Nicolle Hodges:

Couples during COVID: You hate them, you hate them not

Photo credit: Cottonbro from Pexels

Do you like being close to another person? How about never being apart? Do you like being alone? How about all the time?

The inside of one’s relationship is a complex and sophisticated place, built by time and experience, full of conflicting forces, private dynamics, history, and stimuli that are constantly changing. There is a wide variety of needs, fears, desires—either repressed or expressed. Everything during COVID is amplified because there is no escaping, and we can’t figure out if it’s better to be quarantined solo or with a partner. One longs for what the other lives.

In truth, the very responsibility of holding it all together has shown us the true weight of what we carry: unresolved trauma generally deflected by distraction is no longer an option, fractures within relationships are chasms that cannot be ignored, and the mindless march of our habits are halted and forcing us to evaluate who we are when our worth is not predicated on output. Some might even admit that they are better off because of COVID. Some relationships are thriving, as couples spend more time together than they have in years. They’re getting a dog! They’re sharing secrets while some are plotting murder. Some couples are in bad situations that keep getting worse, physically and emotionally.

We want to know how others are coping, or more accurately, who is finding balance within the extreme—and how? A glimpse is really all we can get into the private and shifting dynamic of another relationship while in isolation. Here are five of them:

Polyamorous couple choosing monogamy

“We’ve been together for 14 months, and our relationship has gone through quite a few iterations of ‘label,’” says Yaz Harris. “The last one we settled on prior to COVID was that we’re in a committed relationship but have been polyamorous from the get-go. One thing that happened early in the relationships as per my request is that we were always very honest with one another, and explicit in the details about our adventures with other people.”

For many in polyamorous relationships, security is transparency. The more one knows about the other, the more comfortable they feel. There is no risk of getting caught off guard, and honesty remains the antidote of infidelity. Not to be down-played, it is the feeling of actually being turned on by knowing how and with whom your partner experienced pleasure.

“With respect to the quarantine, we’ve decided to be responsible and switch our dynamic,” says Patric Plesa, her partner. “But that’s only for convenience purposes and changes nothing about how we feel about our identity as polyamorous or our beliefs about polyamory, we just can’t exercise one aspect of it.”

“Which is only the physical aspect,” adds Yaz. “We’re physically monogamous but I’m still flirting, having conversations, and sending nudes. We’re still in separate sex-positive communities where we’re engaging in kinky, polyamorous-themed conversations outside of one another. The only thing is that I’m not touching anyone else. It hasn’t been that challenging. I’m still getting the satisfaction and social aspects of polyamory.”

Where monogamy might have presumed and baked-in boundaries, it seems with polyamory, everyone has their own negotiations and agreements. For instance, Yaz and Patric engage in something called relationship anarchy, a form of polyamory where you negotiate as you go along, and change the boundaries to suit changing needs.

“It feels like we’re always in this place,” says Yaz. “I’m always thinking about our relationship with a heightened lens and evaluating if we’re good for one another, if we’re doing this right, and coming up with the best, most ethical and most pleasing way to be. And we’ve farted in front of each other during COVID.”

Wait, what? I ask. They both burst into laughter over Zoom.

As a pillar of bonding, and especially during the long stretch of isolation, no one ever wants to talk about it, but farting might be an unavoidable reality.

“When we first started dating, I had gastric pains after leaving her place from holding it in,” says Patric. “If you’re polyamorous, you don’t have to do that part of the relationship which is so often found in monogamy, that obsessive spending time together. And not that all monogamous relationships go through that, but it’s the general script that once you start liking one another, you spend a lot of time together and you could realize that the way they speak or breathe, fart or smell, are things that irritate you.”

With polyamory, there is often less chance of someone becoming dull or annoying because you aren’t spending enough time together to “ruin” your idolization. On the flip since, it could be argued that bonds are formed by accepting someone for all their quirks and flaws (and farts?), which takes time to get to. Yaz and Patric are now spending more time together, which brought up an important conversation about love that might not have otherwise happened.

“I said I was incapable of unconditional love,” says Yaz.

“I think it’s the case for most people,” says Patric. “But care can extend beyond conditions. When I look at you and you’re in a miserable place or you’ve made an ass of yourself or made a mistake, I’m there for you. I’m disappointed in your behavior and maybe I’m not attracted to you or I’m judging you, but I’m still there for you because I care about you. And that’s friendship. That’s bonding love.”

I love you conditionally but my care for you extends beyond condition? I ask.

“Yes, well said, babe!” They kiss and we all sign off.

Yaz and Patrick (Photo provided by Nicolle Hodges)

A long-distance same-sex couple

“My partner and I met online for the first time in August on Hinge,” says Jess Nudo. “But she ended up meeting someone else and we were both bummed but I figured if the universe is meant to bring us back together, it’ll happen.”

And it did. On February 29 Jess took a train to Niagara Falls and her Hinge-match drove from Rochester, NY to finally meet in-person. Little did they know, like all of us, that it would be one of the last normal social interactions. When the United States went into panic mode and the borders closed a few weeks later, they had only been on a couple of dates but had decided to commit to one another.

“Technology has made it more manageable. Texts, Netflix Party, Working Moms, it’s good to have that on our side to fuel the relationship during this time,” says Jess. “Plus, the internet is what brought us together—that, and the universe, if you believe in it.”

