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.
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 her health problems, and am also not clear about how much she has been included in decision making around this issue thus far, but if she is most at-risk of everyone in this scenario, it seems fair that she should be granted the agency to express how she feels and what is and is not a dealbreaker for her. 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.