Before the pandemic, Rachael, a 32-year-old sex and relationships coach, used to host a monthly potluck. “Everyone would bring their partners and friends,” Rachael said; and so would she — all of them. Rachael has been practicing polamory for four years now, and has multiple partners, with whom she usually spends time separately, with the exception of some gatherings — like potlucks. Rachel also has a nesting partner — a person with whom she lives and dates — and a girlfriend, who lives elsewhere, but who is invited to the potlucks. “I really love for all my partners to feel comfortable interacting in that way,” Rachael says. “I appreciate when that’s something they also enjoy.”
Rachael prefers what she calls “kitchen table polyamory.” Her relationships with her partners don’t exist in seclusion, but in community, meaning that each connection is in conversation with the others. Essentially, that means that everyone in her polycule — a loosely related network of partners dating each other — can feel comfortable sitting together at a table and having coffee or watching a movie together, or anything that requires a gathering instead of one-on-one time.
For Rachael, this lifestyle — like everything else — changed in March of 2020, when the pandemic began. The same holds true for many others who practice polyamory, as countless people across the U.S. were locked in their homes with whoever they were already living with, unable to see their other loved ones. “So much has changed in the last year. It made some relationships a lot harder and made it hard to ignore where things weren’t working,” Rachael tells Refinery29.
New pandemic lifestyle requirements have especially impacted polyamorous people, who sometimes have open relationships and often consistently date multiple partners at once. While polyamory can work many different ways, at its most basic, it’s the practice of having multiple sexual and romantic partners at the same time. It’s a variation of ethical non-monogamy, a relationship lifestyle where one or both partners can engage in platonic, romantic, and sexual activity with others while also maintaining full relationships with their partners. It works, according to those who practice it, as long as everyone consents and communicates. Some people who practice polyamory have nesting partners, people with whom you’re in relationships who live with you; others don’t. Some people practice polyamory by starting and maintaining triads or threesomes, while others are in polycules — a network of polyamorous people all loosely related and in community via non-monogamous relationships.
Polyamorous relationships take many forms, but one thing they are not is a method of being dishonest within dating, nor are they a solution to problems found within a monogamous relationship, explains Alex Jenny, LCSW, who goes by The Drag Therapist and is polyamorous. “Polyamory is inherently about understanding when jealousy shows up, not controlling our partners and working to not project our insecurities onto them, open communication and discussions about boundaries,” she tells Refinery29. “I think some of the healthy aspects of polyamory can also absolutely be healthy aspects of monogamy. Polyamory, of course, may offer more opportunities to practice these healthy aspects: respecting the autonomy of your partners, wanting partners to feel fulfilled in their lives which includes other important relationships, working to be curious, and compassionate. It’s about the ability to navigate complex interpersonal dynamics,”
Prior to the pandemic, Rachael, who has been guiding people through their own relationships for many years, was in a monogamous relationship with her nesting partner for 10 years before transitioning into polyamory. When she first learned about the non-monogamous relationship lifestyle, though, it resonated with her, and after bringing it up to her partner, they both slowly navigated their way into non-monogamy. Things were going smoothly until the pandemic, she says, which “led to some new stressors to navigate with my nesting partner, since we were suddenly together almost all the time and we were both feeling burnt out and overwhelmed.” But, by identifying this as a problem, Rachael and her nesting partner started seeing a couple’s therapist, which helped them so much that Rachael says things are even better now than they were pre-COVID.
For some, though, the problems come from not having a current partner. “I float between groups and prefer one-on-one interactions, so I never had a ‘pod’ or polycule,” says Dylan, a 26-year-old who has practiced polyamory for roughly seven years. Dylan has lived alone throughout the last year and says that the in-person loss of intimacy has been extremely palpable during the pandemic. “Dating is a really core way that I socialize, and a lot of the social aspect of dating, like meeting new people, has pretty much disappeared. I think I have met maybe 10 people since March 2020,” he says, and recalls that, at the beginning of the pandemic, he felt like “the world was punishing me for my relationship style.”
One reason, perhaps, for Dylan’s misplaced guilt is undoubtedly that many of the people who raise an eyebrow at polyamory appear to do so because they are skeptical that anything so open and so different from traditional relationships could actually work or be healthy. And yet polyamory and monogamy potentially share many healthy relationship characteristics, The Drag Therapist explains, things like, “respecting the autonomy of your partners, wanting partners to feel fulfilled in their lives which includes other important relationships, working to be curious, compassionate, and understanding when jealousy shows up, not controlling our partners and working to not project our insecurities onto them, open communication and discussions about boundaries, the ability to navigate complex interpersonal dynamics.” That said, there is one key difference: “Polyamory, of course, may offer more opportunities to practice these healthy aspects,” she says.
According to her, one of the most crucial elements of polyamory is consistently having open, honest conversations about people’s behaviour and other relationships. Communicating with partners well is key to everyone being on the same page. This is especially necessary during the pandemic, because COVID-19 has made all of our interactions more dangerous and complicated by virtue of both its exponential growth and deadliness.