Although Nudo is getting through COVID alone, she says that the distance is giving them something to long for, and something to look forward to once this is over.

“We have all this time and space, and there is this obvious void, but how we choose to fill this void will directly impact the way we come out of it. I’ve dealt with more difficult things in life, waiting for the person I want to be with, who is human enough to want the same thing, that’s enough. And she’s confirmed that as soon as they open the border, she’ll be first in line.”

I comment that Jess’s smile looks like it’s going to split her face in half.

“What I keep coming back to is: at least I found her.”

A long-term couple thriving in COVID

“It’s been a year and a half living together but in a relationship for ten,” says Dessy Pavlova. “The dynamic hasn’t changed much.”

Her partner Paul is a “creative introvert,” and now that Dessy “the busy extrovert” can’t go do things outside, she’s doing a lot more inside and at his pace. She proudly holds up an ashtray he made that looks like a chimney.

“It’s weird because I’m used to working all the time but there is no paid work right now,” she says. “I’m still busy, it’s just now, I’m also creating pendants for The Orgasm Book! I think having separate projects yet doing something together is key.”

I ask her if there’s been a strain on the relationship since the option to distance has been taken away?

“When Paul needs to regenerate, he does that by himself without me around. Maybe he has struggled a bit more because I’m not leaving, but at the same time, he’s super encouraging about all of the creating I’ve been doing,” she says. “I think it’s working because we’re friends first.”

A long-term couple struggling during COVID

“We moved up to the cottage so we’re better than last week,” says Daisy.*

“This time is especially challenging because we both struggle with mental health. He is bipolar, has PTSD, is a very anxious person, and not a great communicator. From my perspective, I really struggle with what I perceive as weakness in myself and I don’t like to feel so vulnerable. When I fell into my depression, I would spend the whole day reading smutty romance novels. I must have consumed close to 40 softcore porn novels. That’s not a joke. It was very destructive behavior.”

Daisy and her partner have been living together for seven years, and spent part of that in a 400-square-foot apartment working from home, without issue. The intensity of the pandemic triggered depressive episodes that made communication and connection difficult, and perpetuated both of their insecurities. Unlike “normal” circumstances where a couple is living in close quarters, quarantine adds a layer of stress and trepidation. No one knows when this will end, how many more lives will be lost, and how long it will take for the economy to recover.

“But we were struggling before the pandemic,” she says. “What being in this pressure cooker situation has made me do, is finally say some things about how I wanted the relationship to go forward.”

In the Before Times, the world offered a buffet of avoidance tactics. Rather than having a tough conversation, how about avoiding home with more work! Can’t stand to be in your own company, how about the constant company of friends? Instead of slowing down and thinking about what you really want in life, how about shopping, going to a party, or lining up events until the brink of exhaustion?

“When the four walls of your home become your entire universe, and he turns to say ‘I love you’ but all I could do was look at him and smile, eventually, he asked why I wasn’t saying it back,” she says. “The pandemic forced me into being honest with myself and my partner on a timeline that I wasn’t really expecting and may have procrastinated forever. I may have just repressed it because it’s hard to look at something that’s 80 per cent good and only see the 20 per cent that’s not good.”

Daisy’s advice for other couples that might be confronted with uncomfortable truths is being brave and honest.

“Before I say something like, ‘it really bothers me when you do this, or ‘be away from me!’ we’re starting with truths that have to be completely grounded in self,” she says. “Instead of ‘you’re making me feel attacked’, you can say ‘I feel very vulnerable right now,’ or ‘I’m not orgasming enough in the bedroom.’ Honesty isn’t just saying what you think, it’s about uncovering your own truth so you can communicate it to your partner. If you don’t know what you want you can't ask for it.”

A heterosexual couple where one person is disabled

“My partner has an auto-immune disease and I don’t want to get her sick,” says Jesse Staniforth. The couple has been together 18 years and lived together for 14. She has been on disability and chronically ill since December 2011.

“We’re both used to being at home all the time and dealing with external stressors,” he says. “When you have someone who is pretty sick all the time, it’s stressful for both people. We miss our friends but we didn’t socialize in the same way as other people before this anyway because she is often in a lot of pain and can’t go out. A lot of our socialization is friends coming over, but that still revolves around us being home.”

I was interested in speaking with Jesse when he mentioned that life during isolation hasn’t been that much different than life before it. I wondered if this globally shared experience of being tethered to home and hyper aware of health would make people more empathetic towards those who suffer from chronic illness—as well as those who care for them.

“When you’re jammed in the house with someone all the time, you’re going to have a number of encounters every day and you have to manage that,” he says. “I don’t normally think of our situation as being a fortunate one, but we were a lot better prepared than some folks were.”

His advice for couples who are struggling to navigate the inescapable reality of COVID begins with a question: how committed are you to see the situation from your partner’s position?

“The only way you can survive comfortably in a close space with someone is to be empathetic. When things go wrong in our relationship, it’s always a misinterpretation somewhere,” he says. “People need to remember that they really like the person they live and it's worth it to figure out who that person is and what is motivating them in an argument. It's not that they’re wrong, it’s that they feel right.”

*Name changed to protect privacy