Ask Dr. Zhana: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Relationships (DADT)

For our September Q&A with Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, we’re talking about DADT: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell types of relationships. 

dont ask dont tell relationships dadt

What’s DADT?

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a type of relationship where the partners agree that they’re going to have other partners, but that they’re not going to talk about it. They don’t want to know about it so they agree not to ask any of those kinds of questions and not to volunteer that kind of information to each other. 

Wouldn’t that be considered cheating?

In behavior, there’s not much difference. You have sex with someone else and you don’t tell your partner. The difference is in your partner’s assumptions. In cheating, they think you’re not having sex with anyone else. In Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, they think or know you are and that makes all the difference. 

What do you do when you want to know the details but your partner is more of a DADT person?

A lot of it comes down to personal preferences and personality. Some people love to share that kind of info. In fact, they find it hard not to share that with their partner. And they also like to know the details, either because they find it hot or because it helps them manage their jealousy.

Other people prefer to keep that information private and they don’t want to hear much about their partner, often because that helps them manage their jealousy. Out of sight, out of mind – they don’t have to think about it and that’s kind of nice and easy. When partners have different preferences, some sort of compromise needs to be made.

Usually, it’s a good idea to respect people’s wishes about how much they want to hear. So, if they don’t want to hear anything, don’t tell them anything even though I know you want to share. And if you want to know all the details, maybe they can tell you just the basics. 

How do you set it up?

The best way to set it up is to have at least one good, honest, open conversation where you set some ground rules and boundaries, especially around who you can and cannot have sex with, where, and how much hiding of the evidence is appropriate. I’ve known couples who set up Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell without much or any conversation and it’s possible, especially if you know each other really well and can keep things separate well. But the less you talk about and agree on, the more room there is for different assumptions, which can blow up in your face. 

I’m in a DADT relationship now and it works because it’s long distance. I can’t imagine it working if we lived together.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is indeed much easier to pull off if you are long distance or even if you are in the same city, but don’t live together. If you live together, it’s still possible to pull it off, but the most sustainable way to do that is while one or both people are travelling. 

Not telling often necessitates lying to “protect” your partner from the truth.

That is true. There can often be a bruise, a hair, a condom wrapper, a few hours of unexplained absence from the home that require a lie. And that’s why a lot of people find it difficult to do Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, especially when living together. But if you both agree that these little lies are okay to tell to protect each other, then you’re consenting to it.

I can’t do DADT in a close relationship, only casual.

Fair enough and indeed, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is easier to do with casual than with more serious partners. It’s also good to know these things about yourself. Not everyone’s going to be a great fit for all relationship types, depending on your personality and circumstances. 

Can DADT be good as the first phase of opening up your relationship?

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell can be a good stepping stone on the road to full opening up because it gives partners a chance to dip their toes a little bit in openness without having to do a lot of that emotional labor that comes with knowing your partner is doing the same. 

Tips for doing DADT well?

  1. Set clear rules and boundaries if possible. 
  2. Keep other partners relatively casual. 
  3. Do it with people your partner doesn’t know or is unlikely to come in contact with.
  4. Protect your partner’s sexual health.

What level of disclosure would best work for you and your partner? Join Dr. Zhana’s FREE monthly Open Smarter Social virtual event to discuss all things monogamy and nonmonogamy.