OPEN RELATIONSHIPS IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

While we battle through this national and worldwide emergency, many people find themselves either at home spending much more time with their loved ones, or out of the house, working hard to keep the rest of us healthy and fed.  From what I understand, those out putting themselves at risk are, when they can, socially distancing themselves from family, spouses, and partners to keep those around them as safe as possible. 

With approximately three weeks of social distancing or lockdown complete, depending on where you live, many relationships are changing already or will soon begin to change.  Polyamorous relationships and/or open relationships are no exception. 

When I first came out, approximately five years ago, I realized that there was an entire culture surrounding the community I had just entered.  Places I had passed a hundred times and never noticed appeared to me suddenly.  I learned new words, phrases, and inside jokes.  I was surrounded by new friends and developed new chosen family.  I had several relationships and learned about the ways in which a gay relationship can differ from a straight relationship. 

Of course, no two relationships are the same, which is kind of the purpose of this writing, so undoubtedly many people may be gay and in a happy monogamous relationship. There are plenty of gay monogamous relationships and plenty of open straight relationships. I personally never came across any outwardly open straight relationships, but I did find many of my gay friends were in some type of open relationship.

Open relationships take a wide variety of different forms, depending on the couple, their rules, and what they are looking to accomplish.  For the purpose of this piece, I will broadly use the term open relationship to denote a couple who allows each other to have sex outside of their relationship.  It is important to acknowledge that the specifics are defined by each couple and, like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two open relationships are the same. I will also refer to polyamorous (or poly) relationships as those where one or both members of a couple have another or multiple other romantic/emotional relationships.  Again, the specifics of these relationships are all different.  Sometimes one partner has another partner.  Sometimes both have separate partners. Sometimes there are three or four members of a household and relationship that are all equally poised in the relationship. I would like to reiterate that my outlined definitions are for the purpose of my exploration in this posting, and I am fully aware that there are many iterations of polyamorous relationships that may differ from or not conform at all to these definitions.

I decided to start chatting with friends, couples, and people on dating apps (namely Scruff and Growlr) about how their open or poly relationships have been going since Corona took hold of our lives.  Just as every relationship was different, every answer was different. As I begin discussion of examples below, note that no real names were used in this piece, to keep identities anonymous.

John, a fellow bear from out west, lives with his partner, Bob.  Bob is married to a third person, Tom.  So, while Bob and Tom are married, they do not live together, and never have.  All three members of this poly relationship have quarantined themselves in their respective homes, although Tom, the partner that lives alone, spends his days with Bob and John. They all eat meals together, watch tv together, and then Tom goes home to sleep and works from home the next day.  So far, this is working well for them.  John was the first person I spoke to on the subject and he presented what ended up being a recurring theme: trust.  John and Bob live together and know that the other is quarantined, but they trust Tom to not put himself in a position that would risk all of their health. What I did not see in this relationship was longing, as they all saw each other every day.  As this was the first person I spoke to, I had not thought of all the questions I wanted to ask, namely what they did about sex normally and whether that has changed because of this situation. 

Next I called my good friends Tim and Steve.  Tim and Steve have been partners for many years, and just got engaged last fall.  Tim has had a boyfriend, Mark, for several years as well.  While Tim and Steve are in their early thirties, Mark is in his mid-fifties.  Mark lives several hours away with his grown children and young grandchildren.  Tim and Mark see each other approximately once per month and spend a weekend together, usually at a hotel.  Mark works for a grocery store and has been working through this entire crisis.  Tim and Mark know that they will most likely not see each other for at least another month, and possibly not for several months.  There is no way for Mark to distance himself or quarantine, as he is essential personnel and has to work. Tim does not want to put Steve in a position where he could get sick, as a result of Tim spending time with Mark.

Tim misses Mark, and because Mark is not exactly tech savvy, they rely on phone calls and still photos.  Many of the partners I spoke to that are in poly or open relationships depended on Zoom, FaceTime, or some other video chat to connect, talk, and have virtual sex. Tim and Mark on the other hand have not been using these platforms so are limited in their contact. One of the positive byproducts of the current arrangement is that Tim and Steve have been spending more time together, as do all of us that are now in full time quarantine with specific people, and as a result their sex life has improved.  Mark however is missing out on all of the physical and some of the emotional fulfillment that Tim had been providing.  Mark is single and lives with family, so he does not have another person in his life to fulfill those needs.  There is resentment because of this change, although that resentment has yet become so powerful that the pair will throw caution to the wind and meet up, risking Tim’s and subsequently Steve’s health.

There can be the emotional toll when one person in the relationship must be held at a distance.  But what if that sort of emotional relationship is not a factor? There have also been changes and challenges that have developed for those couples that allow each other to have casual sex outside of the relationship.

Another friend of mine, Chris, described how he is actually enjoying the chance to get to know someone he had recently hooked up with, and is wondering if the distanced communication may have opened up the possibility of establishing something more than just a physical relationship. This kind of situation highlights an new issue: this couple is open sexually and neither party had agreed to a polyamorous relationship before the quarantines began.  So what happens when the person you had a good physical connection with develops an unexpected emotional connection? It is a little too early to tell how that will play out, so we will see down the line how these two handle the change.

On the other side of that coin, Steve, same friend as mentioned above, who is partnered and opened to a polyamorous relationship, had started sleeping with someone and building a relationship with him.  But since the quarantine, social distancing, and working from home, they have drifted apart the last two weeks. There were no other glaring reasons for their relationship going on hold, other than the quarantine and the adjustments to daily life that had to be made.

Finally, there is  Greg, who is in an open relationship sexually, and recently began having regular sex with Joe.  They had been seeing each other for about two months prior to the virus-imposed social distancing.  While trying to keep their businesses running, food in their refrigerators, and their anxiety in check, Greg and his new sexual partner, who also has a husband, have not communicated with each other much at all.  When they do it seems to be a passing “hope you are well” or “I’m so horny.” They both have the emotional and physical connection at home, so those needs, in theory, are already met.  But are they met fully? Again, it may be too early to tell, but Greg’s situation will be an example of possible outcome when there is no resentment in the extra-marital relationship, no significant needs that are suddenly unable to be met, and no prior expectation of a life commitment.

I expect, as there have already been the rumblings of such on social media, that we are going to see some relationships develop into sort of group relationships.  For example, I know couple 1, who has been self-quarantined 20 days.  They sometimes spend time with couple 2, and the partners switch off for sex.  If couple 2 has also been self-quarantined for 14+ days, there should be no harm to them gathering and getting naked, right? And yet , people are still being told to stay home, no matter what the other couple has been doing.  This cautionary advice comes back to that idea of trust. Can couple 1 really trust that couple 2 has been staying out of public spaces for the proper amount of time? Does the quarantine mean the same thing to each couple, or might one couple think going to stores is assumed fair game while another couple is avoiding public places entirely? So, staying home and not seeing anyone outside of your permanent household is still the safest bet.

The next several weeks and months will be interesting for those in open and polyamorous relationships.  It will be a real test of trust, and I am sure this time will lead to many couples re-examining what their relationships mean. 

Frank Morano is Counsel at Argentino Fiore Law & Advocacy serving New Jersey and New York City. His practice includes LGBTQ issues, family law, criminal defense, and education law. He can be reached at BigBear@argentinolaw.com