Pandemic Rules for Polycules

Mar 2, 2022 | 2022 Spring - Bi+ Health

By Jen Bonardi 

Here’s a strong candidate for Understatement of the COVID Era: maintaining both your health and your relationships during a pandemic is not easy.

Most of us have found that navigating the pandemic relies on making choices based on our unique personal circumstances. It’s an art connected to an evolving science, and it requires loads of empathy. Folks in polycules—a network of romantically/sexually connected people that, when mapped, looks like a molecule—had to quickly learn how to protect against dire health risks while nurturing a complex web of relationships. With health already a major concern for bi+ people, the polyamorous bi+ community received no less than a baptism-by-fire in wellness preservation, courtesy of COVID.

It follows that understanding the recent experience of actively polyamorous bi+ women could better prepare all of us for the next public health crisis. I polled seven people in polycules to hear how they fared during the COVID pandemic. These participants have a mix of sexual and gender identities that all fall under the “bi+ women” umbrella. Their polycules range from three to more than nine people; respondents live with many, few, or no partners. Some identifying details have been changed.

At the beginning of the pandemic, with no understanding of or protection against the virus, our participants’ pods made stringent rules. “We started with limiting social contact outside the polycule…” says Camille. Dates, whether restricted to just those in the polycule or not, had to be socially distanced. Some banned new partners or any interaction with folks outside of their bubble; another allowed it but required a ten-day quarantine and negative test to return. Feeling at all symptomatic before meeting with a metamour meant calling off the visit immediately, even if you were on your way there.

They were able to loosen the rules as information on the contagion arose, but there has remained some level of vigilance ever since. One polycule member discloses, “The rule that we kept the longest was: No unmasked indoor contact with people outside the pod unless it’s medically necessary.” Vaccines were a game-changer, sanctioning dating indoors with people who were inoculated. They also opened the door for members of larger polycules to spend time with partners on the further edges.

In judging the level of interaction with a person outside of their bubble, one polycule member considered the new person’s pod size and their amount of out-of-pod activity. Megan’s polycule simply defaulted to the lowest common denominator, i.e., their most fearful member: “We looked […] to manage the risk in a way we could all accept, rather than making the pod flexible or forcing people out of it.” Participants necessarily had to factor in the vulnerability of all loved ones in their lives. “I cut back a lot [on visiting others] when I had to drive my dad to visit my mom—both in their 90s—who was in rehab for a month,” Pam says.

Poly-specific challenges abounded. “One of the things I’m navigating,” says Meri, “is that my girlfriend’s adult son does not approve of her having multiple partners. I didn’t want to be the vector that prevented him from returning to his [workplace] on time.” One polycule even had to ask members’ roommates who were not metamours to commit to the rules of the pod. “That was a huge thing to ask of them,” says L, “and I’m really amazed that it worked.”

“My second partner lives in Baltimore,” explains another. “They visited me in September of 2021, and I visited them in October. This meant that I couldn’t see my local, primary partner for two weeks after we parted.” And while primary partners felt such ramifications, that didn’t mean that secondary/tertiary metamours were spared. “Folks further out [in the polycule] had to do a lot of waiting for any in-person contact,” laments Kerry, contributing to arguably the worst effect: “Sex frequency probably plummeted for everybody.”

Although saddled with extra hardships, those versed in polyamory have more experience in honing the skills needed in an ongoing pandemic. Since communication was a critical element in making health decisions for the pod, you can assume that poly folks were way ahead of the game. Furthermore, one bi+ woman polled commends her polycule members for holding each other accountable for getting vaccinated and boosted. In addition to accountability, having multiple partners provides a strong motivation to get the necessary shots as soon as possible.

In fact, the poly community actually has an intrinsic advantage in figuring out how to proceed toward physical and emotional health. “We approached it a lot like fluid-bonding,” says L. “We’re a bunch of kinky queers, so that was the framework we had for this sort of decision. You can’t be ‘sort of fluid-bonded’ with someone—it’s all or nothing. We followed the same model and made our pod all-or-nothing.”

The bi+ women I polled let me in on a few tips for having a slightly less horrible pandemic. Recommendations included cooking dinners together to create “space for conversation and goodwill” and traveling locally with a partner to “keep things interesting.” Beyond the day-to-day, making birthdays special for each other helped one respondent “feel the loss of community events less,” while getting together with metamours for the holidays was heartening when celebrating with family was off the table.

Not every attempt at maintaining romance and sanity was universally successful. One woman felt better with therapy; another felt that neither individual nor group therapy worked for her polycule. One enjoyed lots of video chats with her off-site metamours; another reports: “We tried Zoom socializing and honestly, we all ended up hating it. It felt like an obligation and not like fun.”

Some attempts didn’t even work for the pod trying them. The one group that had a decision-making process instead of prescribed rules discovered that yielding to the most fearful person’s impulses made everyone else resentful. At least two of the represented polycules incurred break-ups. Although they might have occurred even without the pandemic, participants are convinced that the circumstances exacerbated existing issues.

The respondent who divorced her wife during the pandemic remarks that as far as break-ups went, “the pandemic made [them] more sudden and way nastier. People went from ‘clinging together for safety’ to ‘moving out entirely’ without stopping at ‘hashing things out’ or ‘trial separation,’ because [temporarily staying] at their parents’ place […] felt too much like it was going to spread germs.”

When asked whether their polycule is back to pre-pandemic activities, virtually all participants responded with some version of “eh, not really.” At the turn of 2022, just as we were cautiously letting down our collective guard, Omicron arose, and most people regressed to a more self-protective stance.

Despite the hardships they shouldered during the pandemic, these bi+ women acknowledge some bright sides. They felt that what they went through with their polycules “intensified the good relationships while winnowing out the unstable ones” and allowed them to “value each other’s company so much more [instead of taking] it for granted.”

I hope you take a moment today to thank your friendly neighborhood poly bi+ woman for playing The Pandemic Game at the expert level. Let’s be grateful to learn from these experiences, because when it comes to bi+ health, we need all the help we can get.

Jen Bonardi served on the Bisexual Resource Center (BRC) board for five years and created bisexual character extraordinaire, Tiggy Upland.

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