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Polyamory in the Time of COVID-19

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Editor’s note: It’s no secret that COVID-19 has had an effect on every aspect of our daily lives, and perhaps none more than our interpersonal relationships. There were so many factors to weigh before we could even decide whether it was worth meeting with friends and family before the vaccine, never mind meeting with someone new for dates or sex.

We received this piece near the end of 2020 before Los Angeleno went offline a few months later. We weren’t able to run it back then, but as we approach Valentine’s Day, we thought it would provide an illuminating glimpse into the lives of polyamorous individuals and couples as they found their “new normal” during quarantine. All names have been changed to protect the privacy of our subjects, except for marriage and family therapist Jennifer Masri and Jamie.

COVID-19 has drastically altered every facet of our everyday lives, but none more than how we date and maintain relationships. That’s been especially challenging for polyamorous and ethically non-monogamous people. Monogamous couples have had to learn how to live with each other 24/7, but how does a triad keep their sanity when they’re around each other all day? Is it awkward to go on a virtual date while your partner’s in the next room? How do you maintain a quarantine bubble when you date multiple people? We asked poly/ENM Angelenos to share their stories of multi-love in the time of COVID-19.

A Kink Shrink’s Point of View

While “kink shrink” Jennifer Masri and her partner are not currently practicing non-monogamy, her role as a therapist and leader of kink and poly support groups has given her a unique view into how the pandemic is affecting non-monogamous relationships. “At the poly support group I run, COVID has come up regardless of the topic,” Masri says.

The biggest issue she’s seen poly folks face during quarantine has been how to maintain a relationship while keeping a “safe bubble.” “If you have another partner, you need to know who they’re in contact with,” she says. “It’s kind of like STIs; you have to have a conversation about what to do if someone in your pod tests positive. Communication has always been an important factor in poly dynamics, and now it’s even more important.”

While some people may have formed pods that include “non-nesting” partners — partners they don’t live with — others have isolated themselves from one or more of their relationships altogether. Even in a dynamic where “metamours” — people with a partner in common — are on good terms, this can lead to jealousy that wasn’t there before.

“Non-nesting partners might feel like the nesting partner is getting all the time they’d normally get,” Masri says, adding that it’s important for non-nesting partners who can’t be together physically to dedicate time for each other. “If Wednesday was when you’d go out with a non-nesting partner, keep Wednesday for them. Spending time together, even if it looks different, is important.”

“Communication has always been an important factor in poly dynamics, and now it’s even more important.”

— “Kink shrink” Jennifer Masri

These days, most decisions about leaving the house require a degree of risk assessment, especially when it comes to meeting up with friends and family — even at a distance. People in non-monogamous relationships might be used to negotiating how their actions and interactions with other people might affect their partners, but this is a new world for monogamous people. “They’re having conversations like ‘I’d really like to visit my mom or my best friend,’ and that requires a conversation now that they never had to have before in terms of risk profile and safety measures,” Masri says.

As social isolation can have a profound effect on people’s mental health, Masri made sure to keep up with many of the classes and groups she ran pre-pandemic, including a BDSM 101 class, polyamory support groups and a YouTube series called “K is for Kinky,” which she co-hosts with her partner. “So many people have partners they aren’t seeing in person, so coming to classes that talk about alternative anything has helped them maintain a connection,” she says.

There is a silver lining to be found while in quarantine, however. Masri says now is the perfect time for people to work on communicating with their partners, recalling a virtual class she attended where a couple mentioned they were interested in exploring polyamory.

“The wife was gung-ho about it, but the husband still had trepidation,” she says. While some attendees started to suggest dating apps and dole out advice, Masri told the couple that since they had so much time on their hands, they should do their research and talk about what they want from a poly relationship rather than just jump into dating. “You have the time to make sure the two of you have done the homework,” she told them.

Lisa, Fred and Melanie: Splitting Time Between Two Houses

While some polyamorous partners may have had to negotiate who is in and out of their bubble, it was easy for Lisa, her husband Fred and her girlfriend Melanie to set up an arrangement. As shelter-in-place orders arrived, the couple agreed Lisa would split her time between partners. When Lisa and Fred first opened their marriage years ago, they determined they wanted to have platonic relationships with their metamours, which made the COVID-19-era transition fairly smooth.

