May 26, 2020 · 18 minute read
We are up to four Google Docs going between my household and my partner’s household. That feels like a lot, and also there may be more. We are using the docs to share our household procedures for coming home from the grocery store, whether or not we’re comfortable with our kids sharing space indoors, and what kinds of plans we are thinking about for the summer. It feels weirdly dystopian, but also kind of exciting.
We’re trying to hammer out how we can make a bubble together. At least we’re not the only weirdos making extensive use of Google Docs to figure things out.
There have been several recent articles written about “Covid Pods” or “Quarantine Bubbles.” The idea is that you relax social distancing to include one or two additional households beyond yours that you can be in close contact with. It’s become official policy in countries like New Zealand and parts of Canada. In the US, with stay-at-home orders still in effect in many states and cases still on the rise, some US health officials are saying it may be too soon to do here, though others are saying that it’s the best way to continue to contain the virus while helping to mitigate quarantine fatigue.
I can see the appeal, especially if you live alone or are a parent (and especially if you’re a single parent.) Polyamorous people, hurting for a lack of in-person contact with partners that they don’t live with, may see creating a “germ pod” as a way to to reconnect with those partners. There are also certainly potential health risks in making a pod, both to the individuals within the group, and to the public health project of flattening the curve by containing the spread of the virus.
I’m not here to make a recommendation about whether or how you should expand your bubble to another household or two. I am not a doctor or a public health official. My business is relationships, and so I am writing this because I am hearing lots of people openly talking about, planning or already having expanded "quaranteams." A lot of the discussion though is on the logistics of risks, best practices and the criteria for deciding whether or not they can do it.
What I want you to know is that it’s also a big shift in your relationships with people in your pod. You are not just gaining some relief from social distancing; you are also establishing a greater level of intimacy. Even though you’re continuing to live separately, it’s almost like you’re moving in together. If you’re polyamorous, you might think you have the kind of experience around healthy communication and discussing risk to sail through the kinds of conversations you need to have, but this is different. For example, have you ever had to communicate to your partner's roommate in detail about what happened when you took your kid to the dentist?
These bubble relationships are a totally new kind of relationship that we, like many things, are making up as we go. Given the stakes in making one, I think there is potential for a bubble to be amazing, and for it to be a relationship-destroying disaster. If you want to navigate this new situation successfully, here are some key things to consider before you pod up:
Research of intimate relationships such as married couples and families shows that those who have common values, mutual goals and shared meaning fare better than those who don’t. In making your bubble, if you proceed with logistics and talking about practices before talking about the benefits you’re hoping for and why it’s important and what you’re worried about, you might be making a lot of assumptions about people’s motivations. So I would talk with your potential pod members about what this means to all of you. I’d ask these questions:
One person I talked to said he thought that his partner wanted to include her other partner in their bubble because she just wanted to be able to see him. After talking about shared meaning, he came to understand that bubbling was important because she didn't want her partner, who was really struggling without her and who she saw as family, to be abandoned. If you have kids, maybe one big reason to bubble up might not be about intimate partners at all, but instead so your children can have other children to play with or so you can share childcare responsibilities.
With so many varying reasons to want to bubble up, and it helps to understand exactly WHY everyone wants to do this, and discuss any underlying values, hopes, fears, and meaning that may drive decision-making.
This kind of relationship is potentially a step up in intimacy, transparency, and accountability between you and the people in your bubble. Not everyone is a fit for this kind of connection, the same way not every friend, partner, or family member is someone you could cohabitate with. So as you approach conversations about creating your bubble, accept that it may just not work. The reasons why having a bubble might just not even be accessible for some people are endless - something as simple as whether or not they rely on public transportation might be a dealbreaker, not to mention being an essential worker or having an elderly or other high-risk household member.
But there may be still other roadblocks. What if not all the people in the households get along or communicate well with one another? What if cohabitating partners each want to be connected to an outside partner, who each shares a home with others, potentially creating a bubble that’s just too big? What if you’re single, but you have a lot of roommates, because living alone is often expensive? What if you’re solo poly, and sharing a bubble feels like a sacrifice of your hard-won autonomy while increasing your risk exponentially?
