Friday, April 15, 2016

When "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Is Really Just Cheating

Hello there, Viny! I came across your blog as the result of a search for "poly advice." I appreciate your thoughtful responses to questions in the past, so I thought I would throw one your way. Well, maybe more like 15 questions. :)

Backstory: I'm a 40-something mom in an outwardly monogamous-seeming marriage, with a lovely supportive husband. My nesting situation is happily taken care of (thank goodness!).
I've been dating outside the marriage for the last 8 years or so, and overall it's been a fantastic adventure! I've had the freedom to date people I never would have chosen back when I was focused on finding someone to marry and spawn with.
My problem comes from a play partner who has a Don't Ask, Don't Tell relationship with his wife. This is someone whom I would have ruled out if I'd met him the regular way. I would have ruled him out because of the DADT.

To be clear -- this is not just any old DADT. This is the Dread Cthulhu of DADTs. My husband has requested that I please not share anything X-rated with him, because those are images he really doesn't want in his head; so I get that, and respect it. But at least my husband knows (1) that I date, (2) the people I date, (3) when and where I am going on dates, (4) that I am happy in my dating life!

My play partner's DADT is, in my opinion, unreasonably strict. He has to arrange everything so that no hint, no breath, no whisper of a hint that he *might* be dating anyone else can *ever* get back to his wife.

As you can imagine, there's really no way for me to tell that this is a true DADT or whether he's cheating.
I just don't know whether engaging in this play relationship is cheating or not. It might be. Here are some things that seem awfully cheatery to me.

* He subscribes to a phone service such that, if anyone calls his cell phone, the service only passes the call through if he's marked himself as "available," and then he punches in a numeric code (that his wife doesn't know). The Caller ID will show the service's number, not mine.
* Everything on his computer is triple protected behind multiple firewalls and passwords and whatnot, so there's no chance his wife will ever be able to casually read his emails.
* He doesn't carry his membership card to our local sex-positive space, because she might find it going through his wallet. 

* He can't go out in the evenings, or on weekends, unless his wife is already going out to do something else. Then, he can sometimes get away, if he can find a good excuse that is easy to back up afterwards (such as seeing a movie he's already seen, in case she asks plot questions about it).
* Once, during a date with me, he had a medical emergency. Rather than getting help, he lay quietly until he felt fit to drive, then drove himself to the hospital -- not the closest one to our location, but the one close to his house, so that no one would know where he'd been. (I had no idea what sort of emergency he was having or how bad the pain was until later, or I never would have let him drive away.)
* Although I now know his real name, that only happened a year or so in. Until then to me, and even still to anyone in the kink community, he has an alias that he uses consistently. (I don't blame him for that -- I use a fake scene name also!) But once, someone else who knew him from this life ran into him and his wife at a convention and tried to greet him by his scene name. My play partner just walked right past as though he didn't even hear; he couldn't admit to his wife that he is sometimes known by another name to some people.
* I can never meet his wife, talk to her, write to her, phone her, visit their house, or interact with them in any way. If I see them in public (which has never happened), I would have to ignore them, and he would ignore me.
* I can't friend him on Facebook, or connect with him on LinkedIn, because his wife might ask how we know each other. Never mind that he has hundreds of Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections, so what's one more -- nope, can't be done.
* He gets regular STD/STI testing just in case, but not from his regular doctor. Instead, he uses, which allows you to make lab appointments under any name you choose, for $300 a panel. It's obviously pretty expensive for him to do this, when his health insurance would cover the STD tests. I asked him why he does this, and he said that he and his wife share a doctor and they all discuss everything with each other, so he has no expectation that his doctor would keep private the fact that he gets tested. I asked, What about HIPAA?, and he said she could still find out. I have also asked, So what? So his wife knows he gets testing; big deal, everyone should! But apparently that would be too big a hint to her that he might *need* to get testing? And apparently even *that* would be over the line? 

So at this point in reading my letter, you may be thinking, "This guy is clearly cheating! He is a cheating cheatery McCheaterson who cheats, and you should definitely proceed under the understanding that he is cheating." But here's where it gets complicated. Or does it? :P
I've now known this man for 3+ years, and one of my dearest poly partners has been seeing him for 9. This entire time, his story has been identical: he's never given us conflicting information about his situation. His information is that, 19 years ago, his wife was interested in trying poly. They had a negotiation in which they agreed to give it a try. She attempted to date a friend, but that didn't work out. Meanwhile, my play partner had started to date also. At that point, his wife decided that poly wasn't for her. Furthermore, she told him that he could continue to see other people, but only if he made sure that none of it would affect her in any way. Like, *ever.*

Since then, he's put all these complicated failsafes into practice so that no breath of his dating life will ever get back to her. We only meet during weekdays for a few hours, once a month or so. A few times a year he can get out for an evening, but he always has to be home by midnight -- no overnights. No weekend classes, workshops, overnight trips -- no spontaneous anythings. No introducing each other to our friends. We can't go to certain stores where someone he knows might be working. Etc. etc. etc.

