It’s an understatement to say that COVID-19 has changed our lives dramatically. It’s affected every aspect of our lives as we knew them, and as a consequence, has put a strain on our wallets, social lives, mental health, friendships, sex lives and relationships.
With more people working from home, couples spending more time in enclosed spaces together, and couples who don’t live together suddenly having to adapt to long distance relationships to comply with social distancing guidelines, it’s no surprise that the pandemic is putting strain on our relationships. Right now, navigating a relationship with one partner is tricky enough, so what’s it like having to do that with multiple partners?
Penthouse spoke to seven people about what it’s been like to navigate polyamory during a pandemic.
Steve*, 28, Auckland.
“The sudden lack of regular physical contact and intimacy was jarring.”
I’m polyamorous because I appreciate the idea that relationships don’t need to fit a particular mould, and that with honesty and empathy, you can negotiate and enjoy all sorts of arrangements. I see a collection of people in differing capacities, including partners in New Zealand and one in Sydney I visit a few times a year.
One of the things I’ve found interesting with the pandemic has been the difference in experience between already long-distance relationships and a local relationship. The sudden lack of regular physical contact and intimacy was jarring. I found the video calls to be emotionally exhausting, which over our lockdown period lead to less contact and more feelings of isolation. With my long-distance partner, there was much less of a change in how we interacted, and it didn’t have the same emotional impact, although not knowing when we might see each other again is a bit rough.
The need to maintain closed and isolated ‘bubbles’ has also had a bunch of interesting effects. The government restrictions and their relaxation have definitely focused on families who might join bubbles, while making very little difference to those in multiple relationships. As well as this, a couple of my partners are in high-risk professions and households, so during the lockdown period we haven’t been able to have any contact, and any expansion of bubbles has to be mutually agreed.
I’m a bit worried we’ll be thrown into another lockdown without consideration about those of us in non-traditional relationships. While I enjoy having my own physical space, it’s definitely had me contemplating poly-cohabitation arrangements.
Seeing people in traditional relationship situations misunderstand or flaunt breaking the rules of social distancing while some poly people are unable to have any contact with loved ones has been rough.
Britney*, 22, Sydney.
“We joke that we’re all ‘dating in reverse’”
I’ve been in an open relationship for seven years and have had other lovers outside of the relationship during that time. We met our third partner last year and we all started dating each other.
Our situation was an unusual one, as our third partner moved in just before quarantine hit. It was a huge leap of faith, however it felt like the right thing to do.
Plus, as we all weren’t sure of our income situations, we realised splitting our costs would help. Funnily enough, because of this, quarantine ended up being really positive for us as we got to know each other, hang out and ‘date’ during this period of time.
Obviously, the sex situation has been great as well. The only struggle was the inability to be able to go out and sit in a park, go to a café or take time out from each other when the restrictions were really tough. It was definitely jumping in the end and going into a hardcore relationship style from the get go.
Now that restrictions are lifting, we can all start branching out. We often joke that we’re all ‘dating in reverse’. And yes, we’re still all happy together!
Chris, 50, Sydney.
“I’m 50 and have a history of chest complaints, so I’m in an elevated risk group.”
I have two partners, as well as a number of non-romantic, but nonetheless close friends with whom I have sexual relationships.
I live with one of my partners and the other lives in a separate house, a few suburbs away.
COVID-19 has had a number of impacts, including the very close quarters with my domestic partner, coupled with the heightened stress of the situation has put a strain on both of us and on our relationship. Not in a major way, more that we’re just getting on each other’s nerves more than usual and finding all the small things way more annoying than usual. We’re both finding that the current situation is affecting our mental health, which isn’t helping.
My other partner and I have chosen to socially distance for now. Their other partner works in Early Childhood Education and has still been working, which is great, but exposes them to the world in a way that I’m not completely comfortable with. I’m 50 and have a history of chest complaints, so I’m in an elevated risk group.
As someone for whom physical contact is important in maintaining relationships, I’ve found the situation very hard. I can foresee a period of readjusting when this is over as we find the rhythm of our relationship again.
Juniper*, 33, Sydney.
“I’ve had to have some painful renegotiations of my relationships.”
I’ve been polyamorous for about 13 years and have three stable partners, and a rather extensive polycule. I live with my long-term partner, with my other partners living in Sydney and Perth.