It’s important to have these conversations slowly with great care and compassion, because it’s likely that things will feel amplified and sensitive. This pandemic is creating stress across so many areas of life - losing a job, loss of coping activities, limits on access to healthcare including ongoing pain management, hormone treatment, antidepressants and other needed medications, kids bouncing off the walls, people canceling weddings and unable to attend funerals.
Be aware that a lot of things that might get in the way of podding up are potential sources of shame or grief, and some disproportionately affect people who are already marginalized, and who might feel further marginalized by not being able to participate in a pod. Consider every step of the way how you can affirm your love and commitment, and look for ways to support those you love even if you have to say no to being in close quarters.
However, it's also important to not let that desire to be loving get in the way of being cautious and respecting anyone who needs to raise a concern or a hesitation. It’s so important to slow down and take time to hear people out and respond carefully, rather than immediately reacting, pushing back or shooting anyone down. Taking turns really listening to each other is going to be so important throughout this relationship, as is being able to hear someone’s “no” as them caring for themselves and possibly other people they love, rather than a rejection of you. Practice this phrase when someone sets a boundary - “Thank you for taking care of yourself.”
A lot of polyamorous folks work hard to figure out the balance between privacy and information-sharing. Many of us settle on sharing what people need to know, rather than sharing every detail about actions that don’t impact them.
However, in this kind of bubble relationship, individual actions that, in the past, might have only impacted you, can now impact everyone in your bubble. So it’s important to be totally open and honest about the risks you’re regularly exposed to and the practices you employ to avoid contracting or transmitting the virus. It’s also important that everyone be honest about the kinds of risks they are comfortable sharing and the kinds they are concerned about.
Some questions you might want to get clear about: When do you wear masks? When do you not? How frequently do you grocery shop? Are there other regular outings or appointments to be aware of? What are the practices at those spaces? What are your practices around disinfecting surfaces or things that come into your home? What are your protocols around handwashing? Do your children understand social distancing practices?
What kinds of activities feel safe and which ones don’t? What are your criteria for determining what’s acceptable and what isn’t? Are you comfortable with outdoor social distance time with people outside? Do you care whether it’s 6 feet or 10 feet? Would you be okay if one of your bubblemates wanted to get a haircut? What about a chiropractor appointment? What sources of data do you use to make your decisions and what data do you not trust?
This level of detail may feel really granular, but I think at least initially, it will be important to share on this level so that everyone can be on the same page. It also may be important to be willing to make adjustments to your practices and movements to accommodate other people’s needs and risk tolerance. It’s easier to manage having more restrictions up front and then moving toward relaxing things than the other way around.
After a lot of initial discussion, you may want to create some agreed-upon policies around what’s generally okay and not okay. I’d also encourage having practices in place for ongoing information-sharing, including having a regular check-in, and a way to share a potential new activity or risk factor that is coming up in the future.
It might also be good to think ahead and come up with how you’ll respond when something unexpected or unavoidable comes up that changes the exposure of the group. Maybe you agree that if someone has to go to the emergency room or something along those lines that you de-bubble for a week or two to reset things, for instance. Same if someone wants to temporarily connect with someone outside the bubble.
It’s also really important to be totally honest with everyone in your bubble about what you do and don’t do, even and especially if someone in your bubble might not be happy about it. It would be better to be honest that you don’t wipe down your groceries with disinfectant, than to say that you do and then one of your bubblemates sees you not doing that. Distrust is always worse than disagreement.
Many polyamorous people believe that the best outcomes arise from prioritizing everyone's personal autonomy to make the best possible decision for themselves, and on not infringing on anyone else's ability to do that. This pandemic, however, creates numerous situations where the practice of prioritizing yourself may mean putting others in your group at risk or just disrupting the integrity or functionality of the bubble.
There’s a big resistance in polyamorous thought that we should ask permission for or even invite people's opinions on anything that we are doing with our own bodies. But our bodies are currently potential vectors for a virus that can cause great harm to anyone we come into close contact with. Example? I found myself in the very weird situation of asking my partner’s wife how she would feel about me exchanging a masks-on hug with my best friend (who’d been socially isolated for 3 weeks). And waiting for her answer before planning when the hug could take place. That’s where we are.
