You Need Help: Can I Tell My Poly Roommate Not to See Her Partners Because of Coronavirus?

Q:

Greetings from quarantine!

My roommate “Nora” and I (both women in our early thirties) have been in self-isolation since mid-March. We get along well, have lived and worked together for two years, share a fairly large apartment with some outdoor space, and are both able to transfer our work online, so we’ve avoided the worst pandemic stress – for now.

After an initial two-week total quarantine, I resumed seeing my partner, “Casey,” who lives alone (they have various health problems that make coronavirus significantly more risky for them). Nora recently brought up how frustrated and sad she’s been feeling about her romantic prospects as a poly person when I am able to continue my monogamous relationship. She even mentioned that she resented the fact that I could continue to see Casey (who is a relatively new partner) when she can’t continue to see her longer-term partner(s), both of whom live with their own primary partners, who in turn have other partners, etc.

She said that she couldn’t bear the thought of going the summer without some kind of in-person intimacy and that she didn’t want to be made to feel “responsible” for following isolation just so I can see Casey (who plans to remain pretty isolated even if our state eases restrictions). But in the current moment, our personal lives are actually mutually exclusive: either I can have a monogamous relationship with minimal heath risk and the ability to contact trace, or she can have a high-risk polyamorous relationship with no way to know the actual extent of the exposure network. When we discussed this, she accused me of unfair bias against poly people, which isn’t true! Poly just so happens to be incompatible with containing a highly contagious illness. And even if I wasn’t seeing Casey, and/or if the state permits socializing again, I still don’t think it’s safe for Nora to jump back into poly dating!

Short of convincing her to splurge on a summer sublet where she can hook up to her heart’s content and return after quarantining (unlikely), what can I do? Do I have any rights to safety after our state issues a possibly-misguided plan to reopen? Can we even know anything?? I generally trust Nora, but am afraid she might eventually make an executive decision and start seeing her partners as soon as it becomes socially acceptable, even if it’s still unwise from a personal and public health standpoint.


A:

Hi!

Wow, okay, this question brought up a lot of thoughts for me, because there’s a lot going on here: safety, risk, pandemic etiquette, roommate relations, polyamory vs. monogamy, trust, access to intimacy… I’m not surprised you concluded with “Can we even know anything??” And of course the very short answer to that question is a simple no. We cannot even know anything. When it comes to a global pandemic the likes of which none of us have ever lived through, a novel virus with no current cure or vaccine, the future… we can barely know anything at all. And yet, we can’t let that truth inform the way we live our day to day lives, because we’re not talking about “anything” or “everything,” we’re talking about existing in the current present, moment to moment, day to day, human to human. So while I think you may be feeling overwhelmed, I want to resist the idea that this question is impossible just because the solution is not simple and easy (or that there even is one correct solution). This question is complicated and difficult, but it is not impossible – it just may result in actions that don’t feel ideal for everyone involved. Something my best friend and I have been saying to each other recently feels true when I read this question: “There are no good choices.” Right now, life feels that way a lot of the time. How to make the best choice for everyone involved when there are no good choices? Let’s attempt.

After reading this question over many times, I realized that you are saying two specific things: 1. You don’t want Nora to see her dates right now because that level of exposure would make it impossible for you to see your partner and 2. You don’t want Nora to see her dates even if you didn’t have a partner, because you don’t think it’s a good idea and it would expose you personally to a level of risk that you are not comfortable with. One of those things is a logistical problem that needs to be sorted out in order for both you and Nora to continue living together in a respectful and enjoyable way, and one of those things is a personal opinion that honestly does read as a little bit biased against poly people to me, but also as a fair concern.

