To Survive This Pandemic, We’ll Need To Adopt Some Polyamorous Skillsets

People involved in polyamorous relationships all share the same problem:

1) They would like to have sex with more than one person;
2) They would like to avoid catching sexually transmitted infections.

As such, poly folks are forever balancing the risk of “I want to do fun things with people” and “But the only way to guarantee 100% safety is to shut myself up alone in a house forever.”

…sound familiar?

Fact is, poly communities have been balancing “health” with “risk” for decades, and I suspect some of the classic polyamorous social habits will leak into the mainstream as the pandemic continues. Because yes, we absolutely should minimize risk so we can all keep living, but staying locked in a hugless apartment for a year isn’t exactly what you’d call “A life.”

At some point, we’re all going to have to figure out which friends it’s safe to have over for a night of watching Netflix, and who to invite to that gathering, knowing that every additional person you add to that list raises your chance of infection. Which isn’t too difficult from people in open relationships deciding who they’re going to invite to into their beds.

So how do poly folks navigate these tricky details of emotional intimacy vs. risk of infection?

First off, most poly folks cloister themselves off into little subcommunities – a lot of poly circles divide themselves into rough circles formed of their lovers, and their lovers’ lovers (a.k.a. “the metamours”). Essentially, you’re looking one circle out – the people you date, and the people they date.

Within that poly circle – or “polycule” – is where you decide what kind of sex you’re having. The simplest – and riskiest – is called “fluid bound,” where you’re not using any kind of protection at all. Then you move up to “full barrier protection”: dental dams, condoms even for penile oral, gloves for any penetration. Then there’s just plain condom usage for PIV/anal, but no barriers for oral or digital penetration.

That may be pretty intense discussion for some of you! But that’s definitely one skill you’re gonna have to master during the pandemic: Getting comfortable with frank discussions of what you do. It’s not always comfortable asking questions like, “Do you always wear your mask when you go to the grocery store?” or “How are you disinfecting delivered packages?” – but if poly people have learned one thing, it’s that assuming everyone’s playing equally safe leads to really bad outcomes.

With that information in mind, what often happens in the polycules is that there’s a fair amount of discussion before someone starts dating/hooking up with someone new. It’s not saying “no,” exactly, but it is looking at the new metamour’s risk profile – like asking, “Who are they sleeping with? How scrupulous are they in their protection? Do they already have an STI?”

(Top tip: the perceived danger of a lot of STIs, herpes in particular, are often drastically overblown – in part because of the stigma of where you caught it. Nobody wants to catch an STI, partially because there are risks, but also because getting an STI is often a reason for people to become absolute jerks to you.)

So after that discussion of what New Person is like, everyone reevaluates their risk profile. Which is also uncomfortable at times, thanks to to discussions like, “I’m not saying you can’t sleep with Alex, but if you do we gotta go back to using condoms.”

Negotiations – explicit ones – take place. And you decide, “Okay, my lover here is a potential vector for these kinds of dangers, but I am accepting that risk in exchange for hot makeout sessions with them,” and that’s that.

And sometimes, condoms break. At which point you put someone on a timeout, saying, “You gotta get tested, and we have to be on max lockdown until we get the results in.”

Which, I think, is what’ll happen to society – not the sex, but the socialization. It’s absurd to ask people to stay holed up alone for half a year, so I suspect over the summer we’ll all start categorizing risks into rough categories like:

  • Safe to walk outside with at a social distance;
  • Safe to hang out alone with inside;
  • Safe to gather with several carefully-chosen people at a gathering;
  • Safe to go to a specific restaurant with.

Which isn’t terribly different from, say, the divisions between “Full barrier protection” and “Condoms for PIV.”

And if those aspects change – someone goes on a trip, someone attends a big sloppy party, someone hangs out with someone who doesn’t believe in masks – then you’re gonna either put them in timeout or maybe stop hanging out with them altogether.

Which will lead to new social faux pas that have been standard problems for poly folks! You’ll have people lying about how consistently they wear their masks because they want the socialization, you’ll have drama with people who think they’re acting safely but aren’t really, you’ll have to deal with people shit-talking you because you’re physically letting the wrong people into your house. And let us not forget that old classic, “I really wanna hang out with this unsafe person, so I’ll risk infecting everyone else I hang out with.”