That lack of autonomy can be hard to accept for some. It can feel awkward to feel like you’re asking a group of people for their buy-in to do something like invite a friend over for a backyard socially-distanced hangout or to not wear masks on a hike or how many trips to the grocery store is too many. You're not asking for permission, but it’s also not just you deciding for yourself either. A certain amount of collaboration is necessary. If you independently make choices that may compromise the comfort and safety of people within your bubble, leaving people to just respond after the fact, you risk popping it.
The mindset shift here is that you’re all in this together. Being willing to discuss new activities or practices before they happen, so that people can weigh in on any potential concerns, how they feel about it and how it might impact them is showing care and respect for the very serious risk you’re sharing with each other.
Deciding who can and can’t be included in a germ pod is a potentially thorny puzzle. And the decisions get made might not feel fair. For example, your partner might be able to include their partner in a bubble, but you might not be able to include yours, because they are an essential worker. Or you might be able to accept one partner in your bubble but not another because they have someone in a high-risk group living with them. Or someone you care about may live with someone who just doesn't feel okay being in a bubble with you.
Also, there's just the issue of size. Having a bubble or pod is meant to be a measure that eases the pain of social distancing while also hopefully continuing efforts to contain the spread of the virus. As such, experts agree to keep things small and exclusive. For some polyamorous folks with sprawling polycules and friend groups, that means that you will probably, at least initially, need to draw the lines of your pod way inside where you’d like. You might be able to include one partner in a pod because they live alone, and have to exclude another because they live with 5 other people. Your partner choosing to be in your pod might mean they can’t see their other partner who they care a lot about. These are hard choices that polyamorous people specifically are unaccustomed to having to make, and so having to choose will likely be painful.
It will help to name and then accept that it sucks that there may in fact be zero sum situations, and that it’s not fair. It will also help shift your mindset and seek to connect to what's in the interest of the greater good, rather than getting stuck competing around individual interests. It’s important that everyone involved feels empowered to stand up for what they want and need, but part of prioritizing what’s best for the group is accepting you may not get what you want.
It's also so important to keep your eye on power dynamics and make sure they're mitigated as much as possible. If you tend to be more empowered, as in, you tend to call the shots a lot, check yourself. You might need to make more space for other people to express their needs and limits, and not assume you’ll get your way. If you tend to take a back seat on decisions, be willing to stand up and rock the boat when you need to. If there's a mix of coupled and solo people in a bubble, be super mindful of any assumed or covert hierarchies, which can be massively amplified right now. Also watch out for potential controlling moves. Pay close attention to anything that feels like intentionally using the bubble to exert influence on anyone’s else’s relationships because, for example, they're struggling with jealousy or possessiveness.
Lastly, you might end up bubbling up with some people and not others for reasons other than the importance they have in your life. If one of your partners has two nesting partners and 3 kids and one of them is seeing a partner outside their house, they may instantly make your bubble too big. If you’re a parent, you may decide it’s more important to bubble with a friend who has kids than with a partner, because you want your kids to have other kids to play with. If one of your partners is a parent who is sharing custody, and you don’t get along with or trust their ex, that may make it impossible to be bubbled with them.
There are all kinds of unfair reasons that certain people you deeply love will potentially be out of reach for some time. You may even choose to pod up with people you’d prefer not to be. Take the time and space to grieve that, feel your feelings and to receive care and acknowledgement around it so that resentments don’t build up. This is yet another place where having shared meaning and values can help you accept the limitations you may find yourself under while reaffirming your collective goals.
This one is important. It’s inevitable that there will be disagreements. Someone may want to get a massage or sit outside at their favorite coffee shop, and others in your bubble may think that’s an unnecessary risk. It may be tempting to bombard someone with whom you disagree with articles and expert commentary about why they are wrong, but I don’t recommend it. We are all operating on limited and emerging data. There is a lot of disagreement and conflicting information. And everyone, even public health experts, are just making their best guesses. Even making a covid pod at all is something we’re making up as we go along.
Because there are so many hot takes on what’s safe and what isn’t, I think anyone can find a study or an article to justify their choices. So acting like a lawyer making a case to prove someone your bubble is wrong is a losing strategy. It’s also a stance that can make you feel entitled to use other tactics to get your way, including bullying, triangulation, or just outright ganging up on someone. That may get you your way, but at the expense of the relationships in your bubble, and potentially people's safety as well.