I empathize with you a lot because I’m a very anxious and careful person, and I’ve personally felt dismayed as people close to me have not treated this pandemic as seriously as I would like them to, or have made choices that I think are selfish or unsafe. When shelter in place first began in New York I was living alone, and I canceled my spring break trip and left my apartment twice in 90 days. It seemed really reckless, to me, that folks who had the means to stay home were visiting their parents, having social distance hangouts, and even dating. I firmly believed that if you were able to stay home and completely isolate, you should, and from about March through May, I did not waiver. I had arguments with friends about it, and I am certain some people just stopped telling me when they were seeing other people because they didn’t want to be judged. I am not sorry or regretful of my perspective then; we didn’t have a lot of information about the virus, and I truly felt it was an act of community care to stay home as much as possible. That is still true. It would be ideal if you and Nora could continue completely isolating.

However. As each day passes, it becomes clear the United States does not have a handle on the pandemic, and possibly will never get a handle on it. Shelter in place was not supposed to be a new way of life indefinitely; it was meant to buy us time, to flatten the curve. The government squandered that time. I do not know when the pandemic will end, when it will be “safe” to be around each other again. But I do know that it becomes increasingly difficult to ask individuals to make huge personal sacrifices, at great cost, when it is clear the government is doing almost nothing to move us toward a different world. Asking someone to isolate for three months, to me, felt reasonable. It did not feel that way to everyone, but to me it did. Asking someone to stop having human contact indefinitely is cruel, and it’s reasonable for Nora to feel sad watching you with a relatively new partner when she’s separated from her partners, even though there’s good reason. It is still objectively safest to be isolating. There will be people who disagree with what I’m about to say, and I respect them – maybe the only truly ethical answer here is to tell you that you’re right, and Nora’s gotta keep isolating, and that’s that – but that’s not how I feel anymore. Though it’s genuinely horrifying that messaging around what we can and can’t do safely is still such a mess, even 6+ months after coronavirus hit the United States for the first time, most people I know – even folks who isolated very strictly for the past few months – are trying to figure out how to have some human contact at this point. Even scientists have started to talk about how we can practice harm reduction when it comes to living our lives (and were doing so as early as May of this year), because the alternative is not sustainable. We need to find a way to live as safely as possible in this new world, because this is our current reality and it seems it will be our reality for quite some time.

So! Where does that leave you and Nora. You are so totally 100% allowed to feel scared about Nora dating. But I don’t understand why you feel your relationship should be prioritized over Nora’s relationships, or anything happening specifically to Nora. If you remove the pandemic from the situation (seems impossible, I know, but bear with me) this is a situation where you and your roommate are disagreeing about something. Of course you both think your perspectives are the most valid – and you need to talk it out. I would also suggest that perhaps you could include Casey in these conversations. I’m not clear from your letter the extent of their health problems, and am also not clear about how much they have been included in decision making around this issue thus far, but if they are most at-risk of everyone in this scenario, it seems fair that they should be granted the agency to express how they feel and what is and is not a dealbreaker for them. I also think, in the future, it might be helpful to bring Nora’s partner(s) into the conversation, too. It can feel dramatic or overly cautious, but frank conversations about risk and disclosure of health and testing status are going to be our new normal as long as this continues. It’s not a bad thing to communicate about this – it’s a caring choice.

You say Casey lives alone – the most obvious solution to me, if you and Nora both want to be seeing people but you cannot afford the level of exposure that would result in – is for you to move in with Casey for a while. Alternatively, you and Nora could make an arrangement where she can see one of her partners or go on a date, but then must get tested, and only after she receives a negative result would you see Casey again. Another option: Nora sees one of her partners or a new date, she comes home and quarantines for 14 days, and once that two-week period is over, you can see Casey again. A partner of Nora’s could agree to self-isolate or get tested before seeing her. Or, you and Nora both decide that when you’re home and sharing space indoors, you have to wear masks. Maybe you could ask Nora to compromise and see if she could spend time on social distance dates with her partners, but not actually have any sexual contact with them. As I said in the very beginning, I don’t think there’s a simple or easy solution here, but I do think there are ways you can logically look at the risk factors and then work with them to make it safe for you to continue seeing your partner and also allow Nora to see her partners or go on dates. I think I actually relate more to your perspective than Nora’s (even though I am non-monogamous) and I really understand that if your partner is high-risk, the stakes become life and death. But I still don’t see why the solution is that you should be allowed to continue behaving exactly as you want to, and Nora must completely sacrifice the sex and dating life that makes her feel happy and cared for, or make a major lifestyle change she likely can’t afford.

