Don't ask, don't tell in polyamory

I am a woman in a stable open relationship with a man (let’s call him Steve). I have never felt any particular draw to polyamory for myself, but our relationship has been open since the beginning — he is bisexual and when we met already had a FWB-type arrangement going on with someone (let’s call that guy Bob) that I didn’t want to disturb.
A year ago he fell in love with another woman (let’s call her Judy) and he continued to pursue her despite the fact that she initially was unenthusiastic. They are now romantically and sexually involved. I knew Judy before she and Steve got together. We have interests in common, and we remain good friends and do a lot of things together — both she and I and all three of us.
She is always welcome in my house. This all sounds great, right? Here is my problem. When he first started out with her, we were operating on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” model. This was mostly because Bob is not operating completely ethically, in my view — he is married and his wife doesn’t know anything about his same-sex desires or about his relationship with Steve. That being the case, I wanted to know as little as possible about Bob. This turned out to be a non-issue because Steve and Bob’s relationship is pretty casual.
But Steve initially assumed, not unreasonably, that this would be the preferred approach with new relationships as well. When Steve and Judy were in the early stages, they discussed this and Judy was adamant that she wanted their relationship to be handled that way.
Steve tried to comply with this but it quickly started affecting our relationship in all kinds of negative ways. He was massively uncomfortable with the duplicity and lies of omission and it showed in his behavior. Maybe it’s relevant here that while Steve and I are very devoted to each other and spend a lot of time together, we do not cohabit.
He has his house, I have my house, and even before Judy entered the picture it was not unusual for us to spend nights apart — mainly for my sanity. When I first heard the term “solo poly[am]” my reaction was — “I’m not sure about the poly[am], but I sure as hell am a solo.”) His pain was palpable, to the point that I began thinking there was something seriously wrong between *us.* We made ourselves and each other very unhappy for a couple of months until he finally came clean, we talked it all out, and things righted themselves.
Steve and I are now good — better than we’ve ever been, in fact, because we are talking honestly and well about all kinds of things, not just Judy. The problem is that Judy still refuses to even consider the idea that we all three need to be open with each other. (She is in general a very guarded and private person who has serious difficulty discussing personal matters or her own feelings; she is also considerably younger than either Steve or I, is somewhat immature, and lacks some life skills that people my age take for granted.)
I have been backed into a corner of having to pretend that I don’t know what’s going on, and planning which evenings are going to be spent Steve+me, Steve+Judy, or Steve+me+Judy (my spare room is always hers for the asking) has become a logistical nightmare. It’s more than just the practicalities, though — I feel like I am participating in a massive deception and it makes me feel dirty.
Steve thinks that when Judy finds out he and I have had “the talk” and that I’ve known for months now that he’s not just chilling at his own place when we have “away” evenings that it will be traumatic, and may possibly cause her to break off with him. I am trying to trust his judgment on this (as trusting his judgment and always assuming his intentions are honorable has been a big part of learning to thrive with this relationship model) but I would like to at least have a plan of action for getting to the place both he and I know we need to be to make this situation sustainable in the long term.
Do you have any advice for us?

So there’s a lot of things going on here I want to address:

  • Don’t ask don’t tell as a policy
  • Coping with unethical behaviours
  • Relationships with metamours

Don’t ask, don’t tell

First and foremost, it’s hard for me to understand what this ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy was with your partner. Because essentially, what this policy means is that you would give your partner, Steve, permission to sleep with whomever and you would never know how many people that was with or who they were. But it sounds like you knew about Bob before you were even in a relationship, so that’s not really a true don’t ask, don’t tell policy.

It also sounds like you knew about Judy from the get-go, but I’m not sure about this as it’s really confusing if you and Steve had this point of being open and honest with each other. And if you knew about Bob before you and Steve were even together and he didn’t even tell you about Judy… I would honestly say that his excuse that he assumed you also wanted to not be told at all about Judy is a little weak. It’s not as if you didn’t know at all about Bob. You knew it was a thing, you just didn’t ask about it.

Honestly, you not knowing the details of when he’s seeing Bob doesn’t make it ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ either. Many solo polyamory people live this way. They date people, their partners don’t hide that they’re dating other people and they probably generally know who their partners date, but for the most part they just go about their business and do what they’d like. Unless something is being actively hidden, it’s not really ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.