Instead, get curious. Ask lots of questions about where each of you are coming from with an intent just to understand each other. Look for points of agreement. Share the data you are working from and look at it together. Assume that everyone is doing their best to do the right thing.
If you end up wanting someone to make an adjustment, instead of challenging them on facts and data, talk about why their choice is a problem for you. Go back to the values and shared goals you talked about and about how you personally approach risk. Talk about what you care about and what you’re afraid of and why.
Instead of trying to get someone to change their mind or making demands and ultimatums, make requests with the goal of preserving relationships, and work collaboratively.
That might mean that you can’t stay bubbled. If someone is making a choice that you feel compromises your safety, you ultimately get to say that you need to adjust your boundaries - meaning YOU adjust what you will and won’t do, what’s okay and not okay for you. The stakes are too high to let someone argue you into accepting risk that doesn’t feel okay to you - or even demand that you compromise on a quality of life issue that means a lot to you. That might mean that you decide to de-bubble temporarily or indefinitely, but by staying out of objective right-and-wrong black-and-white arguments and instead focusing on understanding, you will be more able to preserve the relationship.
There are so many reasons why a germ pod is going to be messy. We don't have all the data, which means we can't be fully informed about what the risk actually is. People might be in it for different reasons, which might cause disagreements. Having a pod does increase risk, so other people might think you're being irresponsible and judge you. Also as much as we might all try to act as safely as possible, we've only been shifting our thinking and behavior for a few months, so we're bound to make mistakes.
Also, remember, this is a stressful situation, and people do not act their best under stress. As an example, I have caught myself taking contradictory stances on what feels okay and not okay, depending on the context. You might find yourself freaking out about something small or not paying attention to something that's a big deal. (That's why it's good to go slow.)
If sharing a pod with others won't feel safe to you unless everyone acts perfectly within it, it may not be a good idea. And that's okay. If you do decide to move forward, hypervigilance and criticism of other people's behavior will inevitably do damage to the relationships - so be careful about how you respond when things aren't feeling great. One tool I like is something called the Feedback Wheel, developed by couples therapist Terry Real, as a way of expressing concerns.
Don't trust that people won't make mistakes - trust that they will, and make sure that you are all capable of repairing when that happens.
In these times, the ground is constantly shifting under our feet. It’s important to be willing to adjust what you’re doing as new information comes to light, whether that means expanding what you’re doing as things become safer, or contracting if there’s a spike in infections or other new data emerges that changes the landscape of risk.
Checking in regularly about how things are going, keeping each other updated on the available data, and revisiting agreements and shared activities will help. Having some protocols in place for taking a break is also a good idea.
There also may be a line where the bubble just isn’t workable anymore due to incompatibilities that reveal themselves. The level of accountability needed might just not work for a particular combination of people. Disagreements might be sparking fights and hard feelings that are hurting the relationships within it. Some people’s needs may evolve in ways that are incompatible with the overall risk tolerances in the bubble.
For example, it may become important for someone to see their other partner who’s an essential worker. Or someone in the bubble has been furloughed from their service job but things open up enough for them to return to work. As infection rates go down, everyone may be willing to accept new risks or make adjustments to the frequency or types of interactions that the bubble has - or it might amplify differences that make the bubble unsustainable.
Be willing to discuss up front that deciding to de-bubble isn’t a reflection of what you mean to each other or that anyone did anything wrong. It’s not a punishment or an indictment on your choices or how good a person you are. Remember that the shared goal for any bubble should be everyone staying safe and healthy, and if that is at odds with sharing a bubble, it’s okay to be disappointed about that, but also important to honor that not being in a bubble together might be the best way for people to take care of themselves and each other.
Personally, I’m excited to see how quaranteam pods, polyamorous or otherwise, develop over this next phase in our new pandemic reality. The challenges are real, and I think it’s important to acknowledge them, take this seriously, and have no illusions about it being all sunshines and rainbows. There’s also a tremendous opportunity: not only to ease the pain of social distancing, but to also extend our networks of care, deepen our connections, and work our accountability muscles with the people we love.
Libby Sinback is a queer, polyamorous mom, a relationship transformation coach, and host of the podcast, Making Polyamory Work. Libby helps individuals, couples, and polycules who want to break out of harmful relationship patterns and rewrite their broken scripts from childhood and culture to embrace nourishing, authentic, boundless love in their life.