For many polyamorous people whose living situations dramatically changed when the pandemic hit, finding new activities to do with partners and new ways to spend time together has perhaps been the greatest challenge. But in many ways, it’s also brought people even closer to their partners, forcing them to be in a pod together for their own safety. “It’s been really hard not to see so many of the people I’ve been really close with over the last several years because of COVID, and I’ve leaned a lot harder on my partners for support since they’ve been in my bubble,” Rachael said. But, “as rough as this year has been, having multiple partners in my bubble has allowed me to go to my girlfriend’s place when I need to get out of my house, and it’s meant some fun hangouts with all of us together, like getting to spend a snow day sledding with both my partners.”
While navigating polyamorous relationships during the pandemic has certainly been trying, Rachael says it’s led to many positive things for her. She and her girlfriend have had a chance to become extremely close, which has felt like “the silver lining on an otherwise terrible 2020,” she says. But as far as dating new people in person, Rachael says she really hasn’t. “I’ve tried some Zoom or Facetime dates, but have found it hard to connect with people, and you can just see how burnt out folks are feeling. I’ve made a few new friends off Tinder, and I’ve just been enjoying that lately. I’ve never met them, but hopefully we’ll be able to meet eventually.”
For others practicing polyamory within long-term relationships, navigating pods and choosing which partners to see and which to maintain longer distance relations with has been an adjustment, too. Avery, a 24-year-old who has been practicing polyamory for about three years, is currently in a throuple with a married couple. Avery also has their own partner with whom they live and who isn’t involved with the other couple at all. Over the course of the last year, Avery has had to get used to many long distance dating techniques to keep communication with their partners alive. “Even though my partners aren't technically long distanced, we've utilized techniques such as video chatting, calling, and more in order to connect with each other since we are quarantined separately. I think these techniques may go away once we can see each other more often post-COVID,” Avery says. “But, it made me more open-minded to long-distance relationship techniques and I would consider keeping them around and video chatting more often, playing video games together remotely, if we can't see each other, or if I ever end up with a long-distance partner.”
Pandemic or not, every person who practices polyamory will have a unique experience, and no relationship will be the same as another. That’s the beauty of it — and, sometimes, the anguish. “Being involved with a married couple is such an interesting experience alone, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about having a shared relationship, but making it personal and special still. All of that while also having a separate live-in partner is a challenge, but also a beautiful thing in itself,” Avery says. “I just love people; and, the ability to connect with multiple people on so many different levels makes me feel so secure in polyamory.”
As a polyamorous person myself, I’ve similarly found that trying to date during COVID has been its own adventure. I identify as solo poly, which means that I consider myself my own primary partner and focus most of my time and energy into my relationship with myself, ahead of starting or maintaining any external partnerships. Given that I’m immunocompromised and disabled, I haven’t felt safe dating or being with others in person. All of my partnerships currently — besides my relationship with myself, of course — are long distance. Some partners are in New York but still too far to travel to in ways that feel safe for everyone, and some are hundreds of miles from me.
One of the things I and so many others find so singularly satisfying about polyamory is connecting with many people without shame or apology, in part because this affords us the ability to work on different kinds of communication styles and in different kinds of relationship structures. That hasn’t changed for me during the pandemic. I’ve personally practiced communication and providing affection by sending love letters across the universe and great divides of physical distance, all in hopes of staying connected and showing my partners I care for them despite not being able to hold them or physically show up in other ways right now. Sometimes I make them a meme, or a creatively curated playlist with a personalized cover photo. Sometimes I send snail mail, or a small gift. All of these are love letters and acts of service to me.
My approach falls in line with what the Drag Therapist says: Distancing completely from new people — or as much as possible to be safe — is the only real way to be polyamorous responsibly during the pandemic, in order to truly love and protect the communities we’re invested in.
As for her own pandemic experience, The Drag Therapist has realized just what it is exactly that she loves about this relationship approach. In her personal life, she has been practicing solo polyamory and relationship anarchy, and says she feels more loved and supported than ever before. “I feel free to be my own person and don't feel any pressures in my relationships. I know that we are truly committed to each other for no other reason than wanting to support each other's growth, independence, autonomy, and expression,” she says. Because of that, she’s realized that the number of people to whom she can reach out and seek support has multiplied greatly. Getting to be earnest and vulnerable with everyone with whom she’s in any way intimate — from more casual hookups to friends with benefits to her romantic partners — without only having to reserve that kind of love and care only for her “serious” partners, has been a constantly evolving gift, she says.
“Polyamory has helped me learn so much more about myself over a shorter period of time,” she says. “Having the opportunity to explore so many different kinds of connections has helped me see what different people bring out in me. I get to explore so many different versions of myself, each no less genuine and authentic than the others.”
And I can’t help but feel the same way about my own love life after having spent the last year exploring it all from within the confines of the pandemic. It’s been a difficult time, but I have learned so much about myself and what I need and want from partnerships — yes, even from a distance. After all the struggles of the last year and all of the yearning, the most prominent feeling inside me now is not dread or even desperation for touch and affection. Instead, it’s hope and excitement about the new lessons, new feelings, and new partnerships blooming on the horizon — and all around me.