It’s no surprise that COVID-19 has disrupted our typical dating routines. Forced into isolation with roommates or partners, or on our own, cruising for a fling just isn’t as easy (or recommended) as it once was. On top of casual dating, maintaining nonmonogamous relationships presents challenges for those trying to proceed with their romantic lives. For many folks, their partnerships are evolving day by day as social distancing shifts to the new normal and shelter-in-place circumstances disrupt poly formations. Polycules, constellations, and networks are all navigating the pandemic in various ways, and each has their own unique set of boundaries.
Navigating a partnership shift this invasive (and global) requires incessant communication. Starting a healthy conversation of limitations, needs, wants, and concerns is imperative when several people are involved. Everyone’s health is at risk when a global pandemic throws a wrench in your dating life. For some polycules, physical touch and intimacy may have to take a back seat for the foreseeable future. This is, of course, a strain on any relationship. Developing a plan is essential when sketching out an idea of what a pandemic polycule will look like. Technology, virtual dates, social media, and video chats are all ways to stay connected and intimate.
Hinge has reported a 30 percent increase in messages from March and Tinder stated that they had the highest number of recorded swipes—more than three billion—on March 29. Being cooped up and isolated is making people horny (or wanting conversation, connection, and intimacy) more than ever. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher told Time, “Romantic love will never die.” With Zoom, FaceTime, text messaging, and other creative outlets, intimacy in a peculiar time will still be rampant and possible. Apps like Hinge have launched “date-from-home” features, which have made it possible for people to video chat or hop on a phone call instead of meeting IRL. For poly folks looking to seek out new crushes, this is a cute and accessible way to continue dating (and still stay isolated). However, for folks in long-term partnerships, the pandemic has introduced considerable circumstantial changes.
“I haven’t seen any of my other partners for like four weeks now. We’ve been experimenting with remote dating,” says Dee*, a Skokie resident who has been in polyamorous partnerships on and off for the past seven years. Dating while isolating consists of calls, voice chats (using a program called Discord), movie nights through Netflix Party, and a few dates through Animal Crossing. Dee is currently living with her spouse, who is immunocompromised, and because Dee is seeing three other partners, she finds that strictly quarantining themselves has been the best decision. Dee and her partners practice kitchen-table polyamory, which is when all people know one another and are friends with one another. Metamours—a term that refers to your partner’s partner—are all friends when practicing kitchen-table polyamory (the term is inspired by the idea that everyone in the polycule is seated together at a kitchen table). For Dee, this type of practice has been helpful while quarantined. “It’s been nice having my whole polycule as a support network. We’ve all been able to look out for each other and those of us who are healthier/lower risk can shop for each other.”
The New York City Health Department released guidelines on safe sex practices during COVID-19 and recommended that people only have sex with the person that they live with and advised that “you are your safest partner,” which encourages safety and satisfaction through masturbation. With coronavirus spreading through droplets of saliva, poly couples have had to make tough decisions on how to continue their partnerships. For folks who have multiple partners, choosing which partner to quarantine with may be a bit difficult. Balancing emotions, desires, and safe sex during a pandemic can create a fissure in a stable polycule. However, most of the couples I talked with have found that discussing the pandemic as well as safety measures is quite assuring and comforting.
Steven* and Sylvia* have been together for three years and are navigating the pandemic one day at a time. Steven has been with his nesting partner for ten years, and Sylvia, being a solo poly, has been dating a new partner for four months. “When the stay-at-home order came in, my nesting partner and I had a brief discussion that we would still see each other’s partners as long as everyone was comfortable with it and ensure that we would limit as much as possible interactions outside of our ‘pod’ and be safe when doing so,” says Steven.