This will probably not feel completely comfortable for you. I know that I had a big luxury, when I lived alone, to only have to worry about myself. During that time, I spoke to many friends who were staying home just as strictly as I was, but who lived with housemates who went out, brought dates and friends home, and generally did not take shelter in place seriously at all. I don’t condone that behavior, but as we all know, living with other people often means compromise. Most of us have not experienced having to compromise on something that can literally be life or death; it is bringing into stark reality if we want to continue living with the people we live with, being friends with the people we are friends with, or being in community with the people we share community with. If someone shows they don’t care about the collective, or only prioritize their own needs, that’s a red flag and often a wakeup call. But, in my personal opinion, it doesn’t sound like that’s what’s happening with Nora here. It sounds like your roommate – who you like and respect – is lonely and living through a pandemic and wants to connect with her partners or with another human. She is calculating her risk levels, and for her, eventually seeing her partners or hooking up is worth the risks she will take on. For you, it’s not.

I don’t think either of you are wrong or right; I think we currently live in hell and most people are doing the best they can to reduce harm to both themselves and the people around them. It’s possible that you’re right, the way you and Nora want to exist right now is mutually exclusive and in order for both of you to be fulfilled, happy, and as safe as you each want to be, you will need to stop living together. But it’s also possible that there’s a way to compromise here that doesn’t entirely put the burden on Nora and this hypothetical sublet you’ve (jokingly?) envisioned for her. When we live with roommates, we do not control our home environment entirely. If Nora had to leave the house to go to work, you’d already be negotiating this situation. The fact that she wants to leave the house to see the people she loves (just as much as you love Casey) or to fulfill her sexual needs may not seem as valid to you, but they are as valid to her. That alone means this issue is not just going to go away; you need to decide if it’s worth it for both of you to try to work it out. Otherwise y’all may not be roommates for much longer.

I encourage you and Nora to talk about it and focus on facts, logic, and creative solutions, rather than letting your emotions lead the conversation (a tall order, I know, but one that may decide whether you continue living together or not so I think it’s worth it). It sounds to me, just from your brief letter, that you each may have said things in the heat of the moment that aren’t ideal. It’s unkind of Nora to say she doesn’t want to be held “responsible” for your partner’s health, but it’s also unfair of you to imply that all poly relationships would be high risk or that Nora’s goal is to “hook up to her heart’s content” when it seems like all she really said is that she “can’t bear the thought of going the summer without some kind of in-person intimacy.”

“Can we even know anything??” No, but I guess also yes. We know that this is going to be our reality for quite some time. We have no choice but to have the hard conversations and figure out when – if ever – we’re willing to compromise. Things are awful but they’re not entirely unknowable; we just may find ourselves making decisions that we wish we didn’t have to even consider. Welcome to 2020; I’m sorry.

Vanessa is a queer feminist writer and photographer currently based in New York. She really misses Portland. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 332 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. I agree with the advice Vanessa has provided here. I also agree – even if it’s unintentional – that there’s a bit of anti-polyam bias showing from the letter writer (first referring to Nora’s “longer-term partners” and then later referring to them as “hookups” rubbed me the wrong way, among other things. *Maybe* that’s how Nora refers to them! But without additional context, it looks biased). I understand the practical realities of polyam and extended exposure networks, but I’d also encourage the letter writer to challenge underlying ideas they might be holding onto that view monogamy as more serious and important and thus more worthy of making sacrifices for.

    As Vanessa has pointed out, there are quite a few options for seeing non-monogamous partners while also reducing risk – one of the big ones being that your household isolates for 14 days or gets tested (5 days after seeing other partners) and isolates until receiving a negative result after any possible exposure. I also agree that it seems reasonable to me that the letter writer could spend extended time at Casey’s home, given that Casey lives alone and that seems like a very safe way to both protect Casey and allow Nora to have human contact.

