I’m writing to see if you have any advice for the polyamorous community during the COVID-19 outbreak. While there aren’t many cases in Hampshire County [as of writing this question on March 20], my partner and I have decided to work from home and not to attend any gatherings for roughly two weeks.
We’re four days shy of that two week mark and my partner made plans with their other partner to meet up and hang out. My partner explained that they both feel it is unfair and unreasonable not to be able to be physically intimate because neither of them have symptoms. I’ve asked my partner to talk to their other partner about his contact with other people and whether or not he has been staying home and/or keeping physical distance from others.
However, that information doesn’t seem to give me peace of mind when I know that the two of them will be physically close and intimate. It feels like that negates the efforts we’re putting towards “flattening the curve” by self-isolating, not to mention I don’t have health insurance and have a newly restored fear of getting ill despite the fact that I’m only 32 and relatively healthy.
Admittedly, this is my first polyamorous relationship (we’ve been together for two years) and I’m operating on a steep learning curve; I’m having a hard time distinguishing the “real” threat of the pandemic (which, I know you cannot assess!) between my desire to be affirmed and acknowledged through my partner’s choices.
Any advice you have on balancing what seems to a public health threat and a threat to self (insecurities) would be greatly appreciated.
— Socially Distant
Between clients and friends, this topic of the unique COVID-19 snafus for folks with multiple partners has been a common one — where’s the non-monogamy manual about how to manage feelings, logistics, and safer-sex when a global pandemic may force you to choose who you self-quarantine with, separates partners indefinitely due to travel restrictions and shelter-in-place orders, or otherwise makes it less than possible to maintain the same equilibrium between partners that you once did?
I’m definitely not going to pretend to be a COVID-19 expert because, really, nobody is, as this new virus rapidly morphs while the human race scrambles to adapt. From where I’m sitting (which, of course, is in a makeshift, miniscule “home office” jammed somewhere between my bedframe and my closet), not having symptoms of COVID-19 is a non-reliable bar to set as asymptomatic folks (especially those under 50 years old) have been pinpointed as a big part of the transmission issue.
Sex-positive communities, especially those that overlap with non-monogamy and kink, are often (when doing things right) near-experts at practicing informed-consent and allowing individuals to make their own risk-aware decisions about their sex and dating lives. But COVID-19 really throws a wrench in these works because the essential informed part of “informed consent” is rapidly changing with this particular virus.
While we have well-researched studies on things like the effectiveness of condoms in order to help us make informed decisions about risk in our regular ol’ pre-pandemic sex lives, when it comes to COVID-19, we can’t really safely say “I’m not coughing with a fever so if we make out, I’m not likely to pass the virus to you.” We really just don’t know.
Sure, it’s great emotional practice to wonder if your anxiety about the pandemic is snowballing with your anxiety about personal insecurity and to practice ways to address the insecurities. For example, is the line between “hanging out” and “hooking up” sort of arbitrary if the 6-foot social distancing rule isn’t followed?
However, it’s well within your relationship rights to set boundaries for yourself, especially around this very serious health concern. This boundary might look like “If you choose to go to your other partner’s place, I’d like you to stay there for two weeks to self-isolate” or, maybe this looks like maintaining some amount of social distancing between the two of you once your partner returns home from their hangout.
Finally, both your feelings and this pandemic are very real. I encourage you not to look the other way with either.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, yanatallonhicks.com.