What Polyamorous Networks Might Look Like After COVID-19
I got a message from a patron via Patreon asking about changes in our relationships, networks and new connections during this pandemic. They wrote,
“I know my partners are constrained due to the pandemic. I also know that we all have personal romantic interests we would pursue were physical distancing not important. How do I combat some of the anxiety and unease that comes with knowing there is a good chance my relationships and dynamics will change, even possibly end, once the pandemic subsides? Thanks in advance.”
This speaks a lot to my experience and to my friends’ experiences, both polyamorous and monogamous but not nested with a partner when shelter in place orders or lockdowns started in their areas. There’s a lot of anxiety around whether and how this period has made non-nesting relationships more brittle; whether it’s made nesting relationships codependent to the detriment of entire networks; and the fact that pharmaceutical company heads have confirmed - in conjunction with FDA- that we in the USA have at least 6 more months of this, maybe 8, before we can unmasked go about our business in person again with confidence in a functional vaccine amps that anxiety way up for me personally. All this to say that I see where you’re coming from, letter-writer. Dynamics have probably already shifted, and that shift has probably already been anxiety inducing, especially if you’re someone like me who is diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at the best of times, much less in a year like 2020.
But all is not lost! I promise! There are mitigating factors and bright sides to be found here. Let’s look at some of them.
Current Partner Constraints
In a very general sense, we can see this as a form of growth in our relationships. I don’t think there is such a thing as a healthy relationship that has ever had a year with no change. A year with no change is stagnation. This may not have been the change any of us wagered on - or particularly wanted - but many of us are creating strength forged in fire in our relationships. In overcoming the challenges of learning to have long distance relationships at short distances (like me and my partner learning to look forward to nightly phone calls when we both don’t like talking on the phone as a rule and don’t like long distance relationships but are living like we’re in one despite only being 20 minutes apart because of COVID), or to figure out which parts of your relationship are the heart of it (is it the friendship that you need to maintain until we’re all out of the woods and then start dating again fresh? Is it a verbal statement of love? Is it seeing each other - six feet apart outdoors if need be for bubble purposes - for long walks because that gift of time is what proves the dynamic is important in your case? Is it something that truly can’t be maintained safely, because it’s too physical and you have too many layers of people to keep safe?), we can make ourselves stronger, and more often than not the relationships too.
But, seriously... The first year of my current relationship looked nothing like the third and while I had no idea that the fifth (this one) would be functionally long distance because of a pandemic and recovery from major surgeries and family responsibilities on both our ends (only that last one was predictable) I could tell you it either wouldn’t look the same as either the first or the third or we’d be pretty close to breaking up. While changes in dynamic and relationship definitely might not be as extreme as this year has required, we should all be growing, changing or healing as individuals, and that should necessarily change our relationships and the networks they’re positioned in.
I think the pitfall - or opportunity for growth if you catch it and use it to your advantage - with nesting partners in this pandemic is making sure you don't become codependent. Everyone is spending tons of time together - maybe too much time together. Every newspaper in the country has run at least one “how to spend time away from your partner/spouse” article. Use them if you need to. Especially if you live in small spaces or have multiple nesting partners. It’s easy to either get caught in “oh we get along perfectly we just are a package deal on all our activities now” - or feeling stifled because your separate activities feel like they don’t fit in who you are anymore.
Have a separate hobby that doesn’t involve going out - Zoom into a craft night with your friends or a d&d game; ride your bike until there’s snow on the ground; hike year round (just wear good boots and make sure someone knows where you’re going once there’s snow or ice down); or your own hobby, mine and my close friends’ hobbies are in no way meant to limit you. Do your hobbies on separate days so you have two periods apart a week, even if you aren’t seeing your non-nesting partners because of concerns for your or their health - create the amount of time apart you’d have had pre-COVID even though you can’t go out that much.
But also, make special time with your nesting partner(s). If you have kids and feel like you never get time without them, if they’re over Total Baby/Toddler Really Need 24/7 Attention age, if you’re lucky enough to be in a big enough space, turn off your internal voice of Parent Guilt (and I say this as a parent), let a movie or video game run the kid’s life for a couple hours, get dressed up, make something nice to eat or order in, and spend quality time together. I know this may not be doable for apartment dwellers, and my small-city, borders-on-suburb privilege is showing, but if you have a nesting partner or two, try to at least keep that/those relationship(s) in balance to the best of your ability to limit the subjects of your anxiety. Work on what you can so you worry about only what you can do less for.
Non-nesting partners are where the obvious anxiety about changes in dynamic that are hard to recover from kick in. It’s been 7 full months in most of the USA that we’ve been under some variety of shelter in place / social distance / please maintain a small bubble / confusing messages about reopening an economy without reopening our social existences, and we’ve received confirmation that if we’re being cautious and waiting for a vaccine and a maskless, non-distant existence to declare things “back to normal” and return to our full-on regular schedules with our non-nesting partners (which is a big assumption, I know a lot of people are making gradual changes much sooner than that) we’re only back to normal in another 8 months. This doldrums where we’ve found ourselves, this collective dark night of the soul, is not at all over, and everyone has hit the point where we no longer feel like “it’s just a few more weeks.” That lack of control over how long it will be felt like “oh it won’t be long” until it became clear that it will be very long indeed.
As someone who absolutely hates long distance, I’ve thrown myself into all the ways to make long distance a bit more bearable: nightly phone calls; texts about daily minutiae that honestly probably don’t matter; sending back and forth an incredible number of selfies; scheduling and counting down to video calls; setting nicknames on our phone chats; trying to parse out anniversaries of every little early interaction that I can celebrate in my head so that I can make sure I’m not letting things go. I’m a somewhat obsessive, ruminating, anxious sort of person though - so while I definitely recommend figuring out what kind of communication works for each of your relationship and periodically checking in that it’s still working, I don’t recommend being retroactively obsessive about “and this is the day I admitted TO MYSELF I was in love with you, even though I didn’t say it out loud for several more months” and other gobbledegook. It’s not worth it.