Sometimes our dates get canceled, and that sucks. Luckily I have lots of other partners, so I'm not too cast down over that, but it seems so unfair to me that he's bending over backwards to spare her from knowing That Which She Does Not Want To Know, and meanwhile *his* needs are not even voiced, much less fulfilled. I know he *wants* to be much more open, but he's doing *this* instead, as though her needs are all that matter.
Recently, he and his wife apparently had a brief conversation in which she said something like, "I bet you have dated [Person A]. But, don't tell me anything about it -- I don't want to know." (Person A is actually someone she knows, and someone he has been dating! So she definitely sensed something going on there.) This is all hearsay from him, of course.
I have asked him why he can't just ... talk to her about it, to make sure they're still on the same page. After 19 years, maybe something has eased or shifted, and maybe he doesn't need to go through all this rigamarole anymore. But, he says that talking to her about it would be disrespecting her request that she never be impacted by it in any way. He says that she never consented to having these discussions. I ask, Even if it matters to *you*? and he says, in effect, Yes.
I asked if maybe next year on the 20th anniversary of the dreaded DADT they can have a 20-minute conversation to ensure it's still in effect. He laughed, and I knew he wouldn't be initiating that sort of conversation. He's afraid she would take away his right to date outside the marriage altogether, I assume, so he's playing it safe by keeping what he has rather than asking for more.

At this point, I am Schrödinger's Cheater. I don't know if I'm helping him cheat or not. What's more -- I can never open the box to find out for sure.
Am I being ethical? Should I stop seeing him? My longtime poly partner will never break up with him (even though she's had other relationships get into rocky territory because of this guy's DADT and her other partners being uncomfortable with the setup). So even if I broke up with him, he and she would still be seeing each other. I'm very dear to both of them and I know they both love me. Breaking up with him would cause them both much grief. And to top it all off, my longtime poly partner is probably not going to live more than another few years. Do I want to darken her last few years with a breakup and coping with that aftermath, when I could just enjoy our time together for what it is?
At this point I should mention that the sex is phenomenal. He's very attentive and he's really learned what I like over the last 3 years, and he's so... drunk on me when we're together. It's as though I'm an escape from the drudgery of his life. And I understand that, because doing all that work must be exhausting! It must be nice to spend a few hours sexing up a woman who doesn't require all sorts of complicated backbends to hide who he really is.

Then again, since he IS hiding so much from his wife, how much can I trust someone who is willing to live a lie at that level? To hear him tell it, he's not actually lying -- he's just ensuring that there will never be a situation where he needs to out-and-out lie. He's doing that by obsessively grooming how he appears to his wife, so that she will never know what he's doing on the side. And this is all supposedly to protect her.

I do believe him that it is to protect her, especially since his story has been so consistent for 9 years (with my other poly partner) and 3 years (with me). But isn't it robbing his wife of a chance to grow as a person, to shield and baby her like this? Shouldn't she have to do *some* of the lifting in this relationship? He takes care of her in a zillion ways, doing all the cooking and laundry and house repair as well as earning all of the money, so it doesn't surprise me that he's killing himself to meet her requirements here, also.

It just makes me sad, especially if it turns out to be totally unnecessary. What if this whole thing is just an exercise in futility, and she'd actually be able to meet this challenge better than he or she thinks? What if shielding her this way is patronizing to her? Then again -- she is the one who asked to be shielded, so shouldn't I allow her the agency to make that decision for herself?

I've gone around and around on this over the past three years. I've decided to let things lie where they are. But I still worry that I am enabling a cheater. Transparency and honesty are important to me. That, and it stresses me out to think that he might have another medical emergency while we're out on a date.
I'm coping with this sucky situation by drawing back, regarding him only as a play partner and nothing more, not introducing him to my kids, and not "investing" in him a lot emotionally. Everyone in our polycule gets tested for STDs/STIs every 6 months, and he and I always use condoms. We are a closed loop, so there's little risk of outside infection, which is good. Recently, I've started seeing someone new, and he is totally out with his partner, and it's so refreshing! I'm trying to focus more on this new person and let my play partner take care of himself.
If you have any advice on what I should do, how hard I should push him to make a change (he will not listen), or how to protect my own heart and make sure I'm not harming anyone, I would love to hear it. Sorry for the length of this letter.

~ Maybe Cheating


Dear Cheating,

The cat is dead. You don't need to open the box to find out for sure.

Just look at all those bullet points: any one of them could have been lethal. But all of them, one after the other? That poor cat didn't have a chance. Even the one piece of evidence supposedly in your lover's favor – "this entire time, his story has been identical: he's never given us conflicting information about his situation" – is a bullet straight through the heart, because a well-rehearsed story is a made-up story. I'm reminded of the opening scene of The Lives of Others, in which a Stasi (East German secret police) instructor is explaining how you can tell when someone under interrogation is lying: “People who tell the truth can re-formulate things, and they do. A liar has prepared sentences which he falls back on under pressure.”