“Melanie was already my friend, so we already had the experience of hanging out as a group,” Fred says. “There wasn’t a question of ‘Oh, I have to start hanging out with someone who was a stranger to me?’”

Even the monogamy inclined might feel a pang of jealousy over aspects of the trio’s dynamic. With Lisa splitting time between her and Fred’s place in Silver Lake and Melanie’s home in Santa Monica, one end of the relationship will often get some alone time. Since they also hang out together, all members of the pod get a change of scenery from time to time. “One of the best things is we have two homes we can be in,” Melanie says.

According to Lisa, a friend once playfully told her that polyamorous people are the “relationship 1%.” “‘I can’t even get one person and you have multiple people,’ he’d say. And in the pandemic, I’ve felt the visceral truth of what he meant,” she says. With so many relationships physically cut off, she’s thankful she has two people she can make physical contact with.

However, this does carry with it some downsides. For instance, since Lisa is always with a partner, she struggles to find time for herself in a shared living space. “The unique position I’m in is closer to a lot of other people’s quarantine experience in that I’m never alone,” Lisa says.

As for Melanie, it can be hard when she’s left alone in her apartment after Lisa leaves. “There’s a real sense of sadness or loss when she walks out the door that I didn’t experience to that degree pre-pandemic because I had work or I could meet up with friends at a bar,” Melanie says.

While both Fred and Melanie have continued to go on virtual dates with potential new partners, the trio agreed that in-person meetups and new relationships would require a serious discussion. “We really want to be able to discuss if anyone wants to date additional partners,” Fred says. “It would involve the same kind of conversations we’ve already been having about safety and circumstances.” Neither Fred nor Melanie are in a rush to meet anyone new, and Melanie is actually thrilled that the slower speed of COVID dating means she’s getting to know people better with less focus on sex.

Siren: Seeking Poly Love on the East Coast

When the pandemic hit, Siren was single and living on her own. So she wondered, “Maybe I should look into monogamy again?” Before the pandemic, Siren was open to polyamorous or “monogamish” relationships — romantic monogamy but with other sexual or kink partners. However, the threat of COVID-19 made her hesitant to meet with someone who has multiple partners. So she went to her OK Cupid profile and unchecked the box marking her interest in ethical non-monogamous relationships, and, for the first time in four years, Siren’s feed exclusively featured monogamous people.

She wound up chatting with a match and, eventually, the pair talked on the phone — with disastrous results. “It was one of the most intellectually tedious conversations I’ve ever had,” Siren says. As a pansexual woman, Siren had to explain LGBTQ and poly concepts and issues to her match, and it was then she realized just how central polyamory had become to her identity.

“I didn’t know up until that point a couple months into the pandemic that it’s become such an ingrained part of me and how I go about the world,” she says, adding that her date’s old-fashioned standards “were at odds with the morals and ethics” she developed being polyamorous.

In August, Siren left her MacArthur Park studio and returned to her hometown in Massachusetts. Having reset her OK Cupid profile to exclusively show ENM individuals, she was struck by two things. Firstly, people who identified as poly in the area had a very counterculture look to them, Siren says, joking that everyone she saw sported a septum piercing. The scene was different from the diverse polyamory community found in L.A. “I look pretty vanilla,” she says. Secondly, within half an hour of browsing, she was getting messages from people in Vermont, New York and other states over 40 miles away. “I had assumed that the level of people engaging in alternate relationship styles was more limited, but to cycle through all the [locals] who identify in ENM in such a short period? I’ve still never reached the end in L.A.,” Siren says.

While it might take some time before Siren can meet anyone, the pandemic has reaffirmed that she still wants a polyamorous relationship, at least as a starting point. “I’m open to monogamy, but I would want to start from a place of openness and then close,” she says, “it’s a different process to start with a closed relationship and try to open up.”

Alex: Dating as a Triad

Alex has been in a polyfidelious triad with two other men for four years. Their dynamic is such that the relationship is mostly closed, but they will date new people together. “We don’t actively chase after people, we just allow for a date when someone expresses interest in the three of us,” Alex says.

