Relationships are hard at the best of times. Throw in a pandemic and, for many, they become nigh on impossible. As it turns out, being with your partner 24/7 – especially while worrying about your health and staring down the "worst recession since the Great Depression" – is not only pretty toxic but has UK lawyers reporting a 42% spike in divorce enquiries.
With 23% of couples reporting that COVID-19 and lockdown placed pressure on their relationship, the future for many monogamous partnerships remains uncertain, even as we ease back into 'normal' life. Can the same be said for polyamorous and non-monogamous relationships? On the one hand, polyamorous people normally report high contentment levels, particularly around sexual satisfaction and intimacy, which could no doubt help with the strain of lockdown. On the other, they’ve also been facing a set of specific challenges that many monogamous people won't have even considered.
For Ryan, 31, who enjoys two committed, long-term partnerships – one with a 'primary' live-in, same-sex partner and another with a 'secondary' partner, a girlfriend living in a different city, both of whom also have additional partners – the fundamental question of who to go into lockdown with was tricky. "My primary and I had discussed whether or not we might have our secondaries isolate with us for a period of time, but they each have their own households and it didn't work out restrictions- or travel-wise," Ryan explains. "It also might not have been fair on their partners, and my girlfriend is a mother of one, so further factors [such as childcare] would have needed to be considered." As a result, Ryan was separated from his girlfriend throughout lockdown, keeping in touch primarily through texts, voice notes and video calls, and his primary partner was separated from his boyfriend – who he would normally see multiple times a week – save for digital communication and the occasional hand-delivered care package.
In a similar vein to Ryan, 24-year-old Amy* – who typically has multiple, consensually non-monogamous intimate relationships at the same time – explains how lockdown emphasised the role that finances can play in maintaining polyamorous living situations. "Unless you or one of your partners are wealthy enough to have a whole house to yourself, compromises around who you were going to be locking down with were always going to be inevitable," she says. "I live in London, in a shared flat with no living room, so realistically I could only ever live with one partner, max, even if all my partners knew each other and were on good terms."
With restricted options, Amy’s choice of isolation partner was motivated less by a sense of obligation to the partner she had known the longest and more by what felt right at the time. "Throughout lockdown I’ve been living with a partner who I only started dating in January. I guess we made that decision because we had a lot of 'new relationship energy' and chemistry, and it felt like isolating apart could kill the momentum of the relationship," she says. "At first I was really freaking out about the pandemic and began worrying that we’d rushed things by moving in. But in hindsight I think it’s worked. We’re both pretty easy-going and it’s been way easier living with a new partner than someone I have a lot of history and, dare I say, 'baggage' with."
For some, lockdown has been particularly damaging, as is the case with ethically non-monogamous Alex, 32. A well-known figure in London’s poly community for his work with kink, queer and poly-positive party Crossbreed, Alex’s own relationships have suffered due to the pandemic. The past few months have been a period of significant stress, seeing him not only fall ill with the virus but fear for his livelihood as a member of the nightlife economy. As a result, some of his relationships have 'deescalated' (temporarily become less serious or committed). "There are plenty of reasons why people break up and plenty of other factors that have come into play, but in one instance [because of my experience with the pandemic] I didn’t have the energy or presence of mind to be there for one of my partners in the way they wanted me to be," Alex recalls.
Most self-help books on polyamory emphasise the need for consistent communication, which is considered a core value of consensual non-monogamy. That’s not to say that all non-monogamists communicate in the same way and this is where trouble can start during periods of prolonged separation, with some being better at talking things through IRL rather than URL. This, at least, is Alex’s experience. "As a person I really struggle to communicate via FaceTime and video calls, it just gives me anxiety, but I’m quite good at reading people in real life," he says. "During lockdown I didn’t date at all in person, so my only option was to phone people I was involved with. [As a result of this, and the wider pandemic] there was a deterioration of communication between me and some of my partners, which is not something I really could have avoided."
Amy reports a similar deescalation of her relationships, albeit for different reasons. "At the beginning of this year, I had one long-term relationship with someone abroad and two relationships in London and all but one of these, with the person I’m currently living with, have come to an end," she explains. Now that we’re coming out of lockdown, does she regret these pandemic-precipitated break-ups? "I think that people don’t realise that polyamory is a lot of work," she says. "It can be hard to be sufficiently emotionally available or emotionally intelligent when something really bad is happening, like a full-on global pandemic. Everyone is suffering in some way or another and you can’t exactly plan for that, so your actions might not be perfect."
It’s clear from talking to Ryan, Amy and Alex that lockdown has affected the poly community in different ways, so do they have any tips for coping with the feared second wave and accompanying isolation measures? Much like polyamory itself, which takes many unique forms, it seems like there’s no one way to successfully manage multiple relationships under lockdown. As Ryan suggests, focus on reflecting on how each of your dynamics work and not on comparing yourself to others. "We can compare and reflect on each other’s ways of coping for sure, but I do think taking an organic approach to finding what works for each dynamic is important," he says.
"Rather than reading about other people's experiences and putting questions to [poly] forums, I personally get a lot more out of directly communicating to my partners about my feelings and needs."
*Name changed to protect the interviewee's identity.