COVID and its effects on poly relationships
How are poly people coping with adult kids and their COVID-related crises?
Lei is a website designer who owns her own home in San Jose, California. She came to the US from Vietnam with her parents and two brothers when she was 17 years old. She married an American-born Vietnamese man at age 23 and raised two daughters, Hienhoa and Lisa. She and her husband owned a Vietnamese restaurant for 30 years and worked long hours as cooks, while her mother cared for the children. She and her husband divorced when both daughters were in college at UCLA, studying for degrees in Business. Lei got the house, her husband got the restaurant, and they went their separate ways.
Lei took website design classes through a local Vietnamese community center and started her own website business, which allowed her to work part-time from home and still make enough money to live on. She became close friends with Lila, one of the women she met in her website classes. Lila confided to Lei that she was polyamorous, and in a cohabiting relationship with a woman, and also had a male lover that she saw a few times a week. Lei was shocked but intrigued.
Mostly out of curiosity, she went with Lila to the monthly South Bay Polys support group, where she met a retired married couple in their 60’s, Ellen and Morris. They had been part of a live-in triad for several years with another woman who was lovers with both of them. However, their other partner had left them the year before to pursue a monogamous relationship with a man. When Ellen and Morris “courted” Lei, she was very flattered and was very attracted to Morris. When they told her they were looking for a unicorn, she had no idea what they were talking about. They all laughed when Ellen explained that finding a woman to become lovers with a married couple was like searching for a mythical unicorn, hence the title. She became lovers with Morris, but explained that she was heterosexual. Ellen was disappointed, but was comfortable with Morris developing a separate relationship with Lei.
They fell deeply in love, and have now been partners for eight years, getting together for dates about three nights a week at Lei’s house. She developed a friendship with Ellen, and once a week, Lei invites Ellen to her house for dinner with Morris. Ellen started a relationship with a much younger woman named Karen about two years ago, and she sees Karen on some of the nights when Morris is with Lei.
Lei’s two daughters are in their late 30’s. Lisa has been married and divorced. Hienhoa is single but has a long-term boyfriend who is currently going to graduate school in another state. Lisa and Hienhoa own a nail salon in Los Angeles, and they work together running the business as well as giving manicures and pedicures. When the COVID pandemic forced them to close their shop in March of 2020, they were suddenly unable to pay the rent on the apartment they shared. They called Lei and told her they needed to give up their apartment and move back home with her. She suggested that they sublet their apartment for the remainder of their lease, and told them they were welcome to live with her for as long as they wanted to.
However, Lei became quite anxious, because she had never told her daughters that Morris was married. They knew she had a boyfriend, and they had met him a few times when they had come home for Christmas. She had not been comfortable telling them that she was in a polyamorous relationship with a married man, but she knew it would be obvious if they were living with her. She had not told anyone in her large extended family, either, and did not want to put her daughters in the position of hiding her secret from the rest of the family.
She asked Morris for advice on her dilemma, as she knew that he and Ellen’s adult children were aware of and supportive of their poly life. She explained that Vietnamese-Americans in general--and her family in particular--had very old-fashioned ideas about women’s role, marriage, relationships, and sex. She had kept this part of her life private because she did not want to deal with family members’ judgements or have them gossiping about her. Morris suggested that she tell her daughters the truth before they moved back home, so they could consider other living arrangements if they were not comfortable with her poly lifestyle. He said if they preferred to stay in LA in their apartment, he could give Lei enough money to help pay their rent each month.
