sex-lifestyle

How to Safely Practice Non-Monogamy During the Pandemic

If you're polyamorous, social distancing probably means fewer in-person hookups – but, as with anything else in an open relationship, communication will keep things sexy.
28 August 2020, 8:15am
A Guide to Socially Distant Polyamory: Illustration of three people sexting and video chatting
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

For polyamorous people—especially those who are living with primary partners and seeing them all the time, with far more exclusivity than usual—the COVID-19 pandemic has meant rethinking how to practice non-monogamy.

The way people are relating to and adjusting their boundaries with their partners, as is necessary for a more socially distanced version of polyamory, may be taking some extra thought right now, too. Polyamorous relationships may include primary partnerships as well as secondary and tertiary ones, with varying levels of distance, time, and emotional investment involved. Obviously, though, in a pandemic, people can't hook up with multiple partners safely without rigorous health considerations and practices in place (and maybe not even then).

When sexting, calling, and FaceTime are the best bet for being involved with secondary and tertiary partners—who also might be spending most of their time indoors with primary partners in close quarters—some new conversations and guidelines are probably warranted. (For example: Imagine hearing your partner video sexting with their alternate partner in the next room for the first time.) Instead of letting things get awkward, get creative with your boundaries and rethink how you want to interact with people outside of your primary partnership. As many polyamorous people know, communication is key to success here even when public health isn't on the line.

Right now, engaging with polyamory means adapting to our wack times and doing our best to have fun (and get off) consensually and respectfully despite the new limitations we're facing. If it’s time to renegotiate previous boundaries and get a little more creative about when and how often you spend time with multiple partners, here's how to think about respecting everyone involved.


Figure out what kind of safety measures everyone can agree on before anything else.

Your poly lifestyle is not worth other people getting COVID. If you do intend to see multiple partners in any way, shape, or form—which is hella risky, and which you probably shouldn't —make sure everyone's on the same page, and take meticulous safety measures.

Your chances of contracting or spreading COVID-19 are increased with any human-to-human contact. Unless your alternative partners are willing to move in and commit to an exclusive relationship within your polyamory bubble or polycule, body-to-body sexual contact with them is probably not doable, and everyone needs to have a straightforward discussion about that. A new guideline may be that you ask your partner(s) both inside and outside of the primary relationship to disclose who they are also sexually and physically involved with, offer them the same information, and figure out how to adjust your situation to minimize risk based on what you learn. 

If you do continue to see others in person, outside of your primary partnership, remember: “Whatever you do outside of the home can impact your partner. If this is something that you are risking, you need to set up a strict testing routine," said sex educator and researcher Wendasha Jenkins Hall. That may look like getting tested every two weeks or once a month. Realistically, testing regularly is still an unpredictable mode of protection, given the likelihood of keeping tabs on exposure to partners outside of your primary partnership is slim AF. 

Ask questions of all of your partners if you go forward with continuing to be with them physically. You'll need to know:

  • “Who else are you sleeping with?”
  • “How many partners have you had in the last month?”
  • “What safety precautions are you taking?”

When each additional person opens you up to the risks of their own network, the space for error can compound very quickly, so the most responsible and safe thing you can do is temper your expectations in regards to in-person dates and rely mostly, if not solely, on virtual connection outside of your primary partnership.

If testing is not available to you, or you and your partners decide to abstain from sexual and physical contact for health reasons, it doesn’t mean your relationships have to be placed on hold.  

“My femme partner and I actually decided to not have sex or kiss for another month because of our schedules—plus, testing won't line up [for us] until then. We decided based on a lot of revolving factors, like the amount of people a partner is around, how socially distant [their] outings are, etc.,” said Gabrielle Smith, a 25-year-old bisexual solo-polyamorous person based in Brooklyn. For now, the two of them are still going on socially distanced dates and communicating without physical contact.

Check in with your partners about whether your previously established emotional and personal boundaries are still working.

Being largely limited to one environment, possibly alongside one partner, means choosing how and when you will interact with multiple partners with everyone's comfort and well-being in mind, emotionally speaking. 

Emily Morse, a doctor of human sexuality and the host of the podcast and Sirius XM radio show Sex With Emily, told VICE that it's helpful for polyamorous couples adapting to the pandemic to revisit their needs about their relationships. She suggested a framework like, “'Are our previous boundaries still working for us right now? This is how I felt six months ago, but after living together, I might be open to, you know, ABC.” 

New parameters for the relationship may also tip the scale in terms of physical and emotional interactions. You might ask your partner, “Are dating sites still off limits?” given that in-person meet-ups aren’t an option and you are looking for people to connect with virtually. Shifts in boundaries may look like, “Do you want to try talking about the people we’re curious about?” or, “If you’re comfortable answering, how’s it going with X?”

If you had policies with your primary partner where you didn’t disclose other encounters, they might feel more difficult to uphold if space and time are an issue. If you want to readdress th, they may feel less lenient than before. You can ask questions like, “Hey, are you still video chatting with X?” or, “When’s the last time you and Y spoke?” 

