Lockdown is having a huge impact on relationships.
Single people are finding dating harder, some couples are living together for the first time putting their relationship to the test and some are forced to be apart because they can’t isolate together.
But for those in polyamorous relationships, the rules are more complicated.
Those who have multiple partners have difficult choices about what to do for isolation.
There are many different types of polyamory – some live together in a triad (or quad) as equal partners, while others have multiple partners who aren’t part of each other’s lives, but it’s particularly hard for those who don’t live with all their partners or who split their time between them.
When the lockdown started, Sally had five partners. She has ended up leaving London to go into isolation with one of her partners, meaning she will not see the other four until it is safe to do so.
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She has been working from home and living with at her partner’s house for nearly two months.
She explains: ‘The decision was somewhat made for me. I had had a weekend visit with Partner 1 the weekend before lockdown and they had gone to see another partner of theirs, E. The next day (17 March) all non-essential travel was discouraged, so that cut off Partner 1.
‘That evening I started coming down with a mild cold. I was talking to all my partners during this time and I knew that Partner 2 was planing to isolate with their partner K and was making preparations to do that.
‘Partner 3 didn’t want to isolate with me as I was not well when the decision needed to be made and didn’t want to risk anything.
‘When I spoke to Partner 4 about the potential of London locking down they invited me to stay with them. They drove to pick me up the next day, I packed up enough for an extended stay, including plants!
‘Partner 5 is the most casual and wasn’t likely to want to isolate with me in any case, even though we have previously lived together before.’
Although it was simply down to the circumstances, choosing one of her five partners to spend this time with does have an impact on the others. Sally also had to accept that her some of them spending their isolation with another one of their partners.
She adds: ‘In terms of preference, there are definitely partners I feel I’m more domestically compatible with than others, which is natural. I’m lucky that the week turned out with me deciding to isolate with someone who I am very well suited to in this way.
‘Partners 1 and 2 were very accepting, having E and K to isolate with themselves. The four of them and me and Partner 4 all know each other and keep in touch in a WhatsApp group called ‘A-Poly-clypse Now!’ It’s a good group dynamic and we are supporting each other.
‘I suspect Partner 3 was a bit jealous and sad to start with. Our relationship is the newest and we were seeing each other the most regularly of all my partners and suddenly stopping that, even though my still being in London would have done the same, has been really difficult.
‘Partner 5 is totally fine, isn’t really involved in anything to do with my other partners and we have occasional phone calls. All is well.’
Although she is very much still in relationships with the other four, Sally says she has enjoyed spending time with one partner.
She says: ‘It would have been very unlikely that I would have spent so much uninterrupted time with Partner 4 in the natural course of our relationship as we have always been long distance, seeing each other every four to six weeks for a weekend visit.
‘This has always worked well for us and we will return to this after the lockdown, but for now it’s really lovely to spend this time with them.
‘We are learning about each other from a new perspective and we are very good at giving each other space for our other relationships and virtual visits with our partners. There is no jealousy at all.
‘I feel that Partner 4 is a very easy person to be poly with and ultimately the best choice for an isolation partner.’
Like many people who are in a relationship but living apart, Sally has been keeping in touch with the others through messages and calls.
She adds: ‘Partner 1 in as already a long distance partner at the start of the lockdown and this has been largely unaffected. Partner 2 and I are always very supportive of our other relationships and we know that we prioritise other relationships over ours.
‘I chat regularly with 1 and 2 and I miss them but we are managing well so far. I think this is because they are comfortable, established relationships.
‘I am finding it difficult to be separated from Partner 3. I miss them very much. We have set up a regular Sunday night Skype date and have settled into little daily routines of communication that I find so comforting.
‘Partner 5 is doing well and we are pretty much the same as when I was living locally to them.’
Others who are in polyamorous relationships have decided to continue to live between the different households.
Jenny* is in a relationship with her husband, who has a girlfriend, and another man, who does not have any other relationships. They all know each other and have been building a family unit together, but living apart.
Jenny, who is based in the U.S., currently splits her time between two homes – at least three days with her husband and three with her other partner each week.
There is a stay-at-home order in her area and when it was introduced, they started to look at the restrictions to see what it meant for their family.
Jenny says: ‘When we got the stay-at-home order, we made sure to look up what exactly is restricted in order to avoid breaking any laws.
‘We also all had conversations about how we would make sure we had a closed-loop between our family members. We decided since I am going between both homes, I would no longer go to the grocery store or any public space to minimize exposure for both my husband and my partner.
‘They are the only two people I interact with – I drive alone and go straight from private residence to private residence. This feels like a responsible choice that allows me to still take care of both the people I love and share a life with.