The checking in matters. What my partner calls “temperature taking” and a bunch of the internet calls “State of the Relationship” talks are pretty important, actually, especially in times like this when we’re all collectively anxious on top of personal anxiety. Answering the damn question of how we’re feeling and where we each think a given dyad or triad or quad is at can lift a bit of weight off. It can, admittedly, also be heartbreaking, if one person thinks the state of said relationship is ‘about time to end’ and the other doesn’t, but MUCH more often it’s something like each person having an issue they think needs working on and everyone agreeing it’s generally a bit strained because the world is on fire, these days. And because that strength forged in fire we talked about earlier? Unless you’re using exactly the right material, if it’s thin enough to hold a good edge it’s pretty brittle. So we’ve got to make sure we’re all pitching in and making things out of the right materials, deliberately, with some understanding and forgiveness and willingness to put it back in the fire if we get it wrong the first time.
I’ve mentioned a million times that I’m only in a non-nesting relationship these days, and that it’s pretty hard in a COVID-defined 2020. As a deeply insecure human, I’d recently decided that not only was I not good enough at polyamory to be writing this blog, but that between being inconvenient because of the pandemic and not being a part of his built in domestic situation, and our having been together the time frame where all of my long term relationships collapse, historically, my boyfriend was going to break up with me any day now. When we had a taking the temperature of things conversation. As soon as I finished the last of these dumb surgeries. In a holiday breakup like college kids. My imagination was running wild.
So, I worked up the confidence to talk to him about it. We haven’t broken up. We aren’t likely to. I haven’t “run out of material” like I do on incompatible second dates where I’m grasping for conversational topics with people I don’t have enough in common with. This isn’t a relationship where I need “material” anymore. He was very reassuring and called the thing I was saying “stupid” and tossed it back into the conversational and relationship fire instead of calling me stupid. He wanted to talk to me about texting fatigue and how he wants to hear all the little things happening with me and has no solution for how to do that other than texting but being too old to have ever gotten really used to it, it just feels like work and makes him tired at a certain point, and with that ‘world on fire’ bit we talked about earlier? He needs me to forgive if that makes him short back. And so we go back to the drawing board on how to have a short distance long distance relationship and change the balance again. We’ve had three relationship styles this year and probably six since we started dating. Does it make me anxious every time we make a major shift? Yep. This might be the one that doesn’t work. But now I think we might be building with wooden blocks and the first time we tried it I was worried it was a house of cards.
That’s not to say newer relationships won’t make it through this, just that you’re having to work harder and have even more faith in one another - and I’m impressed in you.
Constraints on New Connections
Building new connections is its own entire can of worms. I think most of this is based on people’s personal risk profiles. Much like STI risk profile, COVID-19 risk profile varies widely from person to person, and sometimes in a group from household to household, bubble to bubble, or (if you’re remarkably lucky) from polycule to polycule. I say “if you’re remarkably lucky” because the only times I’ve seen COVID policies line up perfectly across a polycule have been when polycules have been very small and lined up with a bubble or a household, or when it’s been pure dumb luck.
COVID-19 risk-mitigation choices for new connections can be things that vary from “only meet via phone and zoom calls for months before even discussing meeting in person”; to “meeting outside at a distance while wearing a mask X number of times before moving closer outdoors with a mask X number of times before eating outdoors without masks at a distance before moving indoors at a distance and then indoors at proximity” in a very clearly defined plan; to “well, if it’s a friend you already know and you both know your COVID status because you work in similar risk jobs and otherwise don’t expose yourselves, just use common sense” with pretty much infinite combinations and variations in between and around. This is a wild scatter plot, not a line or curve.
That fact alone can be super anxiety inducing for some people, and can make people like me, who have health conditions that mean that the “just use some common sense” end a little too risky, and who simultaneously aren’t crazy about long distance relationships, so “only via Zoom” sounds like a special hell where we get invested and then discover there is no physical chemistry at all in person and have awful, awful breakups when this is over, really hesitant to try new things. But we’re hitting “it’s been 7 months and it’s going to be 6-8 more” so some of those flirty new connections maybe need to be given the chance they deserve. Even by cynics like me. (And let’s be real- most of the world ISN’T cynics like me.)
To be honest, some of my demisexual and grey-ace friends are telling me this is their time to shine. These are the dates with the least pressure to be sexual before they’re ready they’ve ever had; and if they’re comfortable going there, most people have now hit quarantine fatigue to a point where you can work out a (admittedly complicated and month-or-several-week-long, but very real) strategy for how to get into each other’s bubble to make it happen, and building that antici-pation is a magical thing sometimes.
Embracing it might be the saving grace of new connections in the COVID-19 era.
If, unlike them, you’re anxious, and like to check that you have decent sexual chemistry before you get too emotionally invested in new people - focus your energy on connections you already have rather than forming new connections out of the relative strangers of the world. Emotionally invest in your friends. Make your existing connections as strong as you can so that they hold you all up. Make yourselves and your friends a net that will catch you all as you fall from the dating trapeze if 2021 shows that maybe forging some of those relationships in fire revealed they weren’t made of stuff strong enough to hold a sharp edge. Build community digitally so we all come back together in person eagerly when it’s safe; so we’re all there to give outside advice when our polycule’s dynamics aren’t quite what they were, even if they’re still good; when we’re getting our footing at How Do I Do This All, Again? - Because none of us will have the memory of how exactly right, but we’ll all have pieces of it, and keeping our friends (telephonically and digitally and socially distanced) close will help us put the pieces together faster.