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Ask Adam: Does 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' Work in Open Relationships?

Does “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Work in Open Relationships

Figuring out if honesty is truly the best policy.

Dear Adam,

My husband and I are thinking about opening up our relationship. We agree that as long as we don't have to hear about the other guys we play with, we'll be fine. We also know that if we get the details we'll be jealous and angry. In your experience, does this strategy work for gay couples?


Ready in Reno

Dear Ready in Reno,

"Don't ask, don't tell" doesn't work.

In fact, from what I've seen, it ends in disaster.

If you are not talking about your hookups, then one of the important aspects of your life -- your sexuality -- is off limits for discussion. Your sexuality becomes a secret. As gay men, we have spent plenty of time keeping our sexuality a secret.

And for many, it started a lifelong pattern of hiding.

Sexual secrets can be hot, but they also keep us disconnected from people we love.

A strong relationship gets stronger when a couple learns how to talk about triggering topics in a way that brings them closer together. The ongoing adventure of a healthy long-term relationship includes learning how to become more intimate with each passing year. "Not talking about it" isn't a prescription for getting closer to someone. And if you aren't continually getting closer to your husband then you are at high risk for drifting apart.

Lies of Omission

And then there is the practical issue. You can't keep a secret from your husband without lying. When your husband asks you "How was your afternoon?" and you say "Fine" instead of "I had an embarrassing or exciting or weird hookup," you are lying.

When your husband says "You have a funny look -- what are you thinking about?" and you say "It's just work" but you are really wondering when that hot guy on Grindr will return your message, you are lying.

When your husband asks you "Do you want to have dinner with our neighbors tomorrow?" and you say "Let me think about it" when you are really hoping to first see if you can score a hookup, you are lying.

Hookups are not necessarily dangerous to relationships. But lying always is. There is no more lonely feeling in the world than being lied to by someone you love. It can damage your soul for years. Couples counselors like me get an up-close view of this every day. It isn't pretty.


Hookups are stimulating. They bring up all kinds of feelings. They can feel great. They can feel terrible. Your plan is to avoid sharing these feelings with the person in the world who is most important to you. You intend to split off this part of your life experience from the person who knows you better than anyone else.

Not sharing our good and bad life experiences is how we end up feeling alone in our relationships.

What You Do

If you are not ready to talk about your hookups, perhaps you are not ready to have an open relationship. Learning to emotionally "hold" someone as they feel jealousy and learning to be "held" by someone when you feel jealous is an advanced communication skill. It is a delicate dance requiring deep empathy, lots of listening, reassurance, and emotional safety. It's work. Develop these skills first before opening your relationship. You can learn them in couples counseling or by reading popular books like The Ethical Slut or Opening Up.

"Don't ask, don't tell" didn't work for the U.S. military. If the armed forces can learn to value honesty, you can too.

ADAM D. BLUM, MFT, is a licensed psychotherapist and the founder of the Gay Therapy Center, which specializes in relationship and self-esteem issues for LGBTQ people. The center offers services in its San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles offices, or by Skype and phone worldwide. Visit its website to subscribe to its e-newsletter and free guide on building gay relationships. Follow the center on Facebook and read its blog. Email Adam your questions for possible publication. (Questions may be edited.)
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