    I think Vanessa really hit at the core of this though by pointing out that this pandemic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, especially in the US. Asking people to cut off all human contact in the short-term for the safety of others is a reasonable request. Asking people to do it for a year, 2 years, 3 years, however long this pandemic is going to continue for is entirely unreasonable. It is even more unreasonable for the letter writer to ask for that when it’s not a choice they’re making themselves – they’re essentially holding themselves to a different standard than their roommate.

    I’m going to share two articles (if that’s allowed!) that I think do a good job of breaking down abstinence vs harm reduction from a social justice/community perspective that might be helpful:

    http://innovationsocialeusp.ca/en/crits/blogue/moving-from-abstinence-to-harm-reduction-in-the-age-of-physical-distancing?

    https://alexisshotwell.com/2020/03/25/survival-will-always-be-insufficient-but-its-a-good-place-to-start/

    I feel for the letter writer and their anxieties, I really do, but I think they need to lean into the discomfort, have some real conversations with their roommate, and interrogate some of the beliefs and attitudes that are guiding their current stance.

    In the interests of laying out my own biases and interests on the line here: I am non-monogamous, disabled/medically-vulnerable to COVID, and I live in Canada, which has handled this pandemic exponentially more competently than the US, so I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be living somewhere with no reasonable guidance or unified public health measures in place (where I live masks are mandatory in indoor public places, testing is rapid and accessible with results provided in about 2 days, policies are in place to prevent crowds from gathering, and we currently have about 200 active known cases in a city of 1 million, so that obviously shapes my perspective).

  2. This is such a tricky situation to have to navigate. I empathise with both the writer and her roommate, as they’re in a bit of a zero-sum-game situation. Either the writer can see Casey and Nora can’t see her partners, or vice versa.

    One solution could be for you to both see your partners but to treat communal areas of your home as potentially contaminated zones – wiping down surfaces daily, opening windows for ventilation, avoiding touching your face, both of you wearing face masks and keeping your physical distance from each other – and thoroughly washing your hands before you return to the ‘safe zone’ of your bedroom. It would be more stressful on a day-to-day basis, but you’d both get to be intimate with your partners.

    Another would be for you to move in with your partner, and isolate there together.

    I feel like if it really came down to a straight choice it might be fairer for the writer to be able to see Casey, as Nora at least has the luxury of a roomate and her partners have partners, but Casey lives all alone. But with the US dealing with the pandemic so poorly and there being no end in sight for you guys, it seems pretty rough for Nora not to have any idea of when she might be reunited with her partners.

    • The advise given here is so great! These are such uncertain times and I really feel for those who live with roommate trying to find ways to navigate their lives safely. What if the letter writer and Nora come up with a schedule? So basically they are not home the same days. It may feel really structured and weird to have your dating life scheduled but things are just so different right now and we have to find creative ways to be around people. The shared spaces would of course need to be wiped down after use, but we know the main driver is sharing the air with someone who has been exposed. So maybe if the both of them were just not home at the same time both parties could enjoy their partners without putting each other at risk.

      • I’d also like to note that testing is not reliable everywhere. Currently where I live (Northern California) testing is so backed up that test results are taking up to 2 weeks. So while that could be an option for some people it is not the case for a lot of us right now unfortunately.

        Also my phone autocorrected me above – I meant advice not advise!

  3. Oooof, what a dilemma. I think Vanessa’s on the nose here, with the caveat that I do in fact think that being functionally single for a year, or two, or three, is a small price to pay for not dying. It’s a small price for not developing chronic health complications, as many COVID survivors do, and for not communicating a lethal disease to my loved ones.

    Others probably feel differently. But I think there’s a very real terror of being single in the US because many of us are alienated from warmly supportive friendships, family networks, etc. I don’t think of being single as wasted time, or a cutoff from participating in human connection. It kinda sucks sometimes, but everything about 2020 kinda sucks. We have video calls, phone sex, texting, even snail mail (for now). Both Nora and the writer have multifarious options for romantic, sexual, and just plain human contact.