Lei immediately called her older daughter, Hienhoa, who she believed had more liberal views on sex and relationships than Lisa. Hienhoa was quite surprised when she heard her mother say she was in a polyamorous relationship, and even more shocked when she heard that Morris had a wife. “Wow, Mom, is that like the Mormons on that TV show ‘Sister Wives?’ I always wondered why you and Morris never got married after being together for so long! What does his wife think about all this? She must be pretty pissed.” Lei explained that Ellen is also polyamorous and has a 35-year-old girlfriend. Hienhoa was speechless for a moment and then said, “Really? I had no idea my mother was so kinky!” Lei replied indignantly, “I’m not kinky, I’m completely vanilla!” Hienhoa laughed and said, “OMG Mom! I’m totally embarrassed that you even know what vanilla means! Does that mean you’re bi, too?” “No, I’m straight, but Ellen is bisexual. And Ellen comes over for dinner with Morris every week, so if you live with me, you will be seeing them regularly. I hope all this won’t make you uncomfortable. I can help you financially if you girls would rather stay in LA and keep your apartment.” “No way, Mom, if you’re happy with the situation, I’m happy for you. I’ll explain it to Lisa and I’m sure she’ll be fine with it.”
Lisa was even more surprised than Hienhoa, but this new information created an opening for her to share some news of her own. She called Lei and revealed that she had been in relationships with women ever since college. She had tried to go straight and get married, but had divorced her husband because she fell in love with a woman and realized that she was “100% queer,” as she put it. She apologized for not coming out to her mother sooner. “I just thought you were so traditional that you would be disappointed in me for being gay. Now I know you’re not so old-fashioned after all!” Lei was quite surprised, but she assured Lisa that she loved her and that this would not change anything. She immediately called Ellen and exclaimed, “My daughter is a lesbian!” Ellen replied, “Oh how wonderful! I’m so happy for you! Morris and I were so disappointed that all four of our kids turned out to be straight. Where did we go wrong?”
Hienhoa and Lisa packed a U-Haul truck with their belongings, and drove from LA to San Jose, about a five-hour drive. They insisted on staying at a friend’s place in San Jose to quarantine for a week before moving in with Lei, as they were very concerned about endangering their mother, Morris, and Ellen who were all elders and much more vulnerable to COVID. They both tested negative for COVID and moved back into their childhood bedrooms at Lei’s house. Lei had to stop herself whenever she was tempted to tell them what to do or ask them what time they would be home. Heinhoa and Lisa each volunteered for doing cleaning and cooking, with Lisa saying, “Well, we’re not paying any rent, so you might as well get some work out of us.”
The first time Morris came over for a date, everyone was uncomfortable, and the conversation at the dinner table was strained. After dinner, Heinhoa whispered, “Hey, Lisa, let’s go for a run to give Mom some privacy for her date.” They were gone for a couple hours, and returned to find Morris and Lei sitting on the couch watching a movie. They both smiled and giggled and hurried into their bedrooms. Lei felt very embarrassed and couldn’t relax, so Morris suggested that they might be more comfortable going to his house since his wife was at Karen’s apartment for a date.
The next day when Lei came home, Lisa said, “Gee, Mom, you guys didn’t have to leave, I’m sorry if we made you feel uncomfortable.” Lei replied, “I’m just so embarrassed, I couldn’t imagine having Morris stay over, feeling like I’m not a good mother and setting a bad example for my daughters. I don’t want to encourage you girls to become promiscuous!” Lisa laughed out loud, “That’s hilarious! You don’t seem to have any problem being in this polyamorous relationship with a married man, but you’re afraid to have a date with him because we’re back in the house again. I guess we’re all being freaking prudes about this!”
Lei even considered breaking up with Morris because she felt so uncomfortable about her daughters seeing her with a married man, and so fearful that she would be “a bad influence on them.” Morris was shocked, but he gently reminded her that her daughters were both in their 30’s, and were unlikely to be influenced by her relationship. He encouraged her to give herself a little more time before making any decisions about their relationship.
After about six weeks of Lei and Morris having all their dates at Morris and Ellen’s house, Hienhoa told Lei, “Lisa and I have gotten over our squeamishness now, and we’re totally comfortable with Morris staying overnight.” By that time, Morris and Ellen had come over for dinner every week, so the daughters were used to seeing them as a married couple and had adjusted to their mother’s unconventional relationship. Lisa bonded with Ellen since they both had relationships with women, and Lisa appreciated being able to talk with Ellen about her “dyke drama” with her girlfriend.
