Monogamy never held much appeal for Patricia, a 30-year-old digital strategist in California. She normally sleeps with “multiple people, but the same people” across the same cities she travels to frequently, treating some options as “higher priority” than others. She says there are a few she’s been sleeping with “on and off for nearly a decade,” but she’s never felt the desire to narrow the cast down to one —- until now.
On lockdown, she’s noticed that she prefers to sleep with a long-standing partner named Matt, and that the prospect of exclusivity has come up for the first time. “In the eight years we’ve been sleeping together, this is the first time that we’ve discussed the importance of openness if we sleep with anyone else,” she explains. “I’m not going to push the issue with him, I just know that he’s the only person I’m interested in sleeping with for the foreseeable future.”
The coronavirus pandemic and attendant requirement for people to self-isolate is affecting us all in striking ways, but one group of people who are uniquely impacted are the non-monogamous. Whether these people are the near-mythical “hook-up culture” millennials, with their rotating casts of fuck buddies they won’t commit to, or the formally polyamorous, with their complex webs of primary, secondary and tertiary partners, many are finding that non-mongamy is especially difficult right now, and some are feeling the pull of more traditional relationship arrangements as a result.
This includes Jay, a 48-year-old nonprofit campaigner in the U.K. who says his “heart is poly,” but the pandemic has “boiled down who [he’s] missing to just one person.” Typically in relationships with two or three people and dating others “to see where it goes,” Jay wonders whether his polyamorous lifestyle is now behind him. “It does feel like my brain has come to terms with the fact that, for now and possibly for a long time, the way I dated before is going to be impossible,” he tells me. “The odd thing is, I’m no longer even having daydreams about dating more widely. Only daydreams about her.”
On one level, non-monogamy is more difficult during the pandemic for obvious, practical reasons. We’re all expected to keep our pods as small as possible, which is clearly more difficult for a person who has multiple lovers than for a person who has one — as Maddie, a 27-year-old ethics advisor in New Zealand, has found. “I’m in a triad or throuple, whatever you want to call it, and when lockdown started, we had a couple of days to figure out what the fuck we were going to do,” she explains. “It ended up that the only safe and sustainable option would be for the three of us to remain at our separate houses, which really sucked, because we’re all in love and it was the longest we’d all been separated since we got together properly.”
She says that monogamy has started appealing more because of how comparatively simple it is. ”I wished we were smaller so we’d fit in the same place, and I also wish we weren’t in a relationship that most monogamous people find intrinsically hilarious and unserious,” she says. “I didn’t know how to explain to my workmates that I was completely beside myself with devastation because I was going to miss my throuple.”
For those reasons she says that “monogamy was sort of conceptually appealing,” although she clarifies that mostly what she longs for is a relationship that’s taken seriously and accommodated by wider society, rather than monogamy per se.
Some non-monogamous people say that seeing multiple people gives them concerns about increased exposure, especially those who are immunocompromised. “I think wondering about my safety is the first thing,” says Chyra, a 37-year-old customer service worker in Chicago who has three partners. “I’m diabetic, and some of the people I know are still partying or trying to meet up. I feel angry at them putting me and my partner at risk. I don’t want to interrogate them [about who else they’re seeing], but it’s so confusing.”
But monogamy might also be appealing on a deeper emotional level. Patricia, for example, says that limiting herself to one trustworthy, supportive partner makes sense given how difficult her life is now. “There’s so much stress going on that I don’t want to expose myself to complex emotional situations or end up feeling bad or awkward,” she explains. “The less thought and energy someone can take up, the better. With Matt, we know where we stand with each other, and the attachment between us is very secure. I never feel anxious or like there are any games, and neither does he.”
Jay agrees, explaining that you need to be in a “pretty strong place” to manage multiple romantic relationships. They require being alert to several other people’s feelings, as well as your own — an advanced level of “reading the room,” as Jay puts it — and also involve significant amounts of time. “While you might think this situation frees up time, a lot of it is low-quality,” Jay says. “When you’re stressed, unhappy or oddly tired, that’s not good, especially for new relationships.”
That’s exactly how so many of us are feeling at the moment, so it’s no wonder some non-monogamous people no longer have the energy to maintain a whole raft of relationships. “All of these things are harder when the fears and costs of the pandemic are weighing on us,” Jay says. “I don’t have the emotional strength or bandwidth right now to imagine myself back in my old life.”