Kitchen Table to Parallel Polyamory, Part 8: Extreme Parallel and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
In this last part of our Kitchen Table to Parallel Polyamory series, we’re looking at the extreme end of the parallel part of the spectrum. The version of this extreme end of the spectrum you’ll have thought of is Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell relationships: relationships where a couple agrees they can each see other people, but they not just won’t share detailed information about or events with their partner’s other partner, they don’t even want to know if the metamour exists, their name, if that’s where the partner is at a given time, nothing. They may agree on general ground rules for sexual safety, shake hands, and be done with conversation about it, for years or until there’s a problem. As you may remember, in part 6 I said parallel relationships can be viewed like Vs that get narrower or wider, with the hinge at the bottom. Imagine this extreme part of the parallel spectrum as a straight line with the hinge in the middle as a barrier between metamours who don’t want to know about each other.
There are other varieties of “extreme parallel” relationships than don’t ask, don’t tell, but they’re equally built on the concept of not just preferring not to hang out with your meta, but wanting to not even acknowledge that your partner has a section of their life that another person occupies. The biggest difference between “types” at this extreme level is whether there’s a primary partner who is aware there’s an agreement and nothing else, who everything would be dropped for, but won’t drop anything for the other partner(s) and other partner(s) who know about the arrangement and the extreme hierarchy implied; or if it’s being employed in a not-particularly-hierarchy-based way, and both partners understand an emergency might happen, but want no details beyond “for the next couple weeks I need to spend extra time with my other partner, they’re having a family emergency and need the support. It’s going to cut into my normal time with you in this way.”
Just as when we started with the very extreme kitchen table end of the spectrum, I have to open with the caveat that it’s a muddy question as to whether there is a healthy way to engage in any relationship that’s this extremely to one end or the other of the spectrum. In theory, any relationship that everyone involved in consents to can be a healthy one. However, by many theories and understandings of consent you can’t consent to something without adequate information, and the very extreme end of the parallel spectrum is defined by lack of information.
This lack of information, and the structure of DADT making the hinge partner into a flipper in a pinball machine, trying to keep their partners apart and in their own area of the hinge’s life, has left it regarded by many as a massive red flag. Hearing “oh, we’ve been in an ethically open relationship for x years, but it’s very strictly don’t ask don’t tell” in an early conversation makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up - because I have no way to check if that’s real; because I assume whatever happens will make me secondary or tertiary in this person’s life if I choose to engage in something long term; and because it almost always comes with being a “secret corner” of someone’s life.
If someone is more open and less hierarchical about it, and you get to meet friends and be a bigger part of their life, it’s a little easier to see how it could be a healthy relationship for the metamours, but it simultaneously becomes more stressful for the hinge to keep straight who’s met who vs who needs introductions and decide whether family will meet one partner or both or neither; and it (pretty nonconsensually) drags the hinge’s friends into the situation - can they mention the partners in front of one another? Do they get in ‘emotional trouble’ with the hinge if they do, not realizing how taboo it is in that person’s relationships?
To be completely honest, I’ve never seen a relationship on this extreme that doesn’t either involve all the relationships imploding around the hinge, or all but the first dyad in the DADT schema getting broken up with periodically for a return to monogamy accompanied by a lot of therapy whose end result largely depends on the tone of the therapist - if they’re friendly to ENM relationships, maybe they open the couple up to other modes of practicing ethical non-monogamy, and changes happen; and if they aren’t, the couple either lands in monogamy or ends in cheating and a breakup or a repetition of a DADT cycle.
There’s also a certain stereotype of the “internet-dating dude” who claims he’s in a DADT relationship and is actually cheating, and while this guy is just as bad as the “internet-dating dude who claims generic polyamory and then is cheating,” at least he’s easier to spot in the wild because the latter should be able to produce a partner to confirm and can’t, as opposed to the DADT person who has a convenient excuse for why they can’t. I’m sure women also do this sometimes - I had a woman do this to a friend of mine recently - but the stereotype is a man, and this friend of mine who had a woman do this was the first woman I’ve encountered doing this in my social circle in 12 years, and men have tried to pass this on me, personally, not even my wider circle (confirmed by someone else knowing them or dating them later and finding out the hard way) at least 8 times, and once you factor in friends… it’s a lot.
I don’t have a positive note to end on with this type of relationship; but I absolutely do have a positive note for the series as a whole. Even though the extremes at both ends of this spectrum are easily abused, there’s a beautiful and huge variety of ways to have relationships without reaching those extremes and the moral questions that accompany them. There is, as with human beings, a pretty much unlimited way to combine those varieties into polycules and constellations that represent those relationships, and there are morally defensible ways to have all of them. So, the next time someone tries to tell you about the moral superiority of one way to practice non-monogamy or polyamory over another, ask them what they mean by each, and remind them that there are healthy and unhealthy ways to land everywhere except perhaps the very ends of the spectrum.
Kitchen Table to Parallel Polyamory Spectrum Series
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Extreme Kitchen Table
Part 3: Kitchen Table “With Extras”
Part 6: Mildly Parallel Relationships
Part 7: Strictly Parallel Relationships