Ellen, Morris, and Lei were old enough to get vaccinated in March 2021. However, Ellen’s lover Karen and Lei’s daughters Heinhoa and Lisa were not able to get the vaccine until early May because they were too young. By that time, restrictions on nail salons had been lifted, and Heinhoa and Lisa decided to re-open the shop and move back to LA. They had gotten a deferral on the rent on their shop for four months, and then had used their savings to pay the rent every month after that, since they were not paying rent at Lei’s house. They had sublet their apartment but kept their names on the lease, so they asked their subletter to find another place so they could move back in. Lisa told Lei, “We’re grateful that you took us in during this rough time. But we’ve been freeloading off of you long enough, and we really want to get back to work and start being grown-ups again.”
Because of the “summer surge” of COVID in July 2021, Lisa and Heinhoa’s nail salon struggled to be profitable again. Many people were afraid to come in to get manicures and pedicures, and business was not picking up as fast as they had hoped. They kept the shop open but also got part-time jobs, Lisa working on contract with a marketing firm, and Heinhoa got a job as a prep cook at the Vietnamese restaurant she had worked at during college. Lei was able to send them some money every month, and they were able to make ends meet until more of their former customers started coming back in again.
Sarah, Harlan, and Rashi were experiencing another kind of poly drama. Sarah is a retired schoolteacher, who lives with her wife Rashi, a freelance editor, and Rashi’s other partner Harlan, in Memphis, Tennessee. They have had a very stable FFM “V” triad for the past 20 years. They went through some conflicts two years ago when Harlan retired from his job as a plumber, as Sarah and Rashi were used to having the house to themselves while he was at work, As he jokingly described it, “Even though we’re all poly, suddenly, two’s company, and three’s a crowd!” Although Rashi is still working about 30 hours a week, she works from home as an editor, and her hours are flexible. She and Sarah would usually have lunch together every day and often go for walks together.
When Harlan retired, Rashi tried to divide her free time equally between both partners, but they had a lot more time than she did. She became very stressed because she could not keep up with her work. Sarah and Harlan partially solved that problem by going out together while Rashi was working, to go to the gym for exercise classes, and to check out new coffee shops and restaurants. Harlan also started “a revival of a wild love affair with an old flame.” His ex-girlfriend Donna, is an electrician who had unceremoniously dumped him a year before in order to accommodate a new boyfriend’s desire for monogamy. Predictably, that relationship had quickly crashed and burned, and Harlan and Donna started having a few dates a week So Harlan was getting a lot more affection and attention, and Rashi could get more work done without him feeling neglected.
Their triad stabilized again and things were going very well until the start of the COVID pandemic. Sarah’s two sons from her previous marriage, Max and Jeffrey, are in their early forties. Both live in Detroit, where they were born and raised, and where their father still lives. Max has struggled with a bi-polar condition since adolescence, in addition to a drinking problem. However, with anti-depressant medications, mindfulness meditation, and regular 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he stayed sober, employed, and pretty emotionally stable for at least 10 years. However, he spiraled down into a severe depression in May, 2020, two months after losing his job as a personal trainer at 24-hour Fitness gym when COVID closed down all the gyms. He had gone through a break-up with his boyfriend a few months before the pandemic started, and was still getting over him. His Alcoholics Anonymous meetings also were cancelled, with the only AA meetings being held on Zoom, but it just wasn’t the same as the in-person meetings in providing support and companionship. He started drinking and went off his medication, and soon was hospitalized with a full-blown manic episode.
Sarah was distraught over Max’s hospitalization, and insisted that she was going to drive all the way to Detroit to take care of him. Rashi and Harlan both felt this would be extremely dangerous in exposing herself to COVID, especially because she has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and her respiratory system is very vulnerable. While Sarah packed a suitcase, wand Harlan tried to stop her, Rashi immediately called Sarah’s ex-husband Samuel and their other son Jeffrey in Detroit. Samuel and Jeffrey both got on the phone with Sarah and managed to talk her out of jumping in the car.
