Episode 118: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

When you agree to a DADT relationship with a closeted partner but it’s not moving fast enough into a more polyamorous relationship.

When you agree to a DADT relationship with a closeted partner but it’s not moving fast enough into a more polyamorous relationship.

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Discussion Topic: Would you agree to a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell relationship?

Listen to Episode 118 here on or on Anchor. Visit the Anchor website to find where else the podcast is distributed or use this handy RSS link.

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Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript

I'm a 53 y/o gay man. 4 years ago, I met a guy who at the time was in an open, 'don't ask don't tell' marriage. He was up front about this from the beginning. I respected that and we began seeing each other regularly and things developed between us. That is, we both fell in love. 

After some time, I began to be frustrated as the dynamic was that he was always coming into my world (full access to my life/friends etc) and I never got to participate at all in his world. I expressed this frustration to him and so began a very slow evolving conversation about polyamory. 

I say slow & evolving as firstly, he lives a very compartmentalised life in that he's only out to certain people, he's generally very private and the dynamic of his relationship is that his partner is even more private and not at all a social person and secondly, it's fair to say that neither of us have experience in poly relationships so we're both coming to this very green. 

I should also add that the dynamic is very much me offering these poly[am] possibilities to my boyfriend and him then taking it on and responding. That is, I'm the one doing all the imagining of how we might be able to make this work. He is in the conversation with me but I'm very much leading it.

Adding to the mix is that they're about to have 2 kids (surrogacy) and to add more complication, his mother lives with them! And what's more: he and his mother have never had a conversation about their sexuality! The mother thing might sound weird at first but culturally (he's Chinese) it's very common. (for the record his husband is Aussie).

Since we began having these conversations in earnest 9 months ago, we've been talking a lot about how I can become more integrated. He does however find this a challenge. He's at least told his husband about me (who has said it's fine) but they are not having any ongoing conversations at all about future possibilities the way he and I are. He's finally introduced me to 3 of his friends and supposedly more to come. I'm always talking to my friends about this situation, he almost never talks to his friends about it.

I'm writing as I'm experiencing an enormous amount of emotional difficulty in this situation (more than I've ever known) and feel stuck about whether to persevere or walk away.

I've said that I need to meet his husband now as I know that once the kids arrive that if we haven't established some kind of relationship where I have access to their domestic space then they will just disappear into family commitment. 

He agrees this needs to happen. So at the moment I'm hanging in there to meet the husband in the hope that it gives me a bit more clarity around what to do. He's 'trying to find the right time' to suggest to his husband that we meet up but we've been talking about this for months and it still hasn't happened.

I feel 100% that I'm 2nd place in a hierarchy (he's very resistant to this language) at the moment. I do experience a lot of jealousy and I feel there's an extra sting in the jealousy as I'm really struggling to get the transparency that I feel I need to make this work.

He's doing just enough in his slow journey towards transparency to keep me here. The emotional turmoil has been and continues to be quite intense.

I have 2 main questions:

  • Am I right to say that I need more transparency to make this work? In particular with his husband? Do you understand that? I mean isn't it only fair that the 2 of them should be having these conversations about how to make this work as well? In fact I feel like they should be driving this not me! Is that fair
  • Secondly, given this picture that I've painted should I persevere or is the writing on the wall and I should cut my losses and walk?


I understand your concerns. And I think that “fair” might be a weird way to phrase this. Because what I don't really understand is why it is that you agreed to a relationship that is essentially not something that you actually want and maybe you didn't know that at the beginning. Because on the part of your partner, he was totally upfront with you from the beginning that this was a Don't Ask Don't Tell situation.

And that in and of itself 100% means that you are second place and that you're not going to be in the hierarchy and that you're not going to be a full part of his life. And you're not going to be introduced to his friends, probably. And maybe he didn't give you that expectation.

I'm not sure what kind of conversations happened in the first round of your discussions about relationships. But it kind of seems like what you actually wanted was a more polyamorous setup, but that's not what he wanted from the beginning. And essentially, I feel like this dynamic is kind of being forced on him a little bit to be honest. 