  4. Thank you for this piece, Vanessa. “I don’t think either of you are wrong or right; I think we currently live in hell” was one of my favorite lines. This article is so applicable to my life rn even though I am not in the exact same situation as letter writer.

    Also, a reminder that “polyam” is the best current abbreviation for polyamory and polyamorous, as “poly” is used by Polynesians.

    http://aidamanduley.com/2015/09/01/stop-saying-poly-when-you-mean-polyamorous/

  5. One question: Are tests in the U.S. actually reliable at this point? I have heard they are not. I’m not sure if letter writer lives in the U.S., but relying on tests that are not reliable is risky, obviously. So quarantining would likely be a safer option though it takes more time.

  6. CW: mental health, suicide, hospitalization
    .
    .
    I also want to push back on letter writer’s statement that their roommate seeing partners is unwise from a personal and public health standpoint. Yes, seeing people is unwise for health in terms of spreading the coronavirus. And, human contact is required for mental health (and thus physical health, because it’s all connected). We cannot survive without human contact.

    Take it from me, a person who has had to isolate to varying degrees for 3 years now due to our society’s lack of accessibility for people with chemical sensitivities. I once went 11 months without a hug and nearly died. There have also been studies that show isolation is extremely bad for physical health.

    What if someone gets so distressed from isolating for coronavirus reasons that they have to be hospitalized and thus be SUPER exposed to coronavirus and expose everyone there if they are a carrier? Or what if they die by suicide? Those are both very bad for personal and public health.

    Isolation can also be really triggering for abused and/or formerly-incarcerated people, which could lead to the above situations.

    So harm reduction truly is the key here. And it is my belief that having human contact in the most cautious and safe ways possible will reduce harm overall.

  7. I might make a slightly more extreme suggestion not entertained by Vanessa or the letter writer.
    Both letter writer and roommate could agree that neither see significant others until the curve flattens or new cases reduce to a manageable level.
    It is both fair to both as well as more in line with global norms with the number of current us cases.
    Currently the city of Melbourne has relatively similar numbers of cases as the U.S. and decided to institute a six-week lock down. While it’s difficult and mentally taxing (to put it mildly), it might be both the safest and fairest solution.

  8. Yeah, my polyam ass is pretty firmly on LW’s side here. If the roommate can go on socially distant dates and alleviate some of the stress, great, but the reason LW gets to see her partner and roommate doesn’t get to see hers is that LW, LW’s partner, and roommate are all in the same bubble. Roommate’s partners are not in the bubble. It sucks! A lot! I have two partners and can’t see one of them for the same reason and it does feel like my soul is slowly being sucked out of my body! It’s also the only way to minimize the chance that the people I love might die. That’s as true now as it was in March, maybe even more so because the virus is more widespread.

    LW might have some unconscious anti-polyam virus (although I think LW just meant hook up as the act of having sex, not as a judgment of the relationships), but I don’t think it changes the fact that the responsible action is for Roommate to not see her partners.

  9. As someone who has taken quarantine measures extremely seriously because I’m living with someone who is high-risk, I empathize with the letter writer. There’s a long version to this story, but the short version is that I essentially quit my job in order to isolate with my partner and neither of us have stepped inside of an enclosed space outside of our home since mid-March. The possibility of death is real, and for me it’s not worth the risk. It’s been a strange way to live while watching almost all my friends slowly move out of quarantine, and I agree with Vanessa that I’ve changed my mind about how to feel about those friends and their actions.

    That being said, if I was in the letter writer’s shoes, these are the questions I would be asking myself: What level of isolation is my partner needing/wanting right now? Does it make sense to move in with them for a while or give up physical contact with them completely for a while? What would make both of us happiest? Does it still make sense for me to live with a roommate (polyam or not), while dating in person someone who is high-risk?

