of their life, the things that happen that are meaningful to them, their secret thoughts. In an open relationship, that at times means knowing things that have happened in another relationship and the way it has affected my partner and the thoughts that new experience has generated. Knowing the things that have happened in another relationship that are meaningful to my husband or boyfriend is part of being a good friend and involved partner to them. I feel this way about other parts of life, too. I want to know what happens to them at work that makes them smile or laugh or cry or feel fulfilled or inspired or changes their way of thinking. The same thing applies to relationships.
There are other benefits to me beyond just building closeness with my partner. I love narrative. I love stories. I love reading novels and watching movies, and another manifestation of that love for me is that I love learning about the details of someone's life. I love it when I find a note on the ground and get to read about someone's personal interaction with someone else I don't know. I love reading PostSecret and Found and seeing a little slice of someone's life. I love reading old post cards in antique stores. I love old diaries. And most of all, I love knowing the story of the person I love. I love knowing the things that have affected them and how it has changed who they are. I love keeping up with their current thoughts and experiences. I love knowing what experiences have moved them and inspired them and angered them and depressed them, no matter what the source.
Another reason I like to know the details of other relationships is to reassure myself that I'm okay with them. I'm one of those people who can get paranoid when I don't know anything about a situation and let my imagination run away with me. I can make up stories in my head in which my worst fears are realized. It's even worse when I hear just a few details – then I can take that raw material and build all sorts of worrisome or scary or angering tales out of it. Hearing all the details and being able to question everything that I'm concerned about works to reassure me that I don't really have anything to worry about.
However, I can definitely see the allure of the DADT policy. In my primary relationship, a lot of the stress and drama around having an open relationship has resulted because of pointless bullshit that one partner has brought up after discussing something that happened in the non-primary relationship. With few exceptions, it was something that they didn't need to be worried about or fear or be upset about. But because they heard about it, a big deal was made of it and lots of discussion – or, worse, yelling – ensued.
So a DADT policy seems to me like it could be a good thing if it is motivated by a fundamental trust in our partner. In order to stay sane in a poly relationship, we have to trust that our partners will honor boundaries set as a couple, communicate when appropriate, and continue to love and invest in our relationship. A DADT can be a way of saying “I trust you implicitly, but I realize that hearing the details may nonetheless cause useless and unpleasant fears and jealousies to arise, so let's just avoid that situation altogether, okay?”
On the other hand, it seems to me that a DADT could sometimes come from a really toxic perspective as well. It could be a way of saying, “I'm not really okay with the situation, and the only way I can be in this relationship is by avoiding confronting my true feelings. So let's just pretend it's not happening, okay?” A DADT that covers up feelings like that seems to be to be really sad and unpleasant, and a time bomb waiting to go off. I believe that many non-monogamous relationships of the type “my husband has a mistress and I pretend not to know about it” often fall into this category. That's not a relationship I want to have.
I am someone who highly values honesty and openness. I hate deceit and lies. It seems natural to me to assume that sharing as much as possible is always the greatest good. However, over time I've come to realize that there is a potential ugly side to having a policy of sharing everything as well.
Sometimes there is distrust behind the desire to hear all about our partner's other relationships. We want to hear details because we don't fully trust that our partner is conducting his or her relationship in a manner that we believe honors the agreements we've made as a couple. We want to police the situation. Micromanage. Have a chance to evaluate every interaction and pick out any sign of something that might not be okay with us. We don't trust that our partner will really stick to the spirit of the agreements they've made – we fear that they will get swept away in the moment and not honor some commitment. If you truly don't trust your partner to follow agreements, then you probably shouldn't be in an open relationship, and perhaps you shouldn't be in a relationship with them at all. However a lot of the time the person does trust their partner, but lets fear and jealousy overwhelm that. At other times someone has distrust because they feel their partner may not interpret their agreements in a way that makes them comfortable. It's true that inevitably there will be disagreements about interpretations. Every human is different and we are all going to take an agreement we've made and think about it in different ways and when we make decisions in real-time based on those decisions, our decision may differ from the one our partner expects. It makes sense to be cautious around decisions which might verge onto territory covered by an agreement with a partner and to check in with them.
Personally, I've decided to moderate my approach and not be such an oversharing Nazi. I want to examine my motives more closely and make sure that I'm not asking for more information out of distrust or a desire to micromanage. When I share something myself I want to think about whether it is really of benefit to my relationship to share it, or whether it is likely to instigate issues that could be avoided. But it's my nature to want openness and honesty and communication, and I'm still going to be a sharer and I'm still going to ask my partners to share – but in a positive way, as a way to build the relationship and strengthen ties, while still maintaining trust.