A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post called The Polyamorous Mediator, in which I mentioned that D and his wife have a “don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy” when it comes to extra-marital partners, and I commented that this is a set-up I am content to honour for their sake. Reading this, a friend of mine messaged me and asked if I would answer a question for her. Now, I don’t want to misquote her, or misread her, but put in very simple terms she expressed to me that through her eyes when a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is put on a relationship, extra-marital relationships – in essence – are affairs. She asked a lot of insightful and honest questions in an attempt to feel me out on this, and I offered my explanations and our story to the best of my ability, but at the end of our conversation she still called me his mistress, and our relationship an affair; and even though I found that a little upsetting, for all my counter-arguments (which I’m sure will always come off as defensive and self-serving) I do understand where she’s coming from.
However, this is a very complicated grey area, and there are a multitude of angles from which it may be viewed. There is certainly no way I can offer a definitive solution, but nor is this something I have justified and now keep out of sight and out of mind. It is something I consider often and deeply. So let me share some of my thoughts.
Initially and instinctively a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy doesn’t sit quite right with me. It holds at its heart an “ignorance is bliss” philosophy which I just don’t buy. For me, ideally, non-monogamy should be far more open than that. It should be about facing things with honesty, not trying to hide the parts of ourselves and the parts of our partners that we don’t want to see. However, nor am I naïve enough to believe that anything is ever ‘ideal’. I truly believe that for the vast amount of our time on this planet, we make the best with what we’re given. I may never be able to shake hands with his wife, or have a conversation where the three of us accept and enjoy the fact that, in our own way, we share something unique. But I do believe that what he and I share is worth the sacrifice, because I see how much good it does us both. In short, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is not ideal; but it’s a compromise with which I have chosen to exist.
But making my own peace with this really isn’t the issue at hand. The bigger question, to my mind, is this: without honesty, and without openness, – these two grand things which non-monogamous people have been upholding for such a long time – can non-monogamy actually be ethical? I am fairly sure that opinions on this must be hugely divided, and in the end I can only share my own views on this one relationship.
For a long time I decided to assume that my relationship with him was an affair. He told me about their policy, but since I couldn’t ask her, there was no way for me to know if that was true or not. So I decided to face the loudest music, and make my peace with the worst case scenario. When it comes to cheating I have said so many things: I’ve condemned it; I’ve cheated on people; I’ve been cheated on; I have made my peace with being the mistress, and I have taken it back. In fact I have been very harsh with people who were cheating in ways that I do regret; and also in ways that I don’t. But when I entered this relationship with D, believing that it wasn’t ethical, I made my peace with that, and I didn’t try to justify it. In fact I wrote a piece (which I have never had the courage to show anyone) in which I spoke honestly about how I felt it was unethical, but that at the end of the day I am an adult and this is something I get to decide. It is a privilege of being human that I am allowed to choose. I am allowed to choose the right thing, or I am allowed to choose the wrong thing. I am allowed to choose the good, or the bad. At that time I believed I was choosing the wrong thing, though I could never look at my relationship with him and call it bad, because at its best moments, what he and I share is such a force for good in both our lives.
As it turns out, over the time that he and I have been together, trust has grown, and I understand him much better, and as it turns out, I do believe him. I believe him when he says all his wife wants is for he and I to be discrete.
This, of course, opens up a further multitude of questions and issues. For a start, how do I know she’s being honest? How do I know this isn’t just the only way she believes she is able to keep her husband? I cannot refute that very real possibility. But I don’t know her – I can’t know her. I can’t ask, and I can’t feel her out on this. Therefore that has to be his job and his decision. The only thing I can do at this level is either bow out in fear, or accept that from here on in, I take that risk and I hold that possibility.
What I can do is respect her choice. At the end of the day, if she has said “okay, but be discrete” then I can do my utmost to honour and respect those wishes. There is even a chance that if I knew her very well, if I heard her say those words with my own ears, I still couldn’t be completely sure. In fact, there is a good argument to be made for the fact that anyone who makes that statement, is giving his/her consent, and is doing so in full knowledge of what it means.
But I digress – what I really want to comment upon, what I hold most important in our relationship, is the aforementioned respect. Because of her wishes, it is exceptionally important to me that he and I are discrete, that in accordance with her consent, she doesn’t ask, and we don’t tell.
And there does come a point where I wonder if perhaps the heart of non-monogamy – particularly when it comes to metamours – isn’t honesty and openness so much as it is respect. But either way, this is both the best and the least I can offer.