Polyamorous During the Pandemic
Most of the advantages and disadvantages depend on living together or not.
Posted Apr 21, 2020
As with everyone else lucky enough to have a home to shelter in, polyamorous folks are staying home to flatten the transmission curve of the coronavirus. And as with everything poly, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic brings with it extra advantages and some especially complex disadvantages. This is the first post in a series about polyamory and COVID-19, and it addresses the advantages and disadvantages of being polyamorous during a pandemic.
One of the main benefits associated with being polyamorous during the pandemic is the availability of more social support during a difficult time. People with an entire polycule to rely on often have an extensive and distributed network of social support that can offer aide when things get difficult. This includes not only multiple intimate partners, but more importantly the larger network of non-sexual polyaffective affective relationships that make up the web of relationships that Koe Creation named a polycule. This gives poly folks a wider range of people to rely on if they get sick, lose their jobs, need help with the kids, or feel freaked out by what sometimes seems like the end of the world.
Many of the other benefits depend on residential status. Partners who cohabitate are most likely sheltering in place together, and partners who do not live together have a completely different experience of the social distancing requirements.
Many polyamorous people with partners who live elsewhere are already familiar with long-distance relationships or maintaining emotional intimacy without physical proximity. With social isolation requirements keeping us all from seeing each other in gatherings, these poly folks already have the skills in place to stay connected with each other, even when they are physically remote.
Another benefit for non-residential partners is that they have separate housing, so they are able to take physical and emotional space from each other when they wish. Rather than being cooped up together, non-residential partners can choose the timing of their interactions and take a break from the interaction in a way that someone who can not actually leave might not be able to take a few days off from dealing with a highly-charged emotional issue with their cohabitant.
Non-residential partners are also freer from the level of personal responsibility for their partners’ well-being that generally comes with residential partners. If a partner gets sick or loses a job, the nonresidential partner generally does not have to take care of the sick person or pay their partner’s portion of the rent and utility bills.
There are numerous benefits available to polyamorous folks who live together. Most obviously, it can be more fun to be on lockdown with a built-in crew for board games, cooking, socializing, and support. Social isolating with more people is less isolating!
For poly families who live with kids and multiple adults, having more grownups around to help wrangle the kids who are home all day can be very helpful. When one parent has run out of patience to yet again redirect a distracted kid back to long division, they can recruit a different adult to step in and help with the homework while the frustrated adult has a chance to read a book, get their work done, or take a nap.
Cohabitational polyamorous families also benefit by pooling resources. This can be especially advantageous for people during a crisis, and residential polycules with multiple incomes might have more financial resilience if one partner loses a job but multiple other partners remain employed.
While the larger network of the polycule provides lots of support and advantages, it is also vulnerable to infection both because of its large size and its permeability. When a member introduces the virus—or any other difficulty—the consequences can be far-reaching for other people. Smaller, more encapsulated relationships provide a more closed system that is less vulnerable to virus or other problems that come with larger, more permeable groups.
Among the biggest bummers of the stay at home order for people in multiple relationships who do not live with their partners is that now they are not able to see their partners. Obviously this is not specific to poly folks—everyone is missing seeing their friends and family members. While seeing the other person on a screen can give a sense of companionship that is better than nothing, it can be especially unsatisfying for lovers who really miss each-others’ touch.
Being prohibited from visiting can also stir up issues of relationship power and hierarchies, especially for secondary partners or solo poly folks who do not live with their partners. If a partner was already feeling excluded or uncertain before COVID-19 made us all stay home, then being completely exiled from in-person interaction when the others who live together are still hanging out can make that existing discomfort a lot worse.
Just as social distancing can aggravate existing issues for people who do not live together, being cooped up at home together can be incredibly painful for people who are having conflict with their partner(s). This can be simple emotional and physical crowding that rubs people the wrong way and tempers flare, especially because people who are anxious and afraid (and who isn’t right now?) tend to fall back on some less healthy behaviors or relationship patterns. These stressful times mean that many of us are not our best selves right now.
For some people, these relationship tensions are something much more serious. Worldwide there has been a rise in intimate partner violence, while people are stuck at home and have few to no outlets for escape from tense or violent situations. That could be true of polyamorous relationships as well, though violence could be deflected or stopped by the presence of additional partners.
Like other kinds of relationships, polyamorous relationships can be volatile in early stages, and sometimes people make stupid choices (or are forced to choose from bad options)—like moving in with each other before they really know each other very well. When the golden glow of new love (what polyamorists call new relationship energy) wears off, the resulting reality check can be exceedingly uncomfortable. With all the added stress from the social and economic fallout of the pandemic, some relationships dealing with the end of NRE will not be able to navigate their own challenges on top of the world-wide freak out. If a relationship breaks up, it could precipitate a housing crisis for one or more people right at a time when everyone supposed to be home. This can be especially challenging for poly folks and other sex and gender minorities who tend to live in urban areas where they can find partners and social acceptance. Unfortunately, these urban areas with liberal politics that are friendly to poly folks are also incredibly expensive—places like the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C. All of those areas are major hubs of polyamorous life and have the high cost of living that comes with being a decent place to live. Housing loss in one of these urban areas can be incredibly challenging because it can be quite difficult to find an affordable place to live.
Perhaps one of the biggest disadvantages of living with other polyamorous folks—or even room-mates sharing the same house or apartment—is the inability to control other’s visiting each other during the lockdown. The resulting controversy between those who are following social distancing guidelines and limiting their contact with others to emergencies on the one hand and those who are still dating or going to visit multiple partners regardless of social distancing on the other is so contentious that it requires another blog. Part 2 of this series looks at issues around dating/visiting—or not—during a pandemic.