Steven, his nesting partner, and their metamours are all able to work from home during isolation, but Sylvia is still working some reduced hours. At first, Steven says he had few concerns about seeing Sylvia because she was taking the proper precautions to protect herself. However, after Sylvia listened to a Dan Savage podcast that discussed the topic of dating during a pandemic, she became increasingly concerned. After hearing Savage’s advice for folks not to see their partners if they don’t live with them, Sylvia’s views on things shifted. Sylvia went from seeing both of her partners regularly, and spending at least two nights a week with each of them, to really limiting her time. Recently, her concern about the situation has begun to increase. “The biggest difficulty I have been facing lately is that I am still required to work on-site at my office,” she says. “Although we have less than ten people currently working in our office, and we are doing everything in our power to keep our workspace and our protocols as safe and clean as possible, I still feel that I act as the biggest threat to my partners’ health as they both work from where they have been sheltering in place for nearly a month.”
For Sylvia, her biggest concern is for others in the polycule who may be affected by the transmission of the virus. “After having many lengthy conversations and despite knowing the risk, both of my partners, in addition to my partner’s live-in partner, have all been adamant that they would still like to see me,” she says. Conversations focused on health, safety, boundaries, desires, and needs have all come to the forefront for Sylvia and her newest partner. To feel more comfortable with the situation, she has decided to reduce the number of days she sees each of her partners and stays on top of handwashing and other safety precautions. For now, Sylvia says she will continue to see her partners until it is no longer possible.
Having lost 75 percent of her income, her mental health has suffered. “My long-term partner has stepped up immensely and has been there for me when I have needed reassurance and emotional support; both he and his live-in partner have been like family to me through this experience, which has brought us all closer together as a network and as friends,” she says. Since the start of the pandemic, Sylvia has deleted OkCupid and has decided to halt all communication with new folks on any dating apps.
Rae McDaniel, a certified sex therapist and founder of Practical Audacity, says that connecting with our loved ones may look different during the pandemic, and these “alternative ways of connecting simply may not completely meet your needs. And that’s OK.” They say there should be an acknowledgment “that we are going through collective withdrawal and grief about not being able to be with everyone that we love.” McDaniel says we should acknowledge that we miss someone in this “abnormal time.” McDaniel does note that the pandemic will likely strain partnerships. “Being forced to isolate from communities of friends and lovers alike can be extremely difficult when community is a main source of connection, meaning, and a feeling of belonging,” they explain.
Separation from other partners can create immense sadness. McDaniel says that sitting with that emotion “while also trying to build [a] connection with the partner in front of you (that you can’t get significant space from for the time being) can put a unique strain on relationships.”
So, what can poly folks do during a pandemic? Although McDaniel isn’t a doctor, they do advise that people try and have a “poly-fidelity” arrangement, which is where poly folks close the loop to their relationship, for the time being. “In the COVID-19 context, I would take this a step further and say to have a closed ‘pandemic polycule,’ where each member of the polycule, including metamours, is only in significant contact with other members of the polycule.”
For folks who can’t isolate together, have no fear. We live in the age of technology. We are devoured by it, and now is the time to take advantage of its resources. “Video calls are a great way to connect, as we’ve all discovered in recent weeks,” says McDaniel. “Socially distant walks can be a nice way to connect and get some fresh air at the same time. There’s also the old-school love letter.” This time can also be used to become more creative in expressing emotions and experimenting sexually. McDaniel suggests sexting, sexy pandemic selfies, and sex toys that can be controlled by remote. “Filling out a Yes/No/Maybe list together can increase the anticipation of a reunion.”
Isolation can be the time for experimentation. Whether that means picking up a paintbrush, starting a new recipe, or finally purchasing that remote sex toy (I personally recommend the Lush 2). While the pandemic creates a difficult constriction for folks who date multiple people, it can also be a time to intimately and emotionally flourish. While every polycule will have a different set of considerations, safety should be pushed to the forefront. “Not seeing a partner is hard, but we all are having to do hard things right now and the reward is not worth the risk to those at high risk of complications from COVID-19,” says McDaniel. As long as doors are open for communication, check-ins, and honesty, this too shall (eventually) pass. v