When the Safer at Home order came down in March 2020, Alex was laid off from his non-profit job while his partners began working from home. One would assume that three would turn into a crowd during 24/7 co-habitation, but the triad has ample space at their Glassell Park home. “Fortunately, with three combined incomes, we have enough room that we each have space,” Alex says. “When one of the boys is working out of the guest bedroom, the other is working out of the living room, and I’m basically Cinderella cleaning up all day.”

“The advantage of meeting during COVID is that this potential fourth partner has been able to see our home life and group dynamic, as well as have individual time with all of us.”

— Alex

The trio easily transitioned their dating and social life to the online sphere. Before the pandemic, they would talk to potential friends and dates on the dating app Scruff, which is where they all met. “One of my partners, Derek, had been talking to someone on there for two years,” Alex says. Just before the shutdown, this man expressed an interest in dating the triad. “I didn’t know at the time, but I had been talking to that same person,” Alex says. They continued talking to this man until July, when the coronavirus was better understood and they felt safe about meeting each other. The first date, at a restaurant patio, went very well, and the group has continued dating, with the new man neatly fitting into the triad’s homelife.

With traditional dating options like movies and bars out of the question, the quartet’s dates have primarily been at home, giving them all a chance to explore how a new partner would fit into their dynamic.

“The advantage of meeting during COVID is that this potential fourth partner has been able to see our home life and group dynamic, as well as have individual time with all of us,” Alex says. In the end, this homebound bonding has been important for the group to see where the relationship can go from here. “The polyfidelity dynamic means that the relationship changes,” Alex says. “We have to know your needs, personal boundaries and relationship aspirations. The relationship changes after that. In the context of our relationship, everyone has learned how to make a contribution.”

MB: Leaving Relationship Anarchy Behind

As a transgender and nonbinary person, MB was used to starting things with a virtual date. “Prior to quarantine, I’d do a virtual date for safety, to make sure they were the same person as on the profile,” they say. Before the pandemic, these online encounters were about safety and making sure they clicked with a potential partner, but now these virtual dates are more official. “This might just be the way we’ll be dating for a while,” MB says.

MB moved to Los Angeles for college in August 2019 while in a polyamorous relationship with a primary partner of over two years. When that relationship ended in October, MB shifted to “relationship anarchy,” a polyamorous model in which no one relationship takes priority over others. “I was interested in polyamory/ENM relationships, but my relationships were largely sexual because I was engaging with a lot of monogamous people who weren’t interested in polyamorous romance,” MB says. The pandemic put a stop to that though, as, according to MB, the nature of sex has changed. They say it’s harder to get monogamy-focused people to get both an STI test and a COVID test.

As the pandemic continues, the way MB approaches relationships has changed. “I’ve been seeking more polyamory in a traditional way where I want multiple romantic partners, and it’s not just about sex,” they say. Their dating options have expanded as well, thanks to the safety of quarantine bubbles and social distancing. “I think because the quarantine has made it easier for more people to put up healthy boundaries, the people I’m seeing right now are all cisgender,” they say. While MB identifies as bi, the quarantine era is the first time they’ve ever dated men or cis people. “It was always easier and safer to have romantic and sexual relationships with other trans people,” they say.

It’s for that reason that MB finds hope during these grim times. They think the slowed-down nature of dating in the COVID era has allowed for a better sense of connection while also allowing cis people to better understand the needs and experiences of trans people.

“I think when the time comes to talk to them about having sex with a trans person and how that might be different dysphoria-wise, I think because they’ve known me on an emotional level, it’ll be easier for them to navigate,” MB says.

Violet: Do I Like You Enough to Get Within 6 Feet?

Violet’s life was already in the midst of change before COVID-19. Last year, after 13 years of marriage, she and her husband decided to open up their relationship when they realized he was asexual. “We still saw each other as partners but without the sexual element of the partnership,” Violet says. Opening the relationship opened her world and understanding of herself in new ways. Having married young, she had never dated as an adult. “So, for me, it was exciting to go out at night and hang out at a bar when I had been a stay-at-home mom before opening up,” Violet says.

But once COVID restrictions were enacted, returning to a stay-at-home life felt like an identity crisis. “I had a conversation with another non-monogamous friend, and we were like, ‘What the fuck, I feel so monogamous now,” she says. “I was trying really hard to not freak out; am I still this person who I think I am even if I can’t do all this stuff?”

