#1279: “My metamour isn’t taking social-distancing precautions and my partner is unfazed.”

Dear Captain,

My partner (P) and I (both mid-30s, she/her) are happily engaged, and have been living together for a few years now. Things have been great. We’ve both had a lot of trauma to work through, and have been nothing but supportive and understanding with each other as each we’ve dealt with our own shit. We respect each other’s boundaries, make time for difficult conversations, understand each other’s quirks and are accommodating as we can be.

We both come from a background of polyamory, but until recently have been functionally monogamous as we’ve worked through hard stuff. Last year I worked out I was asexual, and so P started looking for new partners. A month or two ago she started dating a new person (M). It’s been wonderful, honestly, seeing different parts of her shine through in her new relationship with M, but I’ve started to come up against a wall I don’t know how to climb.

I am something of a hypochondriac, and I have general anxiety and ME/CFS. Coronavirus has inflamed anxieties that have been dormant for years, and my CFS has worsened hugely since the start of the pandemic. Some days are okay, but some weeks are awful. I’m lucky to live in an area where transmission is not high, but the threat is (of course) still very much real.

P has always shown a lot of compassion when it comes to working with my pandemic!anxiety, and we’ve talked about what we see as others’ recklessness when it comes to distancing and e.g. needless trips to the mall, but I learned recently that M sees a lot of different partners, including new people on a regular (weekly) basis. M also lives in a locally designated “hot spot” for new cases. This stresses me out to no end. When I asked P how it’s not a concern to her, her reply was just “there’s only so much you can do.”

This level of flippancy about risk, my health and my anxieties is new. It looks like cognitive dissonance — agreeing that the pandemic is serious and that we can’t risk getting sick, but acting helpless when her new partner doesn’t take precautions. I know her new relationship is important to her; that she gets needs of hers served that she simply couldn’t in her relationship with me, and that she suffered for a long time while I was working my (a)sexuality out. But this.. this sucks. I can’t help but feel she’s privileging her desire to have fun over my safety and mental health.

I don’t know what to do. I love her and the life we’ve been building together, but as long as she keeps seeing someone who doesn’t care about pandemic precautions — and they’re seeing each other more and more regularly — it means that *I’m* effectively living with someone who doesn’t care about pandemic precautions. I don’t know how to stop my anxiety escalating and health deteriorating in the face of that, save something drastic like moving out.

Thank you for reading, and any advice you might have,

Anxious Ace

Hello Anxious Ace,

It’s time to get real blunt:

If your partner is regularly seeing someone who regularly sees lots of other people (in what we’ll assume are “masks off!” conditions), your partner is the one whose casual attitudes toward social distancing are endangering you. Let’s stop displacing this onto M., who is a link in the problem chain but not the one closest to you.

You can be an anxious person with a natural tendency toward hypochondria and also be legitimately worried about catching COVID-19, especially when the other person in your house is casual about social distancing when it gets her something she really wants. The lungs of hypochondriacs succumb to actual viruses just like everyone else’s, and as somebody who already deals with debilitating fatigue, you are perfectly justified in not wanting to roll the dice about that.

Polyamory is a great way to have a loving partnership and home life and also give your partner a way to get her sexual needs met with other partners, but the reason you “can’t help but feel she’s privileging her desire to have fun over my safety and mental health” is because that’s what’s actually happening. You’re asexual and you have anxiety, that doesn’t mean you must exist in a state of permanent supplication and accommodation in return for your partner’s “suffering” in putting up with you for so long. Plus, you don’t owe her a certain amount of calculated risk to your own health as an asexuality tax.

“There’s only so much you can do,” says your partner. True!

Your choices are not fun ones and all of them call into question the fundamental stability and viability of your relationship. I’m going to refer back to last week’s post about boundaries and the pandemic: If you can only control what you will do, can you cost out various scenarios and their consequences based on what you will do?

For example, say you ask your partner to stop seeing M. for a while. You’ve already discussed your concerns and fears, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve made a flat request. What happens if you do?

Alternately, what happens if you ask her to observe “mask on, outdoors, 6+ feet apart” protocols when they do hang out, and skip more intimate hangouts for now?