Because he from the beginning how to Don't Ask, Don't Tell situation. And if I was his partner, and this — his married partner, I would kind of be really furious because he's kind of broken that agreement. If he had an agreement with his partner that he wasn't going to tell and he's told you— or he's told his partner about you, then he's already kind of broken their agreement together. Have they talked about wanting a polyamorous dynamic?

Is this something that he actually wants? Or is this something that he's doing to try and appease you because he doesn't want to lose you? I’m kind of wondering like, what was the discussions that happened between the two of you in the beginning? And if you want it to be a full part of his life, why did you agree to a Don't Ask Don't Tell relationship? And I understand like, I'm not saying that it's unfair for you to feel like “Hey, I'm you know, introducing him to my friends, but I'm not being introduced to his friends”.

Okay. Yeah, I totally understand that. But you also made a choice to involve him super heavily into your life and introduce him into your friends even though you knew he was in a Don't Ask Don't Tell relationship and he possibly may not be able to reciprocate that. So it's kind of a little bit unfair to then expect him to move into this polyamorous dynamic when your relationship began 100% with clarity that that wasn't what he was in.

So I'm a little bit confused as to why you're now going like, “Oh, should I cut my losses?” Why didn't you think about like cutting your losses in the beginning? Maybe you didn't know that polyamory was something that you actually wanted, maybe at first because you weren't necessarily in love right away. It was like okay, no big deal, whatever.

And then as you both slowly kind of developed feelings for one another. You kind of realise, “Oh, crap, we actually do want this polyamorous situation”. I think it's really, really difficult because essentially, this isn't a situation — especially when there's going to be children introduced into the situation — where it's just about him being polyamorous.

Because now it's about — okay, how is he going to manage his time? If he's not an A Don't Ask, Don't Tell clearly defined situation what is he going to do now? Has he spoken with his partner about time? Have they both agreed to and do they both want a polyamorous dynamic or is it just something that he wants? And how are you going to deal with the fact that maybe he doesn't want to talk to his mother about his sexuality? 

And that's something that he may have already discussed with his partner that he's with now and if you're going to then ask him to do that, that's also another layer on things. So I'm not saying that either way is necessarily wrong, like you're understandable for wanting this sort of open dynamic, for wanting them to be driving these conversations. 

But equally, he is also in a position where he was upfront from the beginning with you about this being a Don't Ask Don't Tell situation. And he's already kind of gone back on that with the partner that he's with and so now he's trying to basically change the dynamic which was more or less almost closed into a polyamorous dynamic, and that is really, really hard. 

So I think like, it's really difficult but what needs to be clarified here is whether they both actually want this. And that may be why he's taking such a long time, because maybe he does want to be polyamorous with you. Maybe that does sound like a good idea. But him having to introduce this to a partner where he's already said, “Hey, yeah, we have a Don't Ask Don't Tell situation. Oh, wait, no, now I'm going to tell you. Oh, wait, no, now it's polyamorous and here's my partner and we're gonna raise kids all together”. 

That is a big thing to ask. That is a completely different lifestyle technically. And that may not be something that his partner actually wants. So he may actually end up in a situation where he has to choose between ending his partnership and potentially I don't know what would happen with the surrogacy — because that's also a huge thing to back out of — But he would have to choose between having a polyamorous relationship with you — because I don't think that the the situation, the ideal situation may be possible. 

The ideal situation where like, you all three are talking to one another, and it's super chill and cool. And somehow his mom and the traditional background that he's come from has no problem with his sexuality and polyamory and you've got the kids and everything's kosher and fine. I don't know if that's a realistic thing that's going to happen. I think that's a nice idea. 

But it's kind of a big step. Even if all parties were agreed, like even if his partner was like “Yeah, okay, I think I'm okay with this polyamorous thing even though we began as a Don't Ask Don't Tell relationship and this basically changed in front of my eyes”. And I don't know what kind of conversations have been happening in between the two of them.

Even if that were the case, it would still be a little bit of a rocky road. But we're dealing with a situation where it doesn't sound like he's had those fundamental conversations with his partner, and potentially because they've already talked about it. And they've already agreed that don't ask, don't tell is how they're gonna go about this. And he's already broken that agreement.

