Polyamory during a pandemic? It's complicated
With social circles tightened, people with multiple partners are forced to make difficult decisions
In mid-May, Paula Hughes was ready to bring her boyfriend into her social bubble. Two months of texting and taking walks two metres apart due to COVID-19 restrictions, she said, had "really, really sucked."
But first, the 40-year-old bookkeeper had to discuss her plans with her long-term partner, his spouse and the spouse's partner — who happens to be Hughes's soon-to-be ex-husband. The four of them are polyamorous and share a six-bedroom home in Surrey, B.C.
"I really needed a consensus," Hughes said.
The group acknowledged that allowing her boyfriend into their bubble posed a risk of infection. But given that he lived alone, they deemed any danger fairly small and acceptable.
"If any one person had been uncomfortable with it, or said, 'No, I don't like that idea,' it probably would have been the end of it," Hughes said. "It's about everyone."
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated many relationships, with physical distancing and social bubbles redefining intimacy, romance and sex. B.C.'s provincial health officer has recommended people stick to one partner and avoid rapid, serial dating to limit the spread of the virus.
That guidance has forced uncomfortable and sometimes wrenching decisions on those in the "poly" community, many of whom consider multiple partners not just a lifestyle but a fundamental part of their identity.
"It kind of reminds me of elementary school — if someone ever told you that you had to pick your top four friends ... how difficult that is for the social situation," said Cora Bilsker, a Victoria-based counsellor who specializes in polyamory.
"People are having to make really hard decisions that don't necessarily represent where they're at emotionally."
Some people in the community have felt isolated living apart from some of their partners, or excluded if their partner chose to live with another person, Bilsker said. Others have been forced to live with one partner out of necessity.
A number have been fearful about telling friends or family about their polyamorous status.
Polyamory plays out in many ways. A couple may choose to pair up with another couple and form a quad. One person may partner with two people who aren't attached, known as a vee; a triad means all three people are intimately connected.
Some of these arrangements are hierarchical — meaning a person may have primary, secondary or tertiary partners — while others operate equally.
There's no official data on the number of polyamorous people in Canada. In the U.S., an estimated four to five per cent of people reported being polyamorous or in other types of open relationships. About one-fifth of the population has tried consensual non-monogamy at some point.
During the pandemic, polyamorous people have turned to online groups for support, driven by what they consider limited public health messaging.
Nienke van Houten, a 45-year-old higher-education instructor who is polyamorous, said she has found the public health guidance unclear and largely focused on traditional households.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control says people should avoid close contact and sex with anyone outside their home.
"This has left a big gap for people who don't have typical nuclear families," van Houten said, "or [those] who do have typical nuclear families and have polyamorous relationships."
To clear up some of the confusion, van Houten organized an online session in late May with Vanpoly, a polyamory support group, on forming "risk-reduced, ethical social bubbles."
"Lots of things still remain somewhat of a mystery," said Dr. Kiffer Card, a behavioural epidemiologist at the University of Victoria, who presented to the group.
As part of its restart plan, the province now allows social circles of two to six people. But people in those circles who aren't part of the same household are asked to stay two metres apart. Card said that guidance isn't helpful for polyamorous people looking to restart intimacy with their partners.
The best advice from the province so far, Card said, is found in its guidelines for sex workers. It encourages workers to consider erotic massages and stripteases, minimize kissing and saliva exchange and opt for sexual positions that minimize face-to-face contact.
"These sorts of practical things … need to be tailored in a way that's accessible to people broadly in the community," Card said, pointing to similar guidelines from New York City's public health department.
One idea raised in the poly community is "resetting" social bubbles. For example, someone has two partners they want to see but those partners live in separate households and neither want to be connected. That person could interact with the first partner, wait two weeks and monitor for symptoms, then interact with the second partner.
"It's a tool we could use, but we have to be careful," said van Houten, who started practising polyamory a year ago with her partner of 26 years.
The pandemic already ended a promising relationship that had begun in February, "which was painful," van Houten admitted.
She has since used dating apps to chat with others but is now thinking carefully about how she can start meeting people in person again.
So far, she has created a bubble with her partner and their partner, known as a "metamour" in polyamory. The three have mapped out all their interactions and gauged how much risk they're willing to tolerate.
"If someone wants to change their behaviour pattern, we've agreed to communicate," she said.
Doing 'what's right and safe'
Bilsker, the counsellor, said polyamory requires lots of frank discussion around safe sex, which is why some polyamorous people are better equipped than monogamists to navigate risk during a pandemic.
"There's so much honesty," Bilsker said. "A lot of the conversations I've been having with people is how they can take skills that they already have into a really unknown situation and feel a little bit more prepared."
Daria Valujeva, 29, is used to communicating as a "solo poly" person, which means she has partners, but they aren't coupled and they don't merge lives.
She also practises "relationship anarchy," which ditches hierarchies in relationships — putting friendships, for instance, on the same plane as romantic partnerships.
Valujeva and one of her partners agreed to start seeing each other in mid-June; her other relationship, she decided, would need to be temporarily shelved.
Her next step with her partner will be deciding whether they can be intimate with other people. Valujeva would prefer they only see each other, but she's ready to talk it through if her partner disagrees.
"It's all based on knowing each other's boundaries and negotiating," she said. "I'm not going to take it personally. I'm just going to do what's right and safe for myself."