Sam can’t begin to tell how many changes COVID-19 has forced on his relationships. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve lost count.
Sam is polyamorous – he has a wife and a boyfriend who live apart from one another. (Sam asked to withhold his last name, noting that it could be professionally damaging to be identified as Pagan and polyamorous.) His wife was planning a vacation to Spain while Sam and his boyfriend, Manny, were planning to visit Chile. “All plans have been canceled,” Sam says. “But that’s not the hard part. Our relationships are on hold.”
Sam’s mother-in-law is in her 80s. She lives with the same house with Sam and his wife, but Sam works in a hospital. Manny is a diabetic and a flight attendant. Because so many of his connections are at elevated risk for contracting the coronavirus, Sam is living with Manny’s other partner in South Florida until the pandemic ends. Sam has only seen his partners online since March – they video chat daily.
Many polyamorous people are experiencing similar situations as they navigate and balance their relationships during the COVID pandemic. Others have had trouble even articulating the pain they’ve experienced managing their relationships.
One person, who requested not to be identified, said that her community and relationships had fallen apart because of social distancing. She lives in Spain, and the pandemic hit so forcefully and so completely there that her community has barely begun to process the trauma. Even now, she says, many will not see each other because of the risks it poses to their community.
“Just a few months ago,” says Phelan, “we were a thriving community. There’s a polyamory holiday called Metamour Day, sponsored by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, where people honor their partners’ partners, and a group of about two dozen of us got together and had a potluck. It was an incredible way of celebrating how connected we all are. Some of us were meeting for the first time, and some of us had been friends long before the people involved had gotten together, so it was a great mix that showed a lot of different facets of what polyamory is all about.
“Now we don’t know when we could do something like that again, and almost none of us have seen each other anywhere but Zoom since then.”
Rayna Templebee, who lives in South Florida, identifies as a queer Pagan woman and is part of polyamorous relationships. She said her partners have talked about COVID-19, but her experience is a little different.
“I think what we learned during the HIV pandemic hasn’t really been in play as much for poly people during the COVID pandemic since this isn’t a sexually transmitted disease,” says Templebee. “The conversations that poly people have all the time about their partners’ sexual status and health have made conversations about COVID and quarantine easier. I think there is just an acceptance within most of the poly world that our health is all inter-related and that’s important and worth careful attention.”
Some of this is well-trodden ground for the poly community. Manny, Sam’s partner, remembers HIV and the conversations around the pandemic when no cure was available. He mentioned to Sam that, although COVID-19 is not the same as the AIDS crisis, the negotiations seem the same.
Phelan noted this as well. While she is too young to remember the early days of the HIV pandemic, she notes that dialogue in the polyamory community emphasizes negotiation as part of its ethics, including understanding the terms being used. “Generally speaking, the terminology is a bit loose. One person’s polyamory is another’s open relationship is another’s ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is another’s consensual non-monogamy (CNM). Some will tell you that open relationship is the umbrella term. Others will argue polyamory is. Still, others will argue ENM/CNM is.”
“I’ve been doing this on and off for over twenty years,” Phelan added, “so I’ve got my personal definition—not unlike I may fall under someone else’s definition of pansexual but still refer to myself as bisexual. I just have expanded that definition for myself since I first claimed it back in the early 1990s. The important part, I find, is that when people are discussing these topics is that they know each other’s definitions.”
Templebee echoed Sam’s experiences with uncertainty. She noted that her relationships have existed for about five years, but although she and her partners have a strong foundation of trust between them, questions still come up.
“Do I keep visiting my partner who lives three hours away or not?” she says, giving one example. “I live in a town that had a curfew at one point, that was a consideration in traveling to see him. I had conversations with him and my nesting partner about all our mutual risk exposure levels, and whether we were able to decide to be one biome for the quarantine. Since all three of us were working from home, we decided it was safe enough to continue visits and that we would maintain the boundaries of our biome – which also includes my adult kid who lives at home and goes nowhere. He is much more strict than the three of us. But then my partner’s daughter and her two moms – they live in another town, what to do about the monthly visits to see her?”
Many polyamorous individuals we contacted for this story declined to be quoted, but they confirmed the scope of emotional stress.
“Guilt is a big one around here,” says Phelan, “especially in regards to class issues. I live in the Philadelphia area, and the community tries to be aware of its intersections. In a scenario like this one, you have people who can work from home who can much more safely ‘pod up’ than essential workers, leaving people isolated.”
“Podding up” is a form of the quarantine bubble – a social agreement made with a trusted group of people to create an isolated network that minimizes the risk of catching or spreading an infection. Pods require boundaries, dialogue, and negotiation – the strengths of the poly community noted earlier by Templebee.
Templebee said that many in her community have created these pods as well. She said there are many in her community who are “deciding to create biomes like ours.” At the same time, she noted she has seen “lots of poly people putting any new dating completely on hold and hanging out in Zoom meetups instead – online gaming has been really popular in our poly meetup and I think a few people who have been gaming together may end up dating once they are comfortable with face to face interaction again.”
Not everyone in the polyamorous community is podding up, though, or even living with a partner. “There are also ‘solo poly’ people who live alone,” notes Phelan, “those who choose not to tie their living or financial situations to partners. It has been much more difficult for them emotionally to watch their married partners have someone to go through this by default. And, of course, not every polyamorous person is partnered, so people who are single during this are finding it difficult to make connections right now.”
Phelan, Templebee, and Sam were all confident that COVID will pass and that relationships will normalize. Templebee said that she and her polycule participated in sabbat rituals together. Sam says he misses bonfires with his group but that they will return.
“Everyone’s still there, loving the best they can,” says Phelan, looking to the future. “I feel like right now the best thing we can do is give people space, anonymously if necessary, to talk and ask and vent and learn from each other. That’s my new goal, anyway.”