When you tell a partner that your aunt is on a ventilator in the UK, it’s a bit more of a bigger deal to then have to ask them to maybe not go fool around with someone new.
We got off light with cases here in Australia, but that shouldn’t mean polyamorous folks get a free pass to keep slinging it around.
I was able to establish two bubbles in Sydney, which took into account many risk factors, including the fact that no one in these households is commuting any longer. My partner in Perth wasn’t able to do this as he is immunocompromised, so lockdown was more of a challenge emotionally as he couldn’t see his other loves. His wife has organised polycule dinners over Zoom to keep us all in contact. How cute is that?
After having the space for a lot of reflecting and increased time at home with both of my Sydney-based partners, I’ve had a shift in balance in my relationships. It has brought into stark relief what kind of lifestyle I want to live.
My long-term live-in partner is wonderful and supportive, but my new partner is more aligned with the person I want to grow into. I’ve had to have some painful renegotiations of my relationships.
For me, part of being polyamorous includes not being stuck on a relationship escalator that leads to marriage and then death. But there’s no good road map on how to ride the escalator down a few steps! Deescalating my 11-year relationship is scary as I’m leaving its comfort and security. But I’m thankful for the breathing space this whole pandemic has given me to reassess life and make some hard decisions.
Jen*, 28, Canberra.
“Managing intimacy from a distance is something that takes practice for sure, and this pandemic has certainly put us all on a steep learning curve.”
I've been ethically non-monogamous for seven years and my network is spread far and wide. I have a nesting partner here in Canberra, another long-term partner that moved overseas with their other partner in late 2018, another romantic partner in Newcastle, and other relationships of varying levels of impact and commitment (play partners, date friends, flings, etc).
I've been practising relationships at a distance prior to COVID-19, but I've definitely felt the distance more than usual and miss my distanced partners a lot. Managing intimacy from a distance is something that takes practice for sure, and this pandemic has certainly put us all on a steep learning curve.
I moved to Canberra not so long ago and have found the potential for forming new connections has been limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, especially for someone like me who isn’t great at flirting online. I've definitely become more practiced at long phone calls and video chats, but in my opinion there really isn't anything that beats real life one-on-one time for determining chemistry and connecting organically.
My nesting partner began dating someone locally late last year, and the restrictions hit basically right in the middle of the NRE (new relationship energy) period. They have had to make some decisions around limiting physical contact, which has been hard, but I don't feel too sorry for them because I'm also aware that they've been playing it up for maximum sexual tension!
I also want to acknowledge here that sex isn't the only form of intimacy there is, and that many different avenues for intimacy have been affected by this pandemic.
Connecting isn't impossible – just different. It's helped me to remember that this is temporary, so might as well lean in and enjoy the weirdness where I can.
Jessie Ngaio, 35, Melbourne.
“It’s been a mixed bag.”
I’m a queer identifying cisgender woman in long term relationships with two men. I’ve been with one of them for thirteen years and we’ve been in a polyamorous relationship for the entire time.
I live with my two partners. Ten months ago, we moved to a suburb that is closer to my husband’s other partner, this is the first time any of us have lived in a poly household but it’s been relatively harmonious.
It’s been a mixed bag. On the one hand, it can get a little claustrophobic and hard to find ways to get alone time with just one partner. We’re having to be intentional around creating a sense of privacy and space while we’re all cooped up inside. On the other hand, it’s brought us all closer together as we’ve offered each other an immense deal of support and a sense of community during this time – for example, we’ve been helping with my husband’s partner’s kids while the schools have been closed. We’ve also been having a lot of lovely four-person dinner parties! I would say that overall, the pros have outweighed the cons as I’ve not found myself experienced nearly as much loneliness as other people seem to have during this time.
I’ve felt really lucky to have this feeling of having a strong and supportive poly family.
Aleni De Viate, Sydney.
“I already feel persecuted because the social lockdown laws were based on the premise of 2 adults, 2.5 children. My family doesn’t look like that at all."
I have a partner and co partner (the partner of my partner) whom I live with. My partner and co partner play together, they have a girlfriend and a cohort of lovers and play partners. I have my own girlfriend and my own cohort of lovers and play partners.
