COVID and its effects on poly relationships
Internet dating in the midst of a pandemic, which may morph into dating IRL
Since the start of the pandemic, some poly people have started exploring Internet dating, contacting interesting people on dating apps and then talking by phone and by video to test for some level of compatibility. The goal for some has been to continue meeting them for multiple dates on Zoom or other video platforms to get to know them. Some have seen this simply as a way to create some “bright spots” in their days while sheltering in place: some conversation and companionship, and something to look forward to while slogging through the long lonely stretches of working at home and being cut off from friends and social activities. For others it has been a strategy to meet potential lovers for future relationships, as they start feeling safe enough to meet new people in person.
Many poly people have done a lot of Internet dating using websites and dating apps, so most have a relative comfort level with meeting partners virtually before potentially dating in person. However, some poly folks, especially older people, have no experience with “digital dating,” and they don’t have a clue where to start. But COVID has caused more polys of all ages to consider or pursue dating apps and cyberdating, as they didn’t feel safe pursuing in-person dating options.
In general, poly people have been eager early adopters of meeting potential partners on-line. Many have cited the much higher likelihood of meeting poly partners through dating sites and apps, while the odds of meeting poly partners through in-person dating are slim. Many recount numerous incidents of meeting a wonderful and attractive person at an event, class, or party, only to have them decline any further contact immediately after a poly orientation is disclosed. With some on-line dating platforms, users can state clearly in their profile that they are poly, and can easily rule out anyone whose profile makes it clear they are looking for an exclusive relationship.
Blythe, a 69-year-old retired dance teacher says, “It’s hard enough for an old woman like me to get a date under the best of circumstances, so I have to be smart to increase my odds! Most people I meet through activities or groups are monogamously-oriented, or they just want to cheat on their wives and lie about it. Because poly people are still a relatively small group, on OK Cupid or Bumble I can zero in on guys who are in my age group and who make it clear upfront that they’re poly. It’s a waste of time even emailing or talking on the phone to guys who want a monogamous woman; I know from very painful experience that you can’t convert them.”
Sumati Sparks, a poly relationship coach and founder of the Poly Over Fifty Community, has written several articles on dating during the pandemic, with step by step instructions for poly folks who are new to Internet dating. Her first article suggests various dating apps and gives great advice about how to write a profile and how to evaluate potential candidates. She reminds us that dating takes time, and advises that people carve out at least 45 minutes three times a week in order to look through profiles, answer messages from potential suitors, and schedule short “phone dates” with promising candidates after a brief email or text exchange. Sumati suggests that after a phone call, if you’re both still interested, suggest a short video chat to get to know them better.
In her second article, Sparks suggests that if the video chat goes well, either have a few additional video dates, or go ahead and set up an in-person “socially distanced” date. She even lists 20 very creative things to do on “socially distant dates,” including dancing in the back yard to music, working on individual art projects in your yard or at a park, renting one-person kayaks and kayaking across a lake together, or, in cold climates, snowshoeing or ice skating, all with masks on and staying at least six feet apart.
After enjoying a few socially distant dates, Sparks suggests discussing with your new potential lover when and how you will feel safe “air bonding.” Either she or sex educator Reid Mihalko coined this term to describe navigating the decision to take off the masks on a date, and get up close and personal. They both started using the term “air bonding” at around the same time in the fall of 2020, so neither is sure who came up with it first.
Poly people often talk about becoming “fluid bonded,” when they decide it is safe to stop using condoms and/or other safer sex practices and have unbarriered sex. So now poly people are discussing “air bonding,” where each person states what they need to feel safe lifting some or all of these COVID precautions, and negotiating what steps to take. One other poly coach, Dawn Davidson, describes this as “breath bonding.” Whatever term you choose to use, the key is that each person has assessed the relative risks of exposure to COVID and feel comfortable with whatever activities are agreed on. That could include relatively tame activities like sitting next to each other on the couch without masks or sharing food, or more intimate behaviors like making out or having sex.
Sparks’ articles were written in February, 2021, before any of the COVID vaccines were widely available. By the beginning of May, many poly folks had been fully vaccinated, so more were moving from virtual dating to in-person dating much more quickly. However, many chose to continue utilizing masks and social distancing for at least the first few dates with any new person. Those who had already received the vaccine were much more likely to feel safe “air bonding” and engaging in closer physical contact than others who chose not to take the vaccine.
Many polys who have disabilities, have serious health problems, or are older feel particularly vulnerable to COVID and remain very reluctant to start in-person dating with new people. For those who want to stick to Internet dating, Sparks suggests some adventurous and sexy on-line options. One particularly intriguing suggestion is Cupid’s Cosmic Playground, a monthly Zoom party with lots of Zoom break-out rooms. Its website calls it “the best virtual dating party to hit the Internet,” and boasts various rooms including a dance party room, a support group, and a “flirtation station” where you can try to woo potential partners. My personal favorite is the Singles Doom Zoom Room,” a break-out room where people can complain about their ex-partners and tell stories about their most spectacular dating fails.
In talking with many people in the poly community about the current Internet and in-person dating practices of poly elders, here are some examples of how poly folks are coping with dating in the age of COVID.
Rosalinda is a court reporter in Boulder, Colorado. The court where she works was shut down for several months due to COVID and then only re-opened with limited hours, so she was alone at home all day. She was not able to see her lover, Xavier, for the first year of the pandemic. He lives in Montana, and both he and his nesting partner Gemina are over 65, and each of them have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable. As a result, he was not comfortable traveling by plane, train, or bus to see her, out of fear of COVID, and he can no longer drive due to impaired vision. Gemina was reluctant to have Rosalinda travel to their home for a visit as she had previously done every few months.
