Social Power and Quarantine in Polyamorous Relationships

How privilege affects social distancing for people in CNM relationships.

Posted Apr 29, 2020

Recent arguments on Reddit and other social media outlets over the appropriateness of continuing to travel (across town or across the country) to see partners during the COVID-19 quarantine have prompted a virtual community town hall.

Chrissy Holman, polyamory community organizer and Communications Lead for the American Psychological Association Division 44 Task Force on Consensual Non-monogamy, coordinated a panel of health professionals and community activists to discuss the impact COVID-19 can have on CNM communities, and how to avoid becoming a vector of transmission. To access a wealth of information from 14 experts and community members, you can find a recording of the COVID-19 Polyamory Townhall here.

Safe to Visit?

Most people are suffering some form of quarantine fatigue right now, and staying home is getting boring and frustrating after weeks of isolation. It is not at all difficult to imagine why some people might want to visit their significant others with whom they do not share dwellings.

Regional differences also mean that the virus seems quite distant for some people, while it is all too close for others. Confusion from politicians about the seriousness of the virus, which services and activities are deemed essential, and how to end the quarantine only further muddies an already bewildering situation.

Image: Doctor in white jacket with stethoscope
Source: Needpix

One group of people who are not at all confused are the public health officials who uniformly say it is premature to end the quarantine and return to in-person interactions because we have not been able to test enough people to know how widespread the infection is, much less determine if the transmission rate has declined. Rather than encouraging an immediate return to normal, this community of scientists and public health professionals instead encourages people to continue social distancing until it is clearer exactly how the virus is transmitted (current thinking is that it is airborne), testing is more widespread, and infection rates have been tracked long enough to know if they are declining. It sounds like a long time, and in truth, it might well be. But it could also make the difference between life and death for the people in your life, and people you don’t even know who could be impacted by your choices today.

Social Hierarchy

One of the factors that influences whether people feel safe enough to visit and have the resources to travel is their place in the social hierarchy. Those with more privilege — people who are young, able-bodied, domiciled (not homeless), securely employed, health-insured, and have access to fast WiFi and enough decent food — are already more likely to ride out the pandemic in relative comfort. Having white skin also provides privileges, as the disproportionately heavy toll the virus is taking on African Americans and other people of color makes abundantly clear. People with lots of social privilege are also freer to ignore social distancing restrictions because they are fine, and they will most likely continue to be fine even if they get sick because they have health insurance and can expect people in the hospital to take them seriously and prioritize their care.

To varying degrees and often reluctantly, polyamorous communities in the United States inevitably recreate the social hierarchies that exist in larger society. For some poly folks, their conviction in personal well-being and access to the material goods that make that a reality can also coincide with an individualistic sense of self-determination and refusal to listen to authority. Unfortunately, that impulse towards individualism is counterproductive when it comes to COVID-19 because the choices the individual makes can affect people days later who get infected from an asymptomatic carrier whose house-mate got it from the visiting poly person three days ago.

One important caveat is that some people — such as co-parents with shared custody who live separately or people with disabilities — are not able to completely quarantine from partners or others. Interrupting a custody schedule can be stressful for a child whose life has already been disrupted by schools closing and being cut off from friends, so many parents make the choice to shuttle the child(ren) between households. Both mental and physical health issues can require assistance from others, and in some cases, interacting with others is less damaging than going without the health care provision. Balancing ongoing health or child care needs with the new issues that COVID-19 introduces can be very difficult, for the parents, person with disabilities, their partners, and their caregivers. 

Relational Hierarchy

In addition to the usual impacts of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, sexual prejudice, and other enforcers of social hierarchy, polyamorous and other CNM relationships can also face issues around relational hierarchies. Some CNM relationships have primary partners (who tend to prioritize each other emotionally and materially, probably live together, might be married and/or have kids) and secondary partners (who do not usually live together, might receive less emotional and practical consideration than the primary, and are generally not financially intertwined) who might be experiencing significant stress with their inability to visit each other.

Others who do not organize their lives around a primary partner — solo poly folks or relationship anarchists for instance — might not consider themselves secondary partners but might not live with their partners and thus encounter some of the same hierarchical issues when excluded from a primary partnership during quarantine.

Image: Two people in bicycles riding into sunset
Source: NeedPix

Generally, one of the main ways that poly folks sustain secondary or non-cohabitational partnerships is by visiting each other for dates, either out in public or in one of their homes. Being unable to visit a secondary/non-cohabitational partner can leave the relationship feeling more distant and can feel especially vulnerable for a person who does not have a primary partner and is sheltering alone. Living alone can be a joyous, fulfilling, and relaxing experience when it is a choice, but it can become painfully lonely when it is enforced for an extended time.

Being allowed to visit or not comes laden with hierarchical potential. Who is interpreted as important enough to visit? Who has the clout to forbid others to visit? What happens if someone visits impulsively and another partner feels upset over a perceived boundary violation? What if one person thinks it is time to end quarantine and another feels the risk is too high? Or is using the risk as an excuse to manipulate their partner to go without seeing someone else?

This strange time is already difficult for people distressed financially and emotionally, and the added challenge of attempting to balance multiple-partners’ needs without the tools usually available to poly folks can take a toll. Achieving this balance can be especially difficult for relationships in which there is already existing discomfort around hierarchy that is aggravated by the added strain of social distancing.

Best Practices

Given the possible relationship challenges during this fragile period of quarantine, what are poly people to do? For people with disabilities, parents who share custody of children, and others it might be simply impossible to completely quarantine, and in those cases, people should do the best they can to avoid transmission.

Chrissy Holman, organizer of the COVID-19 Polyamory Townhall and Communications Lead for the American Psychological Association Division 44 Task Force on Consensual Non- monogamy, summed up the crux of the argument with suggestion that CNM folks ...

“ ... keep visits virtual, or just move in and cohabit until we have a solve for this virus. We're trying very hard to make sure polyams are not visiting houses right now and non-cohabiting partners. All the medical literature says that this is very likely airborne, that many are asymptomatic, and that we'll be experiencing several peaks as pandemics are wont to trend. As Zach Budd and Dirty Lola mentioned in the town hall, there's no real risk assessment, no real consent because there is no way to do the "informed" part yet, and everyone thinks they're statisticians and risk assessment experts now. Not true. We need to agree that until we understand this virus, that in-person visits with non-cohabiting partners are a bad idea.”

Holman concluded that she plans to interview poly-friendly doctors and nurses in the coming weeks. 

If you have questions about how to safely get your poly on during a pandemic, check out the Townhall. It might answer some of your questions — even some questions you did not realize you had! The next post in this series provides tips on how to maintain healthy and happy CNM relationships while continuing to quarantine.