I don't know what happened when he told his partner about you or how that was taken or if that was considered a violation of their agreement. Because don't ask, don't tell means Don't Ask Don't Tell. It means don't tell. And he told so… I don't know what's going to happen with them. And he may be forced to choose between having a lifestyle with you and having his partnership and his children and his mom. 

And I don't think that this — it seems like you're approaching this from the possibility that if they just talked it out, then everything would be hunky dory and I'm not saying you think everything would totally go overall right. But um, you know what I mean, like? I'm very confused by the idea that him being in an open polyamorous relationship in this situation is definitely what's going to happen if they just talk it out. 

Because I don't know if that's the case, especially if they began in a Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but I don't know what conversations they've been having with each other. I don't know how you've been introduced. I don't know what happened, how open his partner is. I don't know if you know that information. And if you don't know that information, of course, you're terrified. Of course, you're having all this anxiety, it makes sense. So I think you have to have a kind of real discussion with your partner about like, okay.

It's not so much about you meeting his partner. It's about whether or not his partner actually wants this or not. It's about whether or not they've discussed the physical ramifications of him having another relationship and whether or not his partner wants to seek other relationships. It's about whether they've discussed the physicality of taking care of children, whilst him also having another partner and therefore another demand on his time.

It's about how they're going to manage the fact that his mom lives with him. And I don't know how they deal with the sexuality conversation if they live together with his mom. Maybe they don't kiss in front of her or whatnot, but I don't see that being something that would change even if you lived with all of them. Like if he is feeling very private about his sexuality, and he doesn't want to have that conversation with his mom and he's essentially asked his partner to have a Don't Ask, Don't Tell type of situation around his mom. 

He may want you to do that too, even if they were all fine with polyamory, and are you then going to demand that he come out to his mom? Like there's a whole can of worms separately to that as well. So I don't blame him for wanting to put off this conversation. Because this may end his relationship. Like having that conversation with somebody where you say “I’m interested in polyamory. Are you interested in polyamory?” can sometimes end relationships, and that's a big thing, especially if he's got children on the way.

So give him a little bit of a break here. But I do think that you need to just like ask him like, “Hey, are you really interested in this? Is your partner really interested in this? Or are you just trying to keep me around?” Because especially if he — and I'm making a massive assumption about your partner and I don't know what's going on, but I kind of have a feeling if he's not out to his family. And his mom lives with him and he comes from that that type of cultural background — and I don't consider that to be odd at all, because I come from a similar, not Chinese, but I come from a similar cultural background of elders living with people and that being a very normal thing. 

And my experience of that type of cultural background which may or may not apply in this situation, is that you learn how to essentially be a people pleaser sometimes because you have to be because you have such high demands on you, or you're expected to agree with elders and you're not allowed to disagree. And in a lot of cases, people who kind of come from that situation — or even just the fact that he's in a Don't Ask Don't Tell situation to begin with makes me wonder not only with his mom, in terms of his sexuality, but also in terms of being with his partner and having that type of situation— 

Like he's agreed to that in multiple facets, and that makes me wonder if he has a hard time asserting his own needs, when he knows that that may cause conflict within a relationship or when he knows that could end a relationship. And that's a really difficult thing. Like it's difficult for people to introduce things into relationships where they know that that could possibly end the relationship. Like if he knows that his mom would disown him for his sexuality, of course, he's not going to want to talk about it.

And many, many people feel the same way. But it may not be that serious, maybe it will just cause conflict, but if he's grown up his whole life, having conflict in his family be a really big, intense thing. And he because of that wanting to avoid conflicts agrees to situations that he doesn't want in order to avoid conflict. This is kind of the classic situation that a lot of people who struggled to assert their own needs ended up being in where they're agreeing to everybody around them, because they can't assert their own needs or they don't have the strength to because they don't want the conflict.