But for the sake of argument, let's say your lover really did make that “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” agreement with his wife, nineteen years ago – or at least that he genuinely believes he did. I think it's very plausible that at some point, the two of them had a conversation in which she told him, basically, “If you were ever to have sex with someone else, I wouldn't want to know about it.” Many people feel this way. For example, I know a man in a DADT relationship whose wife still reproaches him for having been so crass as to ask for permission before starting to date other women. In her opinion, it would have been kinder and more respectful just to cheat. To her, discreet cheating is more ethical than honest non-monogamy. It's possible that her preferences are culturally mediated (she's Japanese), but regardless of why she feels the way she does, those feelings are valid, and ought to be taken into account. I can see why DADT would seem like a reasonable compromise, given the situation. Although I would not consider dating this man myself, I trust that he is telling the truth, and I believe he is behaving as ethically as he is able, under the difficult circumstances. Why do I trust him? Because he behaves like an honest person. If he and his wife encounter one of his lovers in public, he says hello. He doesn't have a special phone screening service, or multiple firewalls. Although he may not write “Date with Hotty @ Club 69” in black Sharpie on the wall calendar in the kitchen, he doesn't have to come up with a failsafe alibi to explain his absence, either. It doesn't matter if his wife figures out where he is, or whom he's seeing, because nothing about their relationship is going to change as a result of that information. She knows what she needs to know, and she chooses to protect herself from knowing any more by not asking questions or snooping around.

You see, there is a necessary corollary to “Don't Ask, Don't Tell.” The corollary is this: “If Asked, Tell.” Couples who have jointly agreed to a DADT arrangement understand that this corollary is also part of the deal, and they do not ask a question unless they want to know the answer.  It's essentially an issue of continuing consent. People in ethical DADT relationships understand that their partner has the right to revoke consent at any time, simply by asking for more information. Any direct question – Where are you going tonight? Who is calling? How do you two know each other? – functions like a “safe word”. By making sure his wife never has occasion to ask any relevant questions (and by lying to her when she does inadvertently ask relevant questions), your play partner is depriving her of her ability to continue giving consent. What's worse, he obviously believes that if she ever had an opportunity to revoke her consent, she would do so. He is therefore behaving unethically even if he is telling you the truth about their original DADT agreement having been his wife's idea.

As you so memorably put it, your play partner is a cheating cheatery McCheaterson who cheats. And in my estimation, he's also a lying liary McLiarson who lies.

That's harsh, I realize, but some part of you knew I would say what I'm saying, and what's more, that I would say it with absolute certainty. You aren't really asking me if I think you are enabling a cheater.  You're asking me to help you understand why you have been going around and around on this for so long, when the situation is actually quite clear-cut.

I suspect that the biggest source of your confusion is the cognitive dissonance you experience when you try to reconcile your lived experience of this man with your well-grounded suspicions about him. This is a person you know intimately: a thoughtful man, a fun companion, a passionate lover. In all the ways that feel most important, he has been consistent. Your poly partner, who has known him for even longer than you have, has remained loyal to him all this time, and you respect her judgement. How could it possible for both you and her to be wrong about the basic goodness of his character?

Then there's the mismatch between your professed beliefs and your actions. How could it be possible for you, as smart and well-intentioned as you are, to have allowed yourself to be duped into betraying your values?

I submit that you can be right about your play partner's basic goodness – that he cares about his wife, and he cares about you – and wrong to trust his ridiculous story about how his wife requires him to take these draconian DADT measures. You can be an intelligent, socially-savvy person with the best of intentions and still find yourself in an ethical morass. You care about your partners, and you want to continue to be there for them. So you fudge a little here, and you fudge a little there, and before you know it, you're up to your eyeballs in sticky stuff. That doesn't make you a bad person. Listen, I once dated a cheater myself. I understand how it can happen.

I'm familiar with the rationalizations. I'm familiar with the carefully cultivated confusion, the ruse you use to keep your brain distracted. And underneath it all, the sadness and fear. It's like you and your lover have built this beautiful house together, and you don't want to have to move out just because somewhere down in the basement there's a creepy old box with a dead cat in it.

Now, what should you do? I can't really answer that question in concrete terms, but I have a suggestion. You expressed quite a bit of anger and frustration at your lover's wife for being so selfish and unreasonable, for insisting that he put her comfort over his needs. I think your anger is misdirected. It seems to me that YOU are the person who has been bending herself into a pleasing pretzel, and HE is the person making unfair demands. Perhaps it is time to start thinking more about your comfort in this relationship.

Amnesty & Honesty,

No comments:

Post a Comment