And if Steve told you nothing about developing a relationship with Judy based on assuming you didn’t want to know… I just feel like that’s not a good enough excuse. Because there are ways to ask about this kind of stuff without disclosing the specifics. People can do ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ because they literally do not want to know about details, but you don’t have to clarify if the policy applies to all relationships by disclosing anything. So it just feels like that was a weak excuse, but I’ll let you sort out what that means for your relationship.

Coping with unethical behaviours

I can completely understand your feelings about the relationship with Bob and I believe your reasons for not wanting to know what’s going on there because of your feelings are totally valid. You don’t judge Bob at all for what’s going on but just talk about how it makes you feel, which is fair enough. I would have a serious problem with this and I’ve been in situations in the past where my partner has dated people who were potentially cheating and it made me incredibly uncomfortable.

But, I have also been in situations where, due to a miscommunication, I was very flirty and very explicit with someone who was monogamous while I didn’t know. And after I found out they were monogamous and had a partner… I’ll admit, I hung on and continued to flirt because there was a sign that they might leave them (they didn’t, surprise surprise). It wasn’t because I didn’t care about the relationship they had, but it was because I sincerely enjoyed the romantic attention from someone that I was getting and I didn’t want it to stop.

Deciding to completely end a lifelong relationship that may be perfectly fine with you because you want to sexually experiment… well, I can understand why someone might make that choice. In some ways, destroying his married partner’s life (and you don’t clarify if Bob has children or other reasons to stay around) for what is essentially just a sexual interest (since he doesn’t seem to want a relationship with Steve)… I feel like if you honestly thought about it, in some ways that is more unethical in some ways than him seeking ways to solve his sexual curiosity without damaging his partner. It would be great if it was all open and he could be honest, but both you and I know that isn’t always an option.

The issue with Judy however is, to put it frankly, getting a bit ridiculous on both sides, which brings me to my next question.

Relationships with metamours

It seems like Judy wanted a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation because she did not want to participate in having relationships with metamours because of the potential awkwardness. This at all doesn’t make her immature necessarily. I personally don’t care to have really close relationships with metas and when I’m forced to, I become a pretty shitty person to be around. However, she needs to get real with herself.

Right now, it’s not a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation. You asked and your husband told. If she’s expecting you to walk around pretending like she and your husband don’t have a relationship, she’s asking for something pretty ridiculous. I’m not one to be best friends with my metas, but I am and can be civil and polite to them, especially if we’re sharing the same space. And I don’t see why you as an individual need to go on pretending.

This is yet another example of a letter I am getting from a woman who is taking responsibility for metas when it is her husband/boyfriend/male partner (usually) who needs to step up and take responsibility. He is the one who made the decision to assume you didn’t want to know. He is wrong. He told you and now you know. Now it is his responsibility to manage the fallout with Judy. I realise you’re friends with her, but managing her reaction is not your responsibility or even necessarily your business.

Judy may very well break it off with him. But it might be worth making it clear to her that, while you won’t be behaving as if you don’t know, clarify why it is she wants to have this kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ relationship. Is she making assumptions about what will be expected of her if the truth is out? Is she just afraid of the awkwardness? For you, it might be more awkward to pretend but for her, it might be more awkward, to be honest. Can you minimise the issue by just actually paying more attention to scheduling and just not hanging around as three people anymore?

I don’t see why she has to completely break it off, unless she just genuinely wants a dishonest relationship in which case, her wants are not matching with your partner and he’s going to have to accept the consequences of his actions. That may sound harsh and it doesn’t mean you have to be unsympathetic about it, but I’m a bit worried you’re involving yourself so much the in the emotional labour of his relationships when he needs to step up and actually take responsibility for his relationships, his choices, and work with Judy to manage the situation without your help.

All in all, for what it’s worth, it does sound like you and Steve are working towards better communication. He has made some seriously questionable choices in the past, but sometimes we make poor choices and don’t always think about the consequences in the moment. I think if he steps up and works to manage this situation with Judy so you don’t have to, he’ll be really showing how much he’s grown from the start of your relationship.

If at any point, you find yourself having to work stuff out with Judy like schedules and stuff… I would really try to check yourself. I know women can sometimes not realise how readily they volunteer to take on emotional labour because they’re so used to that being their responsibility but try to allow him to take responsibility.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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