Navigating Consensual Non-Monogamy During COVID-19

by Alexa Peters 

According to a study in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, it’s estimated that 21 percent of the American population is engaged in some form of consensual non-monogamy — a term that encompasses polyamory, open, and other non-monogamous relationship styles. In other words, at the height of a global pandemic, approximately 69 million people in the U.S. are currently in intimate relationships with multiple people at once. 

Seattle, for its part, has a robust non-monogamous community, evidenced by many local, online groups around polyamory, open relationships, relationship anarchy, and other styles. Seattle even has therapists that specialize in polyamory

So, it’s not surprising that the global pandemic has deeply impacted the lives of non-monogamous folks in the Seattle area. Stay-at-home orders have hampered their ability to meet new partners or see current ones, while also asking them to re-evaluate the stakes involved in their way of life. 

Darren Brown and his wife have identified as consensually non-monogamous for about 15 years. In addition to his wife, Brown has three other partners he spends time with regularly, including a second primary or “anchor” partner with whom he sometimes shares another property. 

Though he does consider himself a practitioner of non-hierarchical polyamory, in which no one partner is more important than another, Brown says the pandemic has forced him to prioritize his wife, the partner he lives with, over his other partners. Brown says trying to keep everyone happy in his connected network of relationships, or polycule, is already hard, and the pandemic has made that task even more difficult.

“COVID really lays bare that we have these philosophies, but they don’t [always] line up,” said Brown. “Like, we kind of present [like], ‘Oh, I’m non-hierarchical, I’m not going to put one person in front of the other,’ but when COVID says, ‘Who are you going to spend the next six weeks with?’ We all made that decision.”

When the stay-at-home order was first put in place by Governor Inslee in March, Brown had involved conversations with many of his partners about who he could continue to see in person. In the end, he primarily stayed home with his wife, adding that the conversation — or lack thereof — about everyone’s individual comfort levels took a toll on some of his relationships.

“When COVID started, [my second primary partner and] I never really had a conversation whether or not we would see each other, and that was tough for me. She just assumed we wouldn’t and I assumed we would,” Brown said. “And then, in mid-April she just texted me and said, ‘I’m stressed out, I’m breaking up with you, I’m clearing out all of my stuff in our house together.’ Devastating. We had been together for four years,” said Brown.

This COVID-induced philosophical dissonance, as well as the toll the social distancing has on relationships, has had very real mental health effects for Brown and other polyamorous folks.

“If I wasn’t someone with high emotional and sexual needs I wouldn’t bother with being non-monogamous. It’s a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of caring, it takes a lot out of you. But I am someone with fairly high needs, so in these rough times, yeah, like, I don’t feel anywhere near as healthy as I did a year ago,” said Brown.

Likewise, Catherine Comings, who, along with her boyfriend, is a newcomer to polyamory, says the pandemic has been hard emotionally because it prevented her from seeing one of her new partners, Margaret, who has an autoimmune disorder.

“We were dating for five months and had three months apart,” said Comings. “It was really hard. It was honestly — that quarantine time just feels like a blur to me. My heart was broken the whole time.”

Comings, Brown, and other polyamorous individuals also note that the circumstances have offered opportunities for growth, namely by bringing incompatibilities with certain partners to the forefront and encouraging more transparency within polycules.

“I did have a third partner, but [that ended because] … when you take away the physical chemistry, what’s left is put under a microscope,” said Comings.

Comings says that typically, when someone wants to bring a new partner into the polycule, she trusts that they will chat with them about sexually transmitted diseases and testing for STIs. But, with COVID, Comings says she’s been more assertive about talking with her partner’s partners, or metamours, through text messages, calls, and social media, to get to know their COVID-19 risk-profiles a bit better. 

“I already know Margaret’s nesting partner really well, because I’m there and we hang out, but his other partners, I didn’t know too much about, but I had to start asking those questions, like hey, what is this person’s lifestyle like? Who are they dating?,” she said. “That was kind of cool to learn about [because] I love that my partners have other people that love them and are looking out for them … and I want to get [to know] my metamours better.”

As Washington moved into Phase 2, Brown, Comings, and other non-monogamous individuals began to see additional partners again, but still with many precautions in place. Those precautions may look different for every polycule and the agreements are usually worked out with someone’s partners, their partners’ partners, and anyone else who could potentially be affected by the polycule’s behavior.

“All of my partners have other partners, [so we] have a network of like, 50 people at least. So [being cavalier about the risks], that’s not ok,” said Brown, who, since Phase 2 has only returned to seeing two of his three partners in person, largely because the latter has a child from another partnership who is high-risk. Brown also abides strictly to mask-wearing and social distancing protocol when not with his three partners, frequently gets tested for COVID, and avoids large gatherings.

Josh Black and Haven Yates are another consensually non-monogamous couple living in South Seattle who host The Play Party Podcast, where they discuss polyamory, mental health, BDSM, and more. In their case, they’ve sought to mitigate the potentially exponential spread of the virus through limiting who they could see to a group that they call their “quaranteam.”

“We made a house rule that all four of us [roommates] are locked in, but we can each bring [the same] one person over on a weekly basis, so we can have a partner over and that’s our ‘quaranteam,’ so that’s [up to eight] of us,” Black said.

At the same time, the couple says they have active ads on FetLife, a social network for the BDSM, fetish, and kinky community, and have cautiously started to try meeting new partners again.

“So, the plan Josh and I talked about was to make sure that we vetted someone online for as long as humanly possible and then meet [them] for a very socially-distanced date, like walking at a park or something, and then maybe decide by the end of that if we want them to be on the quaranteam or not,” said Yates.

Along with Brown, Yates and Black have also decided to take advantage of the availability of free COVID testing in Seattle and are asking potential partners to get tested, much as you would ask someone to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. 

Comings, for her part, didn’t mention testing, but has chosen to forego all other potentially social activities so she can see her partners — including a new partner she began dating online during the quarantine — without social distancing.

“I’ve been prioritizing my partners, [by] not doing a lot of things like, I’m not going to restaurants, I’m not going to stores, I’m not seeing [most] friends in person,” she said.

In the end, non-monogamous couples still have high chances of catching COVID-19 and the long-term stakes are also high. The virus may limit their ability to see partners when they’re healthy, but if a partner was to fall ill and pass away, non-married or secondary partners do not have any legal rights when it comes to handling end-of-life decisions, funeral arrangements, or inheritance. The only place where that isn’t the case is in the city of Somerville, MA, which recently became the first city in the U.S. to expand their domestic partnership policy to grant every member of polyamorous families the same rights as married spouses. 

Washington State clearly prohibits polyamorous marriage and does not grant domestic partnerships to couples where at least one partner is already engaged in a marriage or domestic partnership, which means who has legal rights over end-of-life decision-making is still solely in the “primary” partner’s hands. For that reason, many polyamorous individuals in the Seattle-area say there’s added weight to taking COVID-19 seriously.

“Not being able to see someone you love when they are on their deathbed, to ease their suffering or be able to make sure their wishes are met, just because your love doesn’t fall into the traditional relationship model, would be devastating,” said Black. “I can’t imagine anything more heartbreaking.”

Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based writer.

Featured image by Vlad Verano.