“I know a couple who are polyamorous whose entire relationship is based on the principle ‘if I didn’t see it, it’s not my problem’,” retorted a friend as I heatedly debated the ethics around lying by omission with her. Well, as heatedly as you can on a Facebook comment thread.
“They both know they sleep with other people and it works perfectly because neither of them mention it, discuss it. It’s a situation of mutual trust… based on a big fat – albeit known and accepted – lie. That’s been going on for seven plus years. But its respectful. They both respect each others’ wishes without infringing on their own autonomy. And that’s really all you need.”
I begged to differ. But having never been a party to a ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ agreement being rather an ‘Always ask, Always tell’ kinda gal, my thinking around it was fuzzy. Then I met Stephanie Sellars, an American sex columnist, screenwriter and director.
Her column ‘Lust Life’, which ran from 2006-2007 in NY Press covered emotional entanglement, sexual adventure and multiple relationships… but in secret, albeit ‘consensual’, duplicity between a husband and wife. It was her own story. Stephanie’s prospective film ‘Lust Life‘ continues and may even resolve the plot lines of her own personal experience.
Now featuring the ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ conundrum starring Stephanie Sellars as the ‘other woman’.
At first glance, the ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ condition can be perceived as the product of a couple’s mutual trust. But it is also the product of couple privilege, defined by Aggie Sez at Solopoly.net as ‘the presumption that socially sanctioned pair-bond relationships involving only two people are inherently more important, “real” and valid than other types of intimate, romantic or sexual relationships.’
It is how our society and our laws are constructed, so ingrained in the fabric of our interactions that it seems sacred and unquestionable. A ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ agreement was in Stephanie’s case made between the husband (her lover) and his wife without taking into account her rights or feelings. Indeed, it was agreed even before she came onto the scene and was not open to negotiation.
On one hand, any person has the right to define their level involvement in a relationship – even when it concerns your husband’s other relationships. But More Than Two co-authors Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, define another right in their Relationship Bill of Rights; you also have the right ‘to be treated as a peer of every other person, not as a subordinate’.
The ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ rule actively undermines another person’s right to be treated as an equal, it disempowers them. That’s why ethical non-monogamy espouses honesty, even if the level of involvement of people in an extended relationship can in some cases be negotiated to a minimum. As Stephanie noted in her column,
“After the initial thrill faded, his deception and the limitations of his situation—the fact that he had to regularly check in with her, the fact that he had a curfew and that he could spend the night with me only when he was fighting with his wife—killed it for me.”
As love blossomed between Stephanie and her lover so the weight of being kept a secret became heavier, until the relationships reached crisis. Stephanie started to resent his wife who had made a condition which directly impacted her sense of self-worth, and forced her lover into a tissue of lies to cover her existence. Her lover became increasingly uncomfortable with his promise to lie about a relationship which was important to him.
This is the potential danger in the so called ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’. In this case, it was made by the wife to protect the ‘primary’ relationship, but ended up weakening it. Secrets and lies became the norm and that deception undermined the trust that was so important in maintaining the communication which supports a healthy relationship.
‘Lust Life‘ calls bullshit on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. The protagonists Veronica and Daniel are played by Stephanie and her lover… who is now her husband. Because as those who have experienced rules enforced by others to limit our emotions and rights within a polyamorous context know, rules such as this often backfire to leave the person who made them without the relationship they were initially intended to protect.