As the public discussion of lockdown, social distancing and behavioural measures to curtail the transmission of coronavirus increased, my poly cohort discussed amongst ourselves what expectations we had and what corona virus lockdown would look like for us.
One of the positives for us in the social culture of polyamory is that we have more practice in the types of conversations needed to keep our loved ones as safe as possible. We recognise the importance to keep each other informed so that we can assess our personal risk and what risk our actions pose to loved ones. This falls under our understanding of knowledgeable consent. So ideally, and certainly within my family we are not afraid to ask questions about the level of intimacy with other members of the family at all levels. It is not unusual for me to ask my partner “are you fucking them, are they seeing anyone else?” as the question is asked not through fear or jealousy, just a need to know in order inform my own decisions.
My decision was based on the cold hard facts, very logical and reluctantly adult. The reality of total lockdown was to choose not to see anyone outside my principal home. So, girlfriend and cohort were no longer available to me, no sexy fun times, no kinky fun times except within my immediate family. (So, not completely celibate.) Those were the cold hard decisions. The emotional reality was a little harder to navigate.
Firstly, there was the care and concern for those close to me, my girlfriend and play partners. Some of whom live alone. I started by contacting them by message and phone, by initialising a Zoom meeting. I found the volume of people I wanted to stay in touch with was emotionally draining. It’s much easier to say I love you with a hug, a kiss, closeness and shared time/space. I have never been a long-distance relationship type of person. My poly relationship/time management is based in the premise “while I am with you, I am with nobody else, when I am not with you, I am with somebody else”. It has been a way for me to be able to give all my attention to my date. I discourage unnecessary, uninvited contact from a lover or play partner when I am with someone else. This works when I am in control of who I can see and when I can see them, but when I am essentially barred from physical contact with my poly cohort the feeling of being separated is hammered home by not knowing when I will see them again. It doesn’t seem to matter if the decision has been mine to make, I have kept wanting to remake it, or work around it, or find some other way. See above mention of being reluctantly adult, this is accompanied by growing frustration and resentment.
I feel more of society’s outcast and afraid I will be persecuted, I already feel persecuted because the social lockdown laws were based on the premise of 2 adults, 2.5 children. My family doesn’t look like that at all. There is a fear within all marginalised communities of extinction, poly people are not without fear of prejudice.
The upside of lockdown has been it’s given me room to breathe and contemplate each relationship. I have been able to feel my way through what each person brings to me and I to them. As a result, I feel as though I have been able to reset the noise around each relationship. I have a clear idea of what I want, how I want to be and how much time I need to myself to create a good balance. It turns out I am enjoying my time on my own and I am not ready to jump back into the middle of my cohort. I have decided that I will focus on just one play partner for the moment and for the rest, keep my heart open.
Kate*, 30, Tasmania.
“Red string litters the floor as you determine how many potential infections can result from one desperate booty call.”
My partners all live in the same city and some of their partners live internationally.
The impact of COVID was fucking rough.
During the initial implementation of social distancing, lines are being drawn all over the shop to determine rationing of physical access to partners. Mind maps come out. Red string litters the floor as you determine how many potential infections can result from one desperate booty call. All you want is quality physical time with your partner because the world is ending and its scary.
But, everyone is trying. And we're trying new things. Movie dates via Skype and a complicated array of headphones. Improved communication and cute little emojis for when you just want to check in. Zoom meetings are scheduled to reassess the state of all unions. All the really great, positive experiences to come out of COVID-19 are strengthened relationships because of improved communication and a new way of experiencing intimacy.
And don't get me started on the amazing app-controlled toys available. Those designers need a peace prize
My polycule did experience a COVID scare after the restrictions on social distancing eased a little. And I gotta say, if nothing else, being poly really helped with that experience. As soon as the scare happened, PTA phone tree style, everyone was notified. Similar to the way it would during a Sexual Health scare incident. No blame, no shame. As careful as everyone is, things can happen. Everyone impacted retreated to their homes, notified who they needed to, and waited the 24 hrs for the results (negative), and notified them again.
COVID has been rough. But it’s strengthened the relationships that can go the distance by dealing with the distance. Next time though, I vote we rent a giant AirBnb or book out a small hotel and everyone in the polycule piles in. Because fuck this shit.
* Some names have been changed upon sources’ request to protect their privacy.