On March 15, the day before Gov. Gavin Newsom announced shelter-in-place orders for California, my partner of nearly five years left me and our life for someone else.
When a long-term relationship you never want to end, ends, no one tells you how to move through it. I wondered if there was a word for “knowing it is dead but living in denial,” because that was still the feeling I woke up with daily for nine months after that fateful week in spring.
What made my relationship unique was that I was polyamorous, so that “someone else” wasn’t a stranger; it was someone I had welcomed whole-heartedly into my life. In my 12 years of being non-monogamous, I had faced nearly all the ups and downs that come with choosing this lifestyle. Navigating polyamory can be simultaneously beautiful and uncomfortable.
My partner and I had an open relationship for almost all our years together, but in the last year, we made the switch from a standard open relationship to full-blown polyamory, meaning we supported each other in falling in love with other people. My primary partner was resistant when we made this switch but capitulated out of love and fear of losing me.
Before COVID-19 took hold, my “polycule” had a rotating 6-7 people in it. I had two partners ― my life partner and a newer relationship that was fast developing, sparked from a friendship. And they each had dates of their own, some casual, others in a more serious capacity, and sometimes those people had dates, too. With polyamory, you must make the best of your dates’ choices, and I would be lying if I said it was always easy.
In non-monogamy, so often, you run up against the dilemma of “ideals vs. practice.” In theory, a relationship style that is all about love sounds like a beautiful path to take. But in practice, especially when you’re gay and everyone has abandonment triggers, the reality can unfold quite differently.
Despite my years of study, I did not have road maps for navigating the behaviors and feelings of my metamour (the term for your date’s date), and I did not always know how to manage my own or my partner’s “new relationship energy.” And anyone can tell you that new relationship energy can be a type of chaotic ecstasy.
By the time my partners and I were course-correcting on some things, it was too late on others. My primary admitted to feeling in over their head. Like most people in committed relationships, we had a life planned out and a shared history. But as it all started to crack, I felt the dread that comes when you realize that a shared history isn’t enough to fix broken trust.
In so many of our conversations during that last year, we came back to the same impasse. I believed that non-monogamy and poly were not that different, but my partner missed the hierarchical style of open relationships. I didn’t want to do ranking anymore; I had seen that structure cause pain and problems for years in my relationships and those of others. But my partner missed that, and I understood.
Truthfully, I was in denial about this at the time, but I missed parts of having a hierarchy, too. Even the most radical “relationship anarchists” I know would admit that it’s difficult not to fall into those patterns under patriarchy.
But despite the jealousy, difficulties and triggers, I whole-heartedly welcomed my primary’s new girlfriend into my life. I wanted my partner to be happy.
Despite my partner’s and my best efforts, including attending therapy to work through the hard parts, after six months, my partner and his other girlfriend had bonded over the difficulties of being poly and began laying out a plan for what their futures might look like together without me. He ended things with me to pursue that future with just her. Devastated didn’t begin to cover it.
“Regardless of what relationship orientation you prefer, everyone says the same thing when you get dumped. Don’t isolate! Link up with other people, let your friends hold you, go out. But how do you do that in a global pandemic?”
It became immediately clear to me that I had been watching my entire last year on a split-screen, my perception of it on one side, the truth on the other.
My remaining date and I were experiencing problems, too. While he was quarantining with his other partner and I was feeling immense levels of abandonment, I ended it. And so it was that I lost both partners to other people.
Regardless of what relationship orientation you prefer, everyone says the same thing when you get dumped. Don’t isolate! Link up with other people, let your friends hold you, go out. But how do you do that in a global pandemic? My phone went from blowing up morning until night with messages from my lovers ― to me texting the same three friends, one of them experiencing a huge abandonment themselves.
These text conversations were often agonizing. My closest friends and family became worried about my mental health. My coping mechanisms were all gone. I couldn’t go dance in Castro, couldn’t have one-night stands or spend a party-filled weekend at my friends’ houses, drive to LA on a whim. I couldn’t even cry in a friend’s arms. Suddenly, the person you talk to about everything, the shows you’re watching, politics, your job, even your other dates, are all gone.
Instead, I went to the clinic where I work long days in a mask, hoping I wouldn’t die, getting upset because I didn’t die, then coming home to cry, sleep and repeat. When you are grateful for your high-risk hospital job just to keep sane, something is severely wrong.
There were gifts that came along with my grief. I started to journal again. I began to see friends very carefully when I needed to save my own life. I practiced self-care and sought professional help. The day I finally had enough courage to block my ex was the day I started to feel like maybe I would survive this.
Despite my private hell, it seemed like every week, someone I knew was going through a breakup, job loss or moving due to COVID-19. I started wondering how other people were coping with being left during the pandemic. As winter rapidly approached, I felt the hole of sharing holidays with partners.
Slowly, I have begun to make sense of all of this. But I am also surviving this dual breakup and rejection during a period when all of my communities are being stretched thin. There is a lingering fear of economic collapse and the uncertainty of the future. Monogamy, non-monogamy, polyamory ― all feel like a fraud when the world is ending.
There are a few things I know for certain after this experience, the biggest being that if you are abandoned, romantically or by friends or family, it’s genuinely no marker of your worth. Scarcity culture has always been present if you’re LGBTQ+, but now it’s starvation culture, and everyone deserves compassion if you’ve got some to spare.
I may be grief-stricken for a long time, but truthfully, I’m still grateful. Grateful for the immensity of this lesson, for the friends and elders that held me together, and thankful that most things have endings. Even pandemics.