‘Rather than default to stay at home only with my husband, we all agreed it wasn’t ethical to leave my partner alone for an indefinite amount of time – I don’t think that complete self-isolation is mentally healthy for anyone, and I feel for those who have to quarantine without any other support.’
Jenny admits that this only works because the two homes are close together and otherwise, she would have had to make a choice.
She adds: ‘Traveling by plane or train would put me on contact with others and thus increase risk of exposure for everyone. I am lucky that we all live close enough to maintain a bit of normalcy to our family structure during this time.’
She says that they had adapted the advice around their relationships as they feel that the guidance makes no allowances for people outside monogamous relationships.
‘This whole experience should make us question what “family” really means. The guidance focuses only on a monogamous, heteronormative idea of what family is.
‘It doesn’t address how people with blended or chosen families can stay safe without neglecting each other. We’d never expect a husband and wife to separate during a global crisis – neither should we expect non-traditional families to separate.
‘There are kids who go back and forth between divorced parents, people who regularly care for members of extended family, those who live with or near close friends; it’s not just non-monogamous families who are being affected.
‘We need to care for the people we love in times of crisis while also being cognizant of public health and safety. They are not mutually exclusive.
They have agreed that this works for now but with the situation constantly changing, they may have to reevaluate it in the future.
She adds: ‘I care about my family and I also care about my community. I want to make sure I’m minimizing harm. We’ve all talked about what-if scenarios if this crisis escalates further. If our area goes into lockdown, if travel becomes restricted, or if one of us contracts the virus, we have agreed I will have to stay in one location until it’s over.
‘We would never risk breaking the law and putting more people in danger. We are doing our best to balance our familial wellbeing and our communal wellbeing based on the current stay-at-home guidelines. I am doing just that: staying at my homes.’
Robin Wilson-Beattie, 42, San Francisco, California, is in a similar situation to Jenny.
She has been married for two and a half years, and also has a partner (P), who she has been with for almost a year. Neither of them have other partners.
Before the pandemic, she didn’t live with P but saw him regularly.
She explains: ‘I identify as polyamorous, and practice what is known as ethical non-monogamy. I am only committed and involved romantically with these two people, and no one else.
‘This feels emotionally safest for all of us, and it’s been this way for a year. My husband and boyfriend know, respect, and actually like each other, so the three of us can comfortably hang out together. This style is also referred to as ‘kitchen table polyamory.
‘When it comes to polyamorous relationships, there is no one cut and dry way to define how it’s “supposed to be”. We put a lot of work and effort into making sure everyone’s needs are communicated and met. I don’t know if I can explain why it works, but it has for almost a year.’
During the pandemic, Robin has been living with her husband but sees P once a week at a hotel.
She explains: ‘Hotels are an essential business. We found a hotel that we feel does a great job sanitizing and following safe protocols, and now schedule an overnight there, once a week.
‘Booking the hotel room is now included our budgets. I fully acknowledge that having economic privilege allows for us to have these options.
‘Dates look like doing essential errands or a safe visit to the park. I worried that we were not strictly following social distancing guidelines. We decided that if we can go to the supermarket, going to the same sanitized hotel was not any more risky.
‘My relationship with P is different than the one I have with my husband, but it’s just as valid and important to me.’
They say that they are taking precautions and although she was worried about criticism, she felt that they should be able to continue seeing each other in this way.
She adds: ‘We follow the hand-washing, masks, and disinfect spray when going out, and we’re being safe in distancing from other people.
‘I have worried about how it seems to others, because I have a platform as a disability and sexuality educator and advocate, and do not want it to appear as if I’m teaching others to flaunt rules meant to keep us safe.
‘In the end, I just said f**k it, I’m not hiding that I’m poly, and seeing my other partner. I shared on social media a pic of P and I on our weekly date, staying-in-place style.’
But Robin says that living this way has helped her spend more time with both her partners and brought her closer to them.
‘The pandemic has actually led my husband and I to become even closer,’ she says.
‘I am feeling so grateful that we chose each other to marry, and be a team. I think we now have stronger love connection and appreciation for one another than we did before the pandemic.
‘With my boyfriend, the pandemic has meant we can not be as spontaneous and flexible about where and when we meet.
‘Normally, I travel a lot, so there were weeks where we are unable to see each other. We both live with other people, so with everyone home, intimate and alone time has to be scheduled elsewhere.
‘Since I have to stay in town, the silver lining is that P and I get to see each other every week, so we do.’
Although Robin and her partners are sticking to what works for them, she agrees that part of the problem is that the definition of what is considered family is ‘too narrow’.
She adds: ‘For instance, legality aside, polygamy is practiced in many cultures and countries around the world.
‘Not everyone in a family resides in the same home. They have made provisions for parents who co-parent a child, and live in different places. Poly families exist, too.’
*Jenny’s name has been changed.
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