The early days of quarantine were made worse by two of her relationships dissolving. A non-nesting partner with whom she had a serious relationship became very busy, stressed and strict about COVID safety. “Suddenly, this person who I had seen twice a week was gone,” she says. Meanwhile, while spending all day together at their Long Beach home, she and her husband realized they no longer shared the same connection. “We’ve kind of shifted fully into a co-parenting relationship where we share the same roof,” she says. “He feels more like a roommate at this point.”

“I had a conversation with another non-monogamous friend, and we were like, ‘What the fuck, I feel so monogamous now. I was trying really hard to not freak out; am I still this person who I think I am even if I can’t do all this stuff?”

— Violet

During the summer, however, Violet met a new partner on the queer dating and community app Lex. After a few months of conversation, they met up — 6 feet apart — at a park and have since gotten serious. Of course, in COVID times, dating is a lot more serious than it used to be.

“It’s funny having to have serious conversations about safety right from the start of it,” Violet says. “It’s made me more intentional about having those conversations.” There is, however, a silver lining. “It’s nice having an excuse if you’re not feeling someone,” Violet says, joking that she first has to determine if she likes someone enough to get within 6 feet of them.

Charlotte: Online Meet-Ups Don’t Really Work

“I miss my event so much, I miss being in a space with people,” says Charlotte, who used to host a monthly poly meetup pre-COVID. While she’s hunkering down with a primary partner, who is “paying rent on an apartment he hardly ever sees,” and staying in touch with a secondary partner, it’s the absence of her meetup that she feels the most.

The monthly gathering in West Hollywood was one of the main venues for non-monogamous and ENM-curious Angelenos to get together in a casual setting. The last in-person meetup took place on March 11, 2020, the day the pandemic became very real for many Americans, as the NBA postponed their season and Tom Hanks announced he had COVID-19. While the mixer went on, the virus was on everyone’s mind.

“We encouraged people to touch elbows instead of hands,” Charlotte says. “It was the topic everyone was talking about at the event. It was a nice time still, but the mood was uncertain.”

Charlotte tried to host the event virtually, but it just wasn’t the same. The nature of Zoom made it hard for people to mix and mingle. “We tried to do breakout rooms, but it wasn’t necessarily the people you wanted to be in the room with, or the same people would be in the same room with you every time,” Charlotte says. Things also became frustrating when conflict arose between two people offline and they came to the event’s leadership to resolve it. “We don’t normally deal with anything outside the event,” she says. “I’m used to providing a safe space in person, so trying to do it online just wasn’t the same.”

As for dating, Charlotte has gone on one socially distanced date so far, but the hassle was too much. “I don’t like the dating process to begin with,” she says, “with all these other things to deal with, it’s just not worth it.” For now, while others have created spin-off online meetups, Charlotte is waiting for it to be absolutely safe before she brings back her event. “I have a hard enough time going to the grocery store,” she says.

Juliette and Jim: COVID Simulated Monogamy

Throughout the pandemic, Juliette and Jim have more or less tried out every type of relationship. Before COVID, they were in a mono-poly relationship. “He had multiple partners, but I was only with him,” Juliette says. When quarantine started, though Jim kept in touch with other partners, he became exclusively physically involved with Juliette. “My other steady partner, because she works in healthcare, was kept at an arm’s length, which was probably unfair to her,” Jim says, “but at the time, we didn’t know how this thing was transmitted.”

For the first three months, “he was all mine, COVID simulated monogamy,” Juliette jokes, but when restrictions started lifting, Jim told her he wanted to meet up with two women he had met online. “I was like, ‘Well, if you’re going to be with other people, then I’m going to date other people,’ and I got on apps and decided I’d be poly,” Juliette says.

“My other steady partner, because she works in healthcare, was kept at an arm’s length, which was probably unfair to her, but at the time, we didn’t know how this thing was transmitted.”

— Jim

What followed was a rocky period of jealousy and misunderstanding during which both Juliette and Jim saw other people while not fully obeying their poly agreement. “We broke up for a while, and that was very detrimental for both of us,” Jim says.