    What I’m getting at here is that a lot of my friends are doing risk assessments based on a percentage of mortality that feels…. doable for them. I get that, if I was in their shoes I would be making similar assessments. But my reality is that I want to be with my partner, in the same space, and if I expose her then the risk of death is not minimal. It’s a stark way to live. It’s also just the reality of 2020.

    I think Vanessa is also right to point out that this is also about the letter writer’s risk assessment of their own health, and not just that of their partners. I empathize with that as well. I guess I just want to point out that it’s been difficult to communicate to my friends just how different this feels living with someone who is high-risk rather than just making decisions for my own health, and that things like a socially distanced picnic feels like a safe enough trade off for almost every one of my friends except me. It’s almost like we live in two different worlds. That’s why I think it goes back to the letter writer’s partner in terms of what they need/want in terms of isolation. But it’s also worth noting that a lot of people are operating under a set of expectations that puts the risk of death at a much, much lower rate for themselves, and that difference matters.

    • I completely agree with this. Because it seems that the pandemic is not going to be over in a few short months, the long-term question of “Does it still make sense for me to live with a roommate (polyam or not), while dating in person someone who is high-risk?” is an extremely important one.

      One way I have been balancing the risks of seeing both my partners (one of which lives 45 min away with a different roommate), while also trying to safely let my toddler spend time with high-risk grandparents, is to do planned contact visits that are staggered at least 10-14 days apart. Having a specific visit date to look forward to (even if it’s only once every two months) has been extremely helpful to mitigate the anxious uncertainty my body is holding when I try to think about just how long this could go on.

      Logistically, this look likes the following steps:

      1) quarantining with my kiddo and nesting partner for two weeks
      2) getting tested (if possible)
      3) immediately visiting at-risk grandparents for 4-5 days (who live in areas with far fewer cases)
      4) then contact-visiting the partner I do not live with (who is much lower-risk than the grandparents)

      Then the whole cycle starts over again so we can see the other set of grandparents. I know it’s not perfect (and I would appreciate any other tips or insight people have!), but I’ve definitely decided to use a harm-reduction approach moving forward. It’s been really hard to watch my loved ones’ mental health start to deteriorate over the last few months, and these safe(r) visits truly felt like a lifeline for myself and people I care about as we try to shift into a “new normal” that as Esther Perel says, frankly isn’t “new” anymore.

      • I’m not dating anyone and live alone (and am still in my 20s, so don’t have serious age risks), which makes this way easier, but I’ve been following a similar “cycle” in order to still spend time with my older parents and get a break from living alone. I quarantine before visiting them, get tested, stay for a week or so, and then immediately when I get back to my apartment, I socialize for a week or two with friends, then start the isolation over again. It’s hard – I have to schedule things a month out, count backward from dates to ensure adequate isolation time, and find time during the work day to stand in line to get tested – but compared to the total isolation of the first few months, I’m so grateful for even this. COVID socializing requires a lot of calendaring, large gaps between visits, and an unprecedented level of frank and slightly intrusive dialogue with friends prior to any contact, and it’s been an adjustment.

  10. This is such good advice! I have no dog in this specific race but as a piece of persuasive writing I was like GOOD POINT ahhhh EVEN BETTER POINT yes THAT’S TRUE ABOUT IF SHE HAD A JOB. I read the entire thing with rapt attention

  11. Wow, such thoughtful & excellent considerations here. As another polyam folks (and a researcher on polyam stigma, including in healthcare), I ONLY do outdoor dates (either 6+ feet away from each other or masked for hugs/brief snuggles), with frequent handwashing (since March) with partners I’m not living with.

  12. Your answer hinges on the *idea* that testing is available and reliable, two things of which are not true.

    You had a gut feeling that ethically, the answer was to say that the poly partner should not be able to see people and the monogamous person could see their one person who does not see other people. That was the correct answer.

    The only other choice is for the monogamous person to move out.

    This are terrible times we live in, but realistically, those are the only two choices to avoid serious, serious (mortal) risk.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!