Editors' note: Some names have been changed to protect subjects’ privacy.
Before coronavirus (COVID-19), Simon, 46, had never lived with both his husband Alex, 45 and their shared boyfriend Jack, 38. While they expected new challenges as they transitioned to a quarantined throuple, they weren’t prepared for what actually happened: one partner feeling excluded, even though they now spend every waking moment together. “My biggest fear is that the stress of this all is going to cause further rifts for us because we spend so much time together,” says Simon.
Self-isolating isn’t easy for anyone, regardless of the number of partners you have. It goes against human nature, and it’s taking a toll on our mental health. But when you’re polyamorous, you don’t just have to navigate the feelings of one partner, you have to consider the needs of multiple. This can prove challenging when you’re self-isolating with one lover and not the other(s). It can be even worse when you’re the one who’s self-isolating alone. Or, like with Simon, the dynamics grow complicated when all parties are suddenly together 24/7, an abrupt change in pre-COVID-19 boundaries.
“From the beginning of the pandemic, things got really complicated for me and my other long-term partner,” says Jessica, 29. She’d been dating two people seriously before the pandemic struck, and decided to self-isolate with the partner she’d been with for three and a half years and not the partner of nine months.
“We had this incredibly sad and difficult day where we went for a walk, not touching and maintaining six-feet distance the whole time. I told him that, because of the quarantine, I was going to be ‘flu-bonded’ to my primary partner.”
"Flu-bonded" is a play on “fluid-bonded.” For folks in open or polyamorous relationships, being fluid-bonded means that you don’t wear condoms with a certain person, usually your primary partner. With everyone else, you do wear condoms. Being fluid-bonded is a sign of trust and often indicates a hierarchy in the relationships.
Thus, revealing her flu-bonded status to her partner of nine months forced the two of them to clarify the previously unaddressed hierarchy of their relationship. While Jessica says she usually avoids terms like “primary partner” and “secondary partner,” this situation made it clear that she puts the needs of her other partner first.
That’s why they broke up a few days ago. “He feels like his needs were not being considered and doesn’t want to be a secondary partner, and I just don’t have the bandwidth to get through this incredibly challenging and personally stressful time while taking two people’s needs, desires, and feelings into consideration,” Jessica says.
Daniel, 37, is self-isolating in the Caribbean with one of his primary partners, Josh, 28, who he’s been seriously dating for three years. They flew there for a music festival in early March and decided to stay. Before the chaos, Daniel had three primary partners, each of whom he saw once or twice a week, and four secondary partners who he each saw roughly once every two weeks. (Daniel has mastered time management.)
While isolating abroad, Josh and Daniel grew closer, though Daniel still says his romantic life is in shambles. Two of his partners back in New York City have contracted COVID-19, one of whom is a mother of two children. While he tries his best to check in on all of his partners regularly, he feels helpless; they’re sick with a potentially life-threatening illness, and there’s nothing he can do from hundreds of miles away.
“The main thing is that neither wants to video chat because they feel they look sick, and don’t want to show that to me,” he says. “It’s hard just getting updates via text.” There’s one partner, in particular, that Daniel is concerned about, but he finds himself speaking to her less: “I don’t want to find out she got it.”
The first quarantined week was the worst for Simon, his husband Alex, and their boyfriend Jack. Before the outbreak, they all lived separately. Simon didn’t even live with his husband, as Alex was in grad school in another state. While he comes home for the weekends when possible, Simon notes that they go months without seeing each other in-person. But not anymore.
During the first week, Simon says Alex felt “super disconnected” and left out of numerous conversations. “He doesn't take part in inside jokes between [me and Jack],” Simon says.
For example, on a road trip that only Simon and Jack took together, they started giving birds names like Jessica and Becky. In quarantine, they’ll look at the window, see a bird and joke, “Wow, Jessica is being a real bitch right now.”
“Even though these jokes are very dumb, it doesn’t matter,” Simon says. “Alex about lost his mind on day three of being together.”
When Simon attempted to address Alex’s feelings in a one-on-one conversation, Alex replied by saying that he didn’t feel as if he knew Simon anymore. “He didn’t see our lives working together once he officially moves to New York City,” Simon recalls. “It came with threats that I would have to totally change my life in New York to conform to his—or we would have to divorce.”
Their sex life is taking a toll, too. Before the quarantine, Simon was having sex with Jack multiple times a week, pretty much whenever they saw each other. When Alex would visit, the married men would have as much as sex as possible in those few days. Since the quarantine, however, they’ve haven’t had sex once.
“You’d think there’d be a ton of sex with the three of us living together,” Simon says. But no one is ever in the mood. “We’re stressed the fuck out as we get more calls of people getting sick. Even worse, when we get a call saying someone has passed.” They know six people who've died from coronavirus-related complications already.
Nevertheless, they’re doing their best to communicate and resolve issues as they arise. Simon went for a drive with Alex and “had a fantastic conversation” clearing the air about him feeling excluded. “The most important part of the conversation was around proximity issues,” Simon says. He reassured Alex of his dedication, emphasizing the fact that even though they’re normally not living together regularly, he still loves Alex just the same.
Simon also made clear that Jack doesn’t speak on his behalf. Jack had mentioned something about the “three of us forever,” which frightened Alex, especially since they’d all been dating only six months before the quarantine. Simon iterated that he was more realistic about how everything will play out and knows their relationship with Jack might not stand the test of time.
Still, at this point, they’re taking their relationship step by step each day. “We are just trying to get through this and not add to each other’s stresses," he adds. "I hope we’re all still together after this is done.”