After reconciling, the pair worked on their dynamic and have found a healthy way to make sure their needs with each other and in poly are met and heard. “He has a few pre-COVID partners who he will stay with, but he isn’t looking for other relationships,” Juliette says. While the relationship has more or less returned to its mono-poly beginnings, the couple is now looking to safely date or meet play partners as a team. “Now we’re talking to people as a couple, and it’s inclusive,” Jim says. “I think she was feeling isolated and not included in my activities.”

Clark: Exploring Sex in New Ways

After breaking up with a secondary partner in May, Clark took a break from dating and continued to ride out the pandemic in the West Hollywood home he shares with his fiancee Jane. But in August, he decided to see who was out there and what dating was like. “I hit it off with a nonbinary person on OK Cupid,” he says. “It was pretty fast, I was actually surprised. I generally don’t feel like connections I make are immediate.”

After a few rounds of messages, Clark asked for a Zoom date. Monogamous people might think it would be awkward to go on a Zoom date while your partner’s in the next room, but for Clark and Jane, it’s very easy. “We have always liked when the other one is distracted because that gives us the chance to do our own thing,” Clark says. “Our tendency as a couple is to be in each other’s business, but we also recognize that’s not 100% sustainable.” The virtual date went very well, and when interviewed, Clark was in the process of getting ready for an in-person date. “I got STI tested as a standard precaution,” he says, “and I’m supposed to get COVID tested soon and will see this person this weekend.”

While the potential for a new relationship is exciting, what’s been more interesting for Clark is hearing how others are exploring sex during quarantine. He asked friends and friends of friends about their experiences and got some surprising answers. “There were also a handful of people who would not consider themselves as queer until they were quarantined in a situation where they spent a lot of time around people of the same gender,” he says. For instance, he’s spoken with a woman who never had time to think about dating or her sexuality but is now dating a close female friend. He also spoke with a polyamorous man who slept with his female partner’s male partner.

“Poly people are used to dealing with complexity and complex negotiation,” Clark says. While polyamory may have prepared him for dating in these complicated times, he sometimes finds himself in a monogamous frame of mind, wondering if meeting with someone new would be worth the risk. “I’m thinking about it in a much more conservative way than I want to or am used to,” Clark says.

Jamie: Quarantine Buddies Get Serious

For Jamie, the pandemic has represented a new start in her poly identity. Before the pandemic, she had one steady partner and several friends with benefits. When COVID ramped up, her partner was already swamped with law school, and they couldn’t make time for the relationship. Jamie also cut off her friends with benefits relationships with all but one man, and that relationship has transformed over the course of the year. “We started as quarantine buddies,” she says, “and when you’re with one person, feelings form. So now we’re boyfriend and girlfriend.”

This new relationship is different for Jamie, but it’s not too out of the ordinary. “My ENM identity has always been fluid or situational,” Jamie says. “I used to identify as solo poly, but now I identify as a person in a monogamish relationship. That’s the nature of poly, there’s no such thing as not poly enough.”

While her boyfriend hadn’t practiced polyamory before the pandemic, the pair are using this moment to talk about how poly works. “I’ve had to work hard to get him to understand some of the mentality behind non-monogamy, such as sex not being the ultimate thing in a relationship,” she says. “We talk a lot about boundary-setting, paying attention to your feelings and non-violent communication, all of which are skills people should have in their daily life.”

Jamie and her boyfriend have explored new elements in their sex lives, like integrating toys and dating people together. “We date together, for those who are actually willing to date, and we’ve gone through a lot of safety protocols, which used to involve just STIs but now is also about COVID,” Jamie says. Recently, they attended a swingers campout, where all participants had been tested beforehand and self-isolated and got tested afterward. “I tested negative,” she says.

As a board member of Sex Positive World, Jamie has continued to find ways to promote sex positivity to the world at large from a safe distance. She first became involved in the organization three years ago when she would travel from her home in Ventura to attend group events in downtown L.A. When events started getting canceled in mid-March, she decided to launch an online book club through Sex Positive World to help people stay connected. The book club started with “The Ethical Slut” by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy and will read Jessica Graham’s “Good Sex: Getting Off Without Checking Out” next.

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