Which will get really intriguing if we start seeing rough divisions even inside the “safe hangouts” zone the way there’s a rough division between polyamorous folk – who generally are comparatively choosy in who they date because they’re in it for the emotional validation – and swingers, who are mostly in it for the physical satisfaction, and as such hold larger parties with larger risk profiles. Neither side’s wrong; they just evaluate differently, but those small evaluations can often lead to significant cultural rifts.

But the point is this: in this pandemic, you’re going to have to accept some level of risk in seeing your buddies up-close. And there are well-worn paths that other folks have trodden before, handling similar situations.

Might as well use what’s worked, right?

Incomplete Information and the No-Fault Zone

In the event of an emergency, the most important thing is to assign blame…. or so my friend Mick seemed to think. Mick was the sort of man who, whenever anything bad happened, Mick needed someone to be at fault.

If his wife was driving the car and a stone chipped the windshield, it couldn’t just be an accident; no, he had to blame her for taking the wrong route where a malicious stone was clearly present, or not swerving in time to avoid a pebble travelling at speeds high enough to chip a windshield. If it rained on vacation, well, clearly someone had chosen the wrong place, or the wrong time, and they must be assigned punishment.

It got to the point where when Mick’s daughter got injured in a freak accident, his wife breathed a guilty sigh of relief – because she hadn’t been in charge when the daughter was hurt. Thankfully, the kid had been in Mick’s custody when the accident happened, which meant that he didn’t have anyone else to blame.

(The daughter’s fine, by the way.)

I don’t think it’ll surprise you to hear Mick’s marriage didn’t work out. But his divorce brings up a useful tool that needs to be in the skillset of most relationships: The concept of the no-fault argument. And for the no-fault argument to work, you have to believe – really believe – in this essential truth:

Two people, both acting with the best knowledge they have and the purest intentions, can still hurt each other deeply.

That sounds crazy to a lot of folks. “She loves me, and she never means to hurt me,” they say. “So if I get hurt, it must be something she meant to do.” (Or, the flip side, “If she’s hurt, that means I set out to hurt her… and I wouldn’t do that.”)

That leads to more Mick-style arguments because blame must be assigned… and who wants to take the blame for hurting someone? Or worse yet, being so stupidly fragile that you got hurt through the vagaries of silly mistakes?

In the card game Magic, though, there are world-class players who lose even though they made, what appeared to be on the surface, a perfect play. Why? Because in Magic, you play with most of your opponents’ cards hidden from you. You can’t see what’s in his deck or in their hand. A good player can guess to a reasonable certainty what’s there, of course, but you never know for sure until they play a card for all to see.

This leads to a lot of situations where the player, thinking that their opponent has card A, makes a genius play that would utterly foil his opponent if their opponent had card A. But they don’t! They have card B, and as such the perfect play turns out to be a devastating rout.

That’s right: you can make the perfect move, only to find something you couldn’t have foreseen.

This is one of the reasons why Magic is, quite literally, one of the hardest games in the world. You act on limited information; your strategy is based on guesswork. A lot of the heavy lifting in Magic involves trying to fill in those gaps, and you do that with a variety of techniques: Looking at what they’ve played in the past, knowing what sorts of plays they like to make, understanding what sorts of decks they feel comfortable playing.

Likewise, in relationships, your partner is also a hidden book. You can never read someone’s mind. You can only act based on knowledge from their past actions –
and let me tell you, my wife and I have been close friends for over twenty-five years, and still about once a year we stumble upon some unknown trauma that’s like stepping on a wasp’s nest.

Point is, it’s impossible to catalogue everything that will hurt your partner. You can accidentally tread on some past hurt you’d have no way of knowing existed, or do something innocuous to you that seems a lot more serious to them.

And when that happens, it’s bad enough that you accidentally hurt them – but when they trust you enough to come to you and say, “What you just said upset me. I know you didn’t deliberately set out to upset me, but you did, so can we talk about this?” and you counter with, “Well I didn’t mean it,” you have just assigned blame.

Your partner’s already acknowledged that you didn’t set out to do it – but by defensively saying, “Well, I didn’t mean it!” you’re trying to change the focus on the argument from “What you did” to “What you meant.”

Listen: In many cases, good intent means nothing. You can be racist with good intentions, you can be rude with good intentions, you can exclude people with good intentions. What matters is not what you meant, but what your actions actually did. And as long as you’re attached to the idea of your good intentions being some sort of shield against all ill, you’re going to keep causing problems – because you’re so busy proving that your intentions were pure that you’re ignoring the very real lessons that “Hey, you meant well, but this behavior is causing problems.”

You must understand that we’re all operating off of hidden cards and incomplete information. You can make the perfect move based on what you knew at the time, and have it be the wrong move because you didn’t know enough. The question is, are you going to learn more so that you can make better, more-informed, and less hurtful moves in the future – or are you going to spend your energy convincing everyone that this losing move was actually the right play?

Repeat after me: Two people, both acting with the best knowledge they have and the purest intentions, can still hurt each other deeply. Life is messy. Life is weird.

Sometimes, things just happen.

It ain’t satisfying. But the truth rarely is.

(This is a revision of an old 2009 LiveJournal post, which a friend of mine asked to exhume because she wanted to reference it and I’d shut down my LJ. Here ya go!)

When The Pandemic Transforms “Emotionally Toxic” Into “Physically Toxic”

“My Mom wants to come over for a visit, but she doesn’t believe in wearing facemasks.”

“My roommate keeps sneaking out to go to parties because she’s lonely.”

“My boyfriend says there’s no reason to stop going out bowling with his friends.”

One hallmark of an emotionally toxic relationship is that toxic folks push boundaries. Your comfort will never be as important as their comfort. If they want something from you, they’ll wheedle you, they’ll guilt you, they’ll nag you until you cave.

Until now, generally the worst that could happen to you thanks to those sorts of pressuring behaviors was emotional exhaustion. Sure, your parents could keep forcing you to be go have a nice visit with your homophobic grandpa – which sucked, but the biggest consequence was pretty much some tight jaw muscles from keeping your mouth shut. And your partner could keep sitting on the couch, Xbox controller in hand, ignoring all the household chores until you finally did the work.

It was bullshit, of course – but depending on your tolerance for bullshit, their selfishness added up to a wasted afternoon here and there.

But now?

Giving into their narcissism could get your ass killed.

And not, may I remind you, a nice neat little headshot kind of killed. COVID’s a messy death, and not particularly pleasant even if you survive it, with three weeks of your life being spent as a wheezing wreck and even then possibly having lifelong scars to bear – fun things like “reduced lung capacity” and “potential neurologic issues.”

And in this sadly polarized day of politics, where “wearing a mask” and “being considerate about potentially passing on a deadly disease” have somehow been framed as “liberal whininess,” you may have a lot of asshole relatives, roommates, and lovers who literally don’t believe in the coronavirus – or, more precisely, don’t believe that it’s a threat to you.

There will be gaslighting. There will be whining. There will be complaints that you’re such a pain in the ass, I only went out dancing, why do you care?

Do. Not. Give. In.

Because what’s happening now is that “emotionally toxic” has a large crossover with “physically toxic,” and you don’t want to go to your grave with the words “They Were Nice Until They Died” carved on your headstone. (Especially if you’re immunocompromised or have preexisting conditions.)

Look. I’m not saying these people are evil. Looking honestly at the consequences of the pandemic can be a short-cut to anxiety attacks – it’s a lot to take in, not just for yourself, but the rolling uncertainty of “Will I ever be able to go to a concert again? Will I have a job six months from now? How can I be safe?” And a lot of people are, quite frankly, not dealing with this well, retreating into denial and downplaying.

This shit is hard. They don’t have to be narcissists. They could, you know, just be coping in shitty ways.

But now more than ever is the time to enforce your boundaries. Value yourself. Don’t let them wear you down, because you are correct. Having people talk you into life-threatening situations is not a good thing, because it encourages them to endanger other lives and encourages you to put yourself at risk.

And yes, they will whine. They will smack-talk you. They will get angry. Those are all blunt emotional tools to get their way, and in this case what they’re asking is unreasonable, so shut it down.

You may not be able to stop them from being dumbasses at other people. But you can stop them from being dumbasses at your doorstep.

And remember: stay in touch with reality. Talk to friends who get it. Hang out with people who, when you say, “I can’t see you right now” go “Got it. Thanks for taking care of yourself.”

With luck, you might even come out of this pandemic with your health intact, but a better social group who genuinely supports you. So stay strong. Be well. And don’t give in.