And then essentially everyone is pulling them at different ends. And eventually they rip apart because they can't please everybody, but they still want to try even if it's going to blow up in their faces. So yeah, I very much wonder if this is something that he wants and something that his partner actually wants. And I think that you need to get to the bottom of that and I think that I understand why you want him and his partner to lead this but if they don't want that, if his partner doesn't want this, then — and I don't know who agreed to or who put forth that Don't Ask Don't Tell maybe it was him.

But if his partner doesn't want a polyamorous relationship than I don't blame his partner for not wanting to lead those discussions, especially if they have no idea how because they have no interest in it. So they have not done any research into it. So you know, as much as it sucks for you to be the leader. If you have the most interest in it, then it makes sense that you would have led those discussions but yeah, I think that you need to figure out if this is actually something that him and his partner both want for their lives.

And then maybe you can meet and have a discussion and maybe you can discuss time and how to manage the situation with his mom as well. And what an ideal life would look like? Like are you all aiming for kitchen table polyamory? What is it that you're actually aiming for? What is it that you are wanting? Are you wanting to live with him? Is that the type of lifestyle that you are aiming for? And if so, you need to be upfront with him about that. 

Like “This is what I want”. Because right now it's sort of like okay, don't ask don't tell us fine. Oh, but wait, but I want you to introduce me to your friends. Oh, but wait, but now I want a polyamorous lifestyle. And now I want to meet your partner. And now I want your mom to know that— like, you see what I mean?

Like it's not— it's almost like he has kind of gone with you along all of the points. And this was never agreed from the beginning. Like from his perspective. Really think about this, like he told you upfront. “Don't ask, don't tell. That's the situation here”.

And you were like, “That's fine”. And then you were like, “Oh, but actually you meet all my friends. I would like to meet your friends. Oh, actually. Now I want to meet your partner. Now I want you to be in—“. You kind of have upped the ante at each kind of— you know, he's acquiesced. You've met some of his friends but now, no you want you want more involvement. 

You want more— and you've never— from what you've written here, maybe you have but from what you've written here, you have not sat him down and said, “Hey, I know I agreed to this. Don't Ask Don't Tell situation. But actually, I feel really strongly about you. And this is the type of lifestyle that I want. Are you able to meet these needs? And what capacity can you? And if not, then I can walk away”. So that's a discussion that you've never also had with him.

So it's just been this sort of weird tug of war thing where he's trying to make you happy. He's trying to make his partner happy, trying to make his mom happy. Hoo, boy, he's in a tough spot. So yeah, I think those are things that you need to think about. Have that discussion. Figure out what it is that you actually want.

Because you are okay with Don't Ask Don't Tell in the beginning, but what is it that you want now? What is the ideal situation? What is your ideal polyamorous situation? Sit him down, ask him what his ideal situation is. Let's figure out what he actually wants. Does he want the Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Is that something that he put forth or was it something his partner put forth or did they agree on it together? What is his ideal lifestyle?

What is his ideal situation? And are you actually compatible in that? Maybe you aren't compatible in that and he's trying to avoid the inevitable which is the fact that you aren't compatible. So compare compatibility notes and see if you actually both have a realistic future together before there even needs to be meeting his partner.

Because if what you want is kitchen table polyamory and he can never give that to you because not only does his partner not want kitchen table polyamory, maybe he doesn't want it and maybe he doesn't want a life where he has to come out to his mother. So there's all kinds of things to consider here. 

So see if you're actually really compatible here. And then if you want the same things, and if there is something — if you can negotiate on things, but if you agree to something, you need to agree to something. Like after you have this discussion, if he's like, “Look, I can't do kitchen table polyamory I can have you meet my partner. This is how many nights I'm going to be busy. You will get this many nights from me”. 

Okay, if you say okay to that it has to be okay. It's not really fair for you to say okay, and then for you to change your mind. So you also need to be more aware of what you actually want. Because it's not fair to him. For you to say “Yes, I'm totally fine with this” and then miles down the line, “Oh wait, this is unequal”. It's going to be unequal.

If he says that this is what he can give you. That's what he can give you. And if it's not what you want in a relationship, then you have to cut your losses and walk away  and have the strength to do that. Instead of agreeing to a situation that you know, later on down the line you're not going to be happy with.

So yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

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