A new conversation may come up that sounds something like, “Hey, six months ago I didn’t think I wanted to know who else you were seeing because I didn’t think I could handle the jealousy. Now that I’m more confident in our relationship, let’s pivot and create rules that work for the time we’re living in," said Morse. However, if it’s 100 percent something you’ve both agreed upon that you don’t ask for intel, it should be made very clear that how you continue to engage with people needs to follow those same rules, even if time and space are limited.

Communicate with all your partners about how emotionally involved you want to be with each respective person, and vice versa. 

A potentially difficult angle of polyamory during quarantine is that maybe you’re not looking to make emotional connections. Sure, we can have casual sexting or virtual conversations, but what does that all amount to if your desire is to meet in person? What can you do while living with your partner if you’re solely interested in causal, one-off sexual experiences—but the experiences you're having are mostly taking place in more communicative than physical forms? 

Hall recommends online spaces for virtual, causal relationships. Your dating app bio or initial conversations should outline exactly what you anticipate any interaction leading up to, and should actively make clear that you’re poly and not looking to meet-up in person. You may set up your first conversations with, “Let’s keep it light and sexy,’’ or perhaps your foreplay can include your expectations about linking up online: “I just bought new lingerie that I really want to show you. Can we meet online at 10 p.m.?”  All parties involved should have a clear understanding of what is going to unfold, and have little room for misinterpretation about what everyone's looking for out of the situation.  

Keep an eye on the dynamics in your secondary and tertiary relationships, too, if it's a part of your agreement with your partners that certain relationships stay more casual/sexual than your primary one. It’s not unusual to relate and confide in people that you typically would only engage with casually. During this pandemic, many people have found comfort in more regular check-ins with family and friends, but if you’ve previously defined an intimate relationship as purely physical, how do you keep any emotional needs separate in what is, for many people, a particularly tough time? 

“We’re not having much human connection at the moment, [so] sometimes the lines between physical and emotional intimacy get blurred because we’re craving human touch and human interaction,” Hall said. You may find yourself leaning more into your primary partner and existing friendships in order to alleviate the pressure on alternate partnerships to show up in a way that wasn’t previously agreed upon pre-COVID.

"If you have a primary partner, it’s important that you confide in them as well as family and friends in order to keep any conversations with alternate partners light, and less emotionally involved,” Hall said. 

Create a schedule—or, at least, discuss timing—with your partners.

The same way that many of us have created a work-from-home schedule with our partners that are respectful of space and time, you can block out times separate for your partner that don’t require any explanation or follow-up. Still, there might be a little overlap, and that's something to acknowledge and prepare for with your partner.

Relationship coach Evita Sawyers lives in an apartment with her husband in Chula Vista, CA. Both have additional partners, and they're experiencing a new normal in interacting with partners that are outside of their primary partnership: She is now privy to his conversations with his other partners in a way that she wasn’t before—she's suddenly hearing his videos dates in the bedroom, and vice versa, as opposed to engaging with other partners privately outside of the home. For Sawyers, it’s a welcome adjustment that allows her to find "grace" toward her partner as they both adapt.

“I understand that these things can sometimes be uncomfortable to witness," Sawyers said. “You’re not used to having access to those intimate moments between them, [instead of having] the privilege of those interactions happening out of earshot." 

If you're both adamant on privacy—or not overhearing your partner's conversations—schedule calls with other partners when your housemate is out or or going to be away. When making plans with partners that you don’t live with, conversations may look like, “Hey, I’m free for a call between one and three p.m.,” or, “Let’s aim for weekends only.” You can also try relying on voice notes or videos or via an app like Marco Polo, which operates like a video walkie-talkie, allowing you to listen and respond to messages when you’ve carved out private time.

When it comes to non-primary partners, you can be just as considerate of others' space- and time-based limitations. Smith is currently dating a married, poly man who lives with his wife. Even though she is not sexually or romantically involved with his wife, they believe in complete transparency between the three of them for health and safety reasons. In the beginning of quarantine, they saw each other less often, but now, they all rely on a Google Calendar that displays their social obligations. They want to all remain in the loop in terms of how many alternate partners could potentially put them at risk. 

Smith shares her personal Google Calendar with her partner, and he and his wife share theirs with her. “We have to be very candid, to the point that if I spend time with any friend, or partner, I put it into the calendar, as well as any social engagements. Even before quarantining, we relied on this system to organize our schedules and designate when we would spend time together.”

“By looking at the calendar, my partner and his wife can make a judgment call like, 'Hey, maybe you’ve been seeing too many people. Can you get tested before we meet up again?'” explained Smith. “From there, I can make the decision of when to get tested and see each other again. I must get tested before I see him, which was a decision made in our larger polycule.” 


Above all: If you’re renegotiating how many partners you can interact with and in what capacity as you adapt to a mostly remote or otherwise significantly different version of polyamory, be patient with yourself and others as everyone adapts. It’s an opportunity to take stock of what feels good about being with—and how to be respectful toward—each person in your life that you're into having sex with (even if that's just in your iMessage inbox or voice notes). 

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