When Maile, 30, and her husband Adam, 38, began practicing ethical non-monogamy a little over a year ago, they had no idea of the roadblock that would appear as they adjusted to it.
“As newbies, we’re really just getting started. We’ve spent the year figuring out what boundaries work for us as individuals and as a couple; how to handle emotions as they come up and what communication styles work best,” says Maile. “At this point, neither of us have other partners, but COVID has certainly affected the ways that we’ve been able to date and explore ethical non-monogamy.”
Defined as a relationship involving more than two people in which all parties consent to the arrangement and are treated respectfully, ethical non-monogamy is a popular choice among adults. A January 2020 survey from YouGov found that 32 percent of adults in the United States define their ideal relationship as not completely monogamous. For millennials, like Maile and Adam, the number is even higher at 43 percent.
Under normal circumstances, individuals and couples can safely figure out what ethical non-monogamy looks like for them. But, with the onset of the pandemic, both people new to and familiar with it have had to reexamine how to keep everyone involved safe. Here’s how people with multiple partners are handling it in quarantine.
Sarah, 50, is “COVID-bonded” with her long-term partner of six years, but open communication has allowed them to continue seeing other partners. “He and I have successfully navigated him seeing one of his other ongoing partners, and we're engaging in really challenging conversations about how to ensure that our individual levels of acceptable risk are being managed,” Sarah says.
Traditionally, anyone engaging in ethical non-monogamy has to already be hyper-aware of how their actions are affecting others.
“Skilled and experienced polyamorous people have honed the ability to negotiate their needs, limits, and boundaries,” says Jennie Steinberg, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Owner of Through The Woods Family Center. “In a new relationship, someone might assert, ‘I use condoms with all sexual partners who are also involved with other people.’ Replace ‘condoms’ with ‘masks’ and ‘sexual partners’ with ‘people in my life,’ and those are negotiations we're all having right now.”
Through dating websites like #open (which Sarah and Maile both work for) and OkCupid (which allows people to indicate if they have multiple partners), people can connect virtually with potential partners also looking for non-monogamous relationships. Sarah and her partner have used online dates and phone calls, among other virtual connections, to nurture their other relationships.
“While not everyone has been up for virtual dating, I’ve had a chance to make a few really great connections,” says Maile. “I’ve enjoyed finding people who are creative and willing to try something new.” While in quarantine she’s participated online in activities such as swinger’s parties and a DIY paint night. Maile admits that it is not ideal, but has some benefits.
“Overall, I miss dating in real life terribly, but I am trying my best to adapt and appreciate cyber dating for what it is. I’m also enjoying the chance to slow down and really chat with a match before feeling pressured to meet up,” Maile says.
While not the case for everyone, many people like Sarah and Maile, have a primary partner whose needs they consider first and foremost when making decisions about seeing other people—especially in person.
“Some people who are consensually non-monogamous practice this in a non-hierarchical way. But others have a primary partner, whose needs they consider first and foremost. In the pandemic, a lot of people are having to make decisions about who is part of their ‘inner circle,’ and whose needs are at the forefront,” says Steinberg. “Like negotiation, rule setting, and assertiveness, this is something that people with multiple partners are well-practiced at: deciding whose needs take priority and considering those above any other opportunities that might arise.”
For Sarah, that means understanding what her long-term partner, as well as the primary partner of those she may see, need. “We're looking at socially distanced dates. I've had one with a newer partner where we spent time in the backyard, 6 feet apart, but it also required the buy-in of their partners—one of whom is immunocompromised—and clear communication ahead of time.”
Be in Agreement
In not moving forward until all parties affected have given the go-ahead, people who want to practice ethical non-monogamy in quarantine can stay safe and comfortable.