Jeffrey told her that he was having Skype visits with Max every day while he was in the hospital, as the hospital had a strict “No Visitors” policy due to COVID. He told Sarah that she would not be allowed to visit Max either. Samuel reassured her that he and Jeffrey were staying in very close touch with Max, and the nurses allowed them to drop off clean clothes every few days and a few take-out meals from his favorite restaurants. Sarah started having Skype visits with Max, too, and felt much calmer, as she could see that he was doing much better after a week in the hospital. He was back on his medications, and his psychiatrist had added a mood stabilizer. He was staying sober, and had gotten back in touch with his old Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and started talking with him daily to help him stay on track with his sobriety. The doctor told Sarah that Max was much more stable and would be released from the hospital in a few days.
Jeffrey suggested that Max move in with him temporarily, because he had a two-bedroom apartment. His roommate had lost his job as a barista in an upscale coffeehouse, and moved back home with his parents. Max had been living alone in a small studio apartment, which was fine while he was working at the gym and having lots of social interactions with people. But after being laid off, he said, “being stuck in that drafty, dreary, dark apartment all day made me feel so alone and depressed.” So he sublet his place and moved in with Jeffrey, who works from home. Max says that just having Jeffrey around, even though he’s working all day, is helping him stay sober, and he feel much less isolated. They had dinner together most nights, and watch movies and play video games together “just like we used to in high school,” says Max. Their father visited every weekend.
Sarah struggled with guilt feelings, telling Rashi, “I feel like such a bad mother for not being there when my son needs me!” Rashi and Harlan keep reminding her that Max had a strong support system with his brother and father living nearby and being so involved, and that Sarah had done her part with the Skype visits and phone calls. At Rashi and Harlan’s suggestion, she had also started sending him some money each month. Because Sarah, Rashi, Harlan pool all their money together, they discussed it and they all agreed that this was a great way to help Max pay his bills until he could go back to work. Harlan said, “Sarah and I are both very lucky to have pensions, and we also get Social Security. And Rashi is still working and makes good money. So it’s not a hardship to send Max some money, and it’s helped Sarah stop feeling guilty.” By June, some of Max’s clients from the gym had tracked him down because they wanted to continue having personal training sessions by video. He said, “They were all telling me that they were gaining weight and becoming couch potatoes, and needed help to get back to their exercise program.” This made him feel valued and needed, and he started setting up personal training sessions on Zoom every day.
Harlan also suggested paying for on-line classes for Max to develop other job skills or pursue a different line of work, as it looked like it would be a long time before the gyms could open again. [In fact, gyms were not allowed to re-open until 11 months later]. Max started taking on-line real estate classes, with the goal of becoming a real estate agent. This was also helpful to Sarah in feeling she was helping her son pursue his education to have a new career, and this reduced her anxiety about Max’s future employment prospects.
In March 2021, Rashi, Sarah, Harlan, and his girlfriend Donna were all vaccinated. By April, Max and Jeffrey were also able to get the vaccine. Jeffrey’s company still had everyone working from home, but the gyms were open and Max was able to go back to work full-time. He moved back into his old apartment in April so Jeffrey’s roommate could move back in with Jeffrey, since the roommate got his job back when the coffee house finally re-opened. Max remained sober and emotionally stable, and stayed on his medications. Sarah, Harlan, and Rashi drove to Detroit to see Max and Jeffrey in May, and it was a very happy, if tearful and emotional, reunion.
Max had completed his real estate classes by June, and was preparing to take the state licensing exam that was scheduled for July. However, the Real Estate Board was observing strict COVID precautions in setting up the testing, and as a result there were a number of delays. He was finally able to take the exam in September, and unfortunately failed the test. He blamed it on the delays which he said increased his anxiety, and the setback caused him to get moderately depressed again. This time Sarah did immediately drive to Detroit and stayed for two weeks until he was feeling a lot more stable. He took the test again in November, and passed it this time.
Many of these examples illustrate that the old adage “there is strength in numbers” may have particular significance for poly people during COVID. Many polycules have pulled together to take care of each other during these rough times, and most seem to have survived and even thrived despite the overwhelming challenges created by the pandemic.