Alternately-alternately, what happens if you ask her to wear masks at home or even self-isolate for 10-14 days after a “masks off!” date with M. before sharing the same room as you?

People with multiple sex partners already have to have a very routine set of safer-sex and consent conversations, and you and your partner probably already have a protocol* in mind for safely carving up household territory if one of you does get the virus, so how does all this adapt to some pre-emptive self-quarantine to avoid asymptomatic transmission? As in, there IS actually a way to be maximally safe at home AND have the occasional sexy rendez-vous, it’s just really inconvenient and requires more planning and discussion. But it’s not actually impossible.

[*Note: In my house this game is called “Who will live in the basement now?” 

It’s a very nice basement with a futon for guests and its own bathroom, never fear, but if one of us gets sick or knowingly exposed? BASEMENT TIEM! With plates of food lovingly left on the stairs and guarded against cats.]

From here, your decision-tree branches. If your partner agrees to your precautions, do you trust her to actually follow them?

Do you trust her to actually follow them even if she comes under pressure from M.?

If you don’t trust her, what will you do?

If she says no outright, what will you do?

Only you can decide what to do, in your shoes I’d be taking stock of all my resources and alternatives (i.e. If one of you did need to stay somewhere else, where would that be, what does the money situation look like, etc.)

I’d also be watching for one specific thing in my partner’s responses: Consideration vs. Contempt.

If you set a boundary, or ask for help solving this problem, does your partner acts like she’s on the same team as you?

Or does she automatically decide that you are overreacting, irrational, overblowing it, “this is just the anxiety talking?” Does she treat you like you are an obstacle to her fun? Does she call you “controlling” because you’re worried about getting sick because of carelessness? Does she make you feel like you have to apologize for your health and your sexuality, and that you owe her something because of who you are?

In other words, does she negotiate with the situation (a deadly global pandemic) in partnership with you, does she fight for you, does she try her best to problem-solve together, in a way that protects your health and reduces your anxiety and reassures you of her care for you and the trust between you?

Or does she try to negotiate with you, to get you to make peace with a shitty situation, and minimize your needs in the process?

One of those paths is a path you can work with. I hope she chooses the right one and that everybody stays safe.

For everyone else with pandemic-housemate ethical questions:

1. Re-read this.

2. What’s actually changed since it was written (mid-April)? Not “states are re-opening yayyyy we can sit under plastic sheeting at bars now” changed, but what’s changed in transmission data, testing, actual safety measures?

We do actually know more about increased risk in prolonged exposure in indoor environments vs. comparatively lower risk in outdoor environments (especially with mask use and physical distancing)  than we did at the start of this so we actually do have more information to calculate our own personal risk tolerance.

One person’s personal risk tolerance is not a determinant of anyone else’s. “But the statistics are reassuring…” blah blah if you find them personally reassuring, good for you, but my immunosuppressed ass doesn’t have to make you feel good about your risk levels by risking myself. 

3. If the people around you aren’t cooperating or protecting your safety, and the already perfectly-reasonable-and-true scripts you have already tried to communicate just fine aren’t working (I promise you, ‘pls kindly don’t potentially kill yourself/me/others’ followed by ‘absolutely not’ isn’t a “I just need the right words Captain Awkward!” problem), what will you do to keep yourself safe?

4. If that leaves you with few options and excess anger, take the safest option you can and probably direct the anger outward at the people who could be giving us housing relief, student debt relief, universal basic income, increased worker protections, and centrally agreed-upon and widely-enforced mask protocols instead of inward at yourself for not phrasing your humble request to keep being alive just so.

5. Every time I post about the pandemic I get chided for my “liberal bias” so, welcome brand new readers who have clearly never read my site or met me before last week! Is “liberal bias” really the right word for “Tax the super-rich now so we don’t have to eat those absolute fucking ghouls later”-class politics? I have a special Patreon tier for these sorts of discussions, sign up today for super-fun “debate meeeee” times!

I love all of you, please stay alive and be very kind and good to yourselves. ❤