This is part of a special series, Indulgence, which explores extravagant living in a time of restraint. It’s also in the September 2021 VICE magazine issue. Subscribe here.
I’m always hungry to glimpse the inner workings of love and to see real-life examples of people living in line with their hearts and values, especially in polyamory, where there are few established road maps. I was surprised when one of my most “out” polyamorous friends didn’t want to be photographed by my partner Eric Ruby with her long-term or more recent partners. With one, they were drifting apart as lovers, even though they were still “family”; with the other, she was on the cusp of transitioning the relationship toward something less romantic. She was, however, happy to be photographed with her “nesting partner,” her best friend and housemate, with whom she shares everyday emotional intimacy.
Another person I regarded as solidly poly, seeing them out at parties with their multiple lovers also in attendance, said they were reevaluating in light of reconnecting with a longtime friend across the country, and realizing there was more there. The increasing closeness seemed to have them reconsidering how they wanted to structure their life. And yet, not reconsidering entirely—even as this friendship turned romance evolves in intimacy, they are planning to read Polysecure together, Jessica Fern’s 2020 book about how to create securely attached poly relationships. Surprising me yet again is the elasticity of how people continually redefine their relationship to being polyamorous and what that looks like for them.
The people most excited to be photographed were the larger groups; they really wanted to be represented and had found comfort and stability within their configurations. “We have matching All Love tattoos. It was really nice during the pandemic to live with multiple people—otherwise, I think I would have gone crazy,” said a member of a four-person polycule who have lived together for 10 years, with three relationships between them. The largest group excitedly showed us a visualization of their polycule, totaling 14 people, with lines representing marriages, divorces, lovers, platonic friendships, and “friendship plus.” Their relationship map was an explanatory tool for friends, new lovers, and, occasionally, even themselves.
A dyad texted later: “Relationships are a creative process in which, every day, people get to imagine how they want to be together. We enjoy that there are no givens or rules to ‘us.’ Because of this we are adaptable and we grow.” A close friend recently broke up with their primary partner of four years, as that partner grew closer to another lover. Despite this painful shifting of priorities, I see my friend committed to finding people and partners who affirm them and their desires.
Ultimately, it’s hard to tell which changes in people’s polyamorous love lives can be attributed to the pandemic and its pressures and which to the normal shifting of already-fluid relationships. For some, these past 18 months have clarified priorities, resulting in new flowerings and endings both painful and peaceful; for others, they’ve had a wide net to catch and hold them and a community in which to weather the storm.