In December of 2020, Rosalinda suggested that she would drive to Montana, and stay at a nearby hotel, and Xavier could come to the hotel to visit with her for a few days. She felt that the drive would be safe, as she would drive straight through with only one stop to refill the gas tank and a few restroom stops along the way. She did not feel that seeing him posed any risk to her, as he and his wife had been scrupulously staying home, having groceries delivered, and only leaving the house for a daily half-hour walk around the neighborhood. Xavier was thrilled with this plan, but Gemina objected, saying the risk--of Xavier going to a hotel and potentially be exposed to hotel workers and other hotel guests, as well as to Rosalinda—was too high. This caused a long and angry argument which ended with an impasse, as neither one would budge. Not wanting to cause a crisis in Xavier’s marriage, Rosalinda withdrew her proposal. She was hoping that Xavier and Gemina would soon be able to get the vaccine, and that this would change the risk equation enough for her to see her partner in person.
In the meantime, she said, “out of loneliness and desperation,” she started pursuing on-line dating. She spent hours on OK Cupid, Bumble, and Bloom, reading a lot of profiles, and “met” four different poly men virtually. She says her goal was “to create a very small pool of poly men who could become potential partners to meet in person after this pandemic is all over, or whenever it seems safe again, whichever comes first.” She started having video dates with each one every week or so.
Two of these relationships, with Raul and Joaquin, moved from strictly platonic to lots of flirting and romantic interactions. They were both currently single and identify as “solo poly,” eager to have relationships but not looking for a primary or committed relationship. She told them about each other, as well as about Xavier.
“I’ve had past experience of meeting people on-line, feeling a spark of attraction, and then you meet them and there is no chemistry. It’s really hard to trust that ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling, because you are at a removed distance seeing them on a computer screen. I feel a lot of attraction towards both Raul and Joaquin, and do daydream about them. But I know from experience that I need to wait for that all-important ‘pheromone check’ of eventually meeting them in person, to see if I was just projecting my desires onto them, or if there is a real romance there.
“Meanwhile, it’s fine to enjoy the fun and connection with them, because it’s easing my loneliness and making me feel less isolated. Both of them live alone and are working from home. They both have expressed gratitude for the companionship our phone calls and video chats have brought into their lives during this bleak period. Every time Joaquin signs off of Zoom, says, “Rosalinda, you really made my day!” As long as I remind myself that we may never develop a relationship in person, and I’m not deceiving them, it’s a positive thing in our lives and helps each of us. This pandemic is extremely depressing, and we all need a lift.”
In March 2021, Xavier and Gemina were able to get the vaccine, and by April, Rosalinda was also fully vaccinated. Gemina gave Xavier her blessing to see Rosalind, inviting her to drive to their home for a three-day visit. Because Gemina felt it was still not safe for Xavier to take a bus or train to visit Rosalinda, and still felt the hotel plan was too risky, she preferred that Rosalinda stay in their home. Gemina offered to give them some privacy by spending two days with her daughter, who lived nearby. She thanked Rosalinda for accommodating her concerns by making the huge sacrifice of not seeing Xavier for over a year. Xavier and Rosalinda had a wonderful romantic three-day weekend together in the first week of May, and happily went back to their pre-pandemic relationship of meeting once a month for a few days. However, when the very contagious omicron variant started spreading that November, Gemina asked Xavier and Rosalinda to suspend their visits again, and they agreed to take a break for December and January, or until omicron subsides.
In May 2021, Rosalinda decided to finally meet her “internet flames” Joaquin and Raul, in person, with Xavier and Gemina’s consent. She took a few walks in the park with Joaquin, wearing masks and social distancing. It was pretty awkward at first, after all those months of flirting wildly and talking a lot on Zoom, to actually see him in person. By the second date, she began to relax enough to notice that she felt some sexual and romantic chemistry with him, but he also had some annoying habits that only became clear when meeting in person. He was very disappointed when she told him she would like to be friends rather than lovers, but they have continued seeing each other platonically.
She met Raul for a socially distanced picnic in his back yard, and with him, she did feel the same strong sexual attraction to him in person that she had experienced in their on-line chats. Ironically, he did not feel the same chemistry with her that he had experienced on-line, so he told her at the end of the date that they should be friends. So neither of her virtual internet lovers turned into lovers in real life, but she says she has no regrets. “I have made two great friends, and we helped each other get through the depths of this pandemic when we were all feeling frightened and alone. We’re all part of the local poly community and we’re all coming through for each other.”
Others have not been seeking “live” relationships during the pandemic, but are trying out “cybersex dating” via webcam or phone sex. Some single poly people of all ages report that this has been a great boon for them, since otherwise they would not have had any sex of any kind for the past two years of the pandemic. However, some polys have found it less than satisfying, and one woman described it as “downright depressing.”
Many poly people were already enthusiasts of internet sexual activities before the advent of COVID, so adding new partners, and limiting their connection to “virtual sex” to prevent any risk, has not been much of a leap. This is especially true for poly folks in long-distance relationships. They are used to long intervals in between being able to visit each other in person, so some have become accustomed to mutual masturbation, sexual talk, using sex toys, role playing, and/or fantasy play, via video or phone sex. Since they are already comfortable with relationships that involve a lot more virtual sex than in-person sex, it is relatively easy to start new relationships over the internet which may or may not eventually become face to face relationships IRL, “in real life.”