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What’s it like to be in a polyamorous relationship?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 08-07-2017 Partho Chakrabartty

A small but growing community, in India and around the world, is challenging a foundational construct of society: that a monogamous marriage is the only way to have a fulfilling long-term relationship. Their experiences, which loosely fall under the umbrella term “polyamory”, have a lot to teach us about honesty, jealousy, acceptance, and love itself.

A 30 May Mint report on the extramarital online dating service Gleeden said that the website already had over 100,000 subscribers in India (up to 180,000 at the time of going to press). The numbers indicate the existence of, at the very least, a willingness by married Indian men and women to explore extramarital dating. But polyamory is different—it involves having more than one intimate relationship with the knowledge and consent of all those involved. This makes polyamory a form of ethical non-monogamy, as opposed to infidelity.

Infidelity is the more common way of responding to the strictures of monogamy. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, getting accurate numbers for the rate of infidelity in India is hard. Consider the 2014 survey conducted by Canadian online extramarital dating service Ashley Madison. According to reports in the media, of the 75,321 respondents from 10 Indian cities, 76% of the women and 61% of the men didn’t consider infidelity a sin. In contrast, a survey conducted in 2013-14 by the US-based research organization Pew Research Center, with 2,464 respondents, reported 27% of Indians as saying that extramarital affairs are either “morally acceptable” or “not a moral issue”. The numbers for consensually non-monogamous individuals are even harder to estimate, but may be as high as 10-12 million people in the US alone, according to a 2014 Atlantic article.

The numbers are hard to estimate in part because of the stigma around polyamory. Society, when it is not being hostile or outright abusive, tends to dismiss polyamorous or poly people as either sex-crazed or frivolous and incapable of commitment. On the contrary, I found poly individuals like Rishika Anchalia and Aparna Dauria, who agreed to be interviewed for this piece, to be engaging more seriously and thoughtfully with relationships than some of those who unquestioningly follow the norm.

What polyamory asks is, “Why does non-monogamy have to involve lies and deceit?” The main idea is that relationships need not follow templates. Consenting adults—two or more—can write their own rules. It is this focus on what love is, rather than what it is supposed to be, that pierces the veil of myths and conditioning surrounding this queen of all emotions.

Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

Ethical loving

When Vidya (who asked that only her first name be used), an entrepreneur from Bengaluru, first acted on an attraction she felt towards a person other than her partner of five years, she was thrown into a maelstrom of confusion and guilt. As she struggled to make sense of what she was feeling, her primary relationship with her partner became strained.

Seven years later, Vidya, now in her mid-30s, successful, intelligent and well-read, brings to our conversation the independence of mind that I have frequently encountered in the poly community. Many friends advised her to forget all about it and move on, without telling her partner. This did not sit well with her. “Did my cheating mean I was no longer in love with my partner? Absolutely not, I still adored him. But still, if I believed in honesty and faithfulness, what was I doing? And then I realized that sharing love and sex with someone else didn’t feel wrong. The lying and deceit did.”

She discussed the episode with her partner, but he was not ready to open up the relationship. Vidya might have chosen to deny the part of herself that connected intimately with other people, and stayed with her partner. But if dishonesty towards her partner was reprehensible for Vidya, dishonesty towards herself was even more so. They parted amicably, and she has identified as poly ever since.

Honesty is important to the poly community, which means individuals cheating on their spouses are not welcome. Even relationships that have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule—where people agree to date others, but want to be kept in the dark—are frowned upon. The idea is that a barrier to communication implies an issue in the existing relationship that cannot be resolved by getting into another one.

It is this attention to ethics that complicates the assumption that polyamorous people are simply promiscuous. While the poly community is sex-positive—that is, it regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable—and does not look down upon casual sexual relationships, promiscuity