Polyamory in a Pandemic
Navigating multi-partnered relationships is, at the best of times, like herding cats. For Rae White, a non-binary transgender poet and writer, the global pandemic has added an extra challenge to their polyamorous way of life.

When government restrictions change for what feels like the millionth time, I rummage through the lengthy list of regulations for signs of myself: for examples of my household, my family and my loved ones. I find none. 

I’m polyamorous (translated to “many loves”), meaning I have multiple loving romantic relationships. Most COVID-19 restrictions use the words “household” and “family” but my household — the four walls of my small Brisbane flat — don’t contain all the people I love. Nor do they contain the people my loved ones also love. Gathering us all together would normally be a happy event, but such an event isn’t even doable with lockdown restrictions in place.

One of my partners and I perch at opposite ends of the abandoned couch deposited in the parking lot underneath my block of flats. It’s almost like it was purposely put here for us; a two-metre corner couch, perfect for any large lounge room, perfect for snuggling with at least two partners and their partners and maybe even their partners. However, there’s no snuggling tonight; only the chilly night air between us as we talk about our days alone, our Zoom calls aplenty, our fears of getting too close to other people in grocery store aisles and how much we miss our other partners. And about how much we miss each other.

In non-COVID times, being in an open relationship is one of the most joyous things in my life. It feels so incredibly natural and wonderful to me: to love and be loved by multiple people, to hold so much love in my heart and to watch my loved ones hold so much love in their own hearts. And while I wouldn’t have my relationships any other way, throughout isolation there’s been a stale taste in my mouth. My relationships haven’t always been seamless — there have been rocky patches and arguments and break ups — but overall, I adore my multi-partnered lifestyle. 

Quarantine frustrations 

Quarantine has caused me to question every single time I touch someone; I note down every single kiss, all so I can inform my other partners about potential risks. I’m not used to these restrictions in my free-and-easy day-to-day life. While other polyamorous folks might be finding the isolation rules a little easier and close to their regular habits, I am most definitely not.

My best friends and I, including two of my partners, play a multi-player game called Stardew Valley together most Friday nights. On screen, our pixelated characters sow crops, cook food and keep chickens. Sometimes, a group of us will snuggle in the same bed: three or four digital avatars with similar hairstyles and clothes to our physical forms, cuddled up in a single bed together. And, for a moment, I can almost feel the warmth of being the middle spoon on a cold winter night.

Yet I find myself sad — almost mad — that my partner’s partner gets non-virtual hugs every week, but I only get socially distanced chats, standing 1.5 meters away from each other. I want a hug, too! This is not the open relationship I signed up for: this inequality, this twinge of jealousy, this divide between I want and what I can have. 

Multi-partnered way of life 

In a nutshell, pandemic polyamory is incredibly unfair. I don’t always get what I want because the consent and safety of everyone involved often means giving up the things, I would normally have no issues asking for. And that’s just how it has to be. There are no social isolation roadmaps for complex relationship webs and, at the end of the day, the safety of all of us is the most important.

I have a long-distance partner in New South Wales who I see every four months or so. We’re both artists so budgets are tight, but working holidays to art festivals are often possible, as are short weeks spent at each other’s houses. Our most recent holiday together in April was cancelled due to border closures. I often catch myself daydreaming of rebooking our camping trip and waking up next to each other in the soft warmth of morning. 

Now, because of COVID-19, it feels like all my relationships are long distance. I find myself navigating too many feelings of longing and touch starvation as my phone battery dies halfway through phone calls. There is no one true way to miss someone and, when you’re missing multiple someones, it can be even harder to handle.

As restrictions ease, each of my partners talk with me about their fears of a “second wave” of coronavirus and what the peeling back of social distancing rules means for our extended network of loved ones. Communication has always been the key to open relationships. We place important emphasis on everyone being able to speak, to discuss and to consent. Though after 10 or so years of navigating my partnerships with relative calm and ease, I find it difficult and time-consuming to rewrite the script when restrictions fluctuate every month – or every week. Especially when there’s no specific roadmap or hard-and-fast rules for the multi-partnered. 

Polyamory is a relationship structure many folks don’t know about, far less think about or assume they need to pay attention to. And so, we go our own way, making our pandemic plans with kindness, consideration and consent. In the end, we’re all just doing our best.

Exploring uncharted territory together  

Three of us laugh and tease each other as we play around with filters on FaceTime. Suddenly I’m wearing more makeup than I never have before, as well as the puffiest wig I’ve ever seen. My metamour (the term for a partner’s partner) tries on the same filter and our mutual beloved suddenly morphs into a rabbit. I grin at them both.

These are the moments I live for: the ones where we’re laughing, loving and communicating. This year my partners and I have found ourselves in a situation that questions everything we’ve ever learned about polyamory. And although it’s uncharted territory, it’s not the first or the last time we’ll need to band together to make things work. These challenges are what make us stronger and kinder. They’re the challenges that show us that despite being apart, we’re still together.


Rae White is a non-binary writer and poet. Their poetry collection Milk Teeth (UQP) won the 2017 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. Their short story The Body Remembers won second prize in the 2019 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Rae is the editor of #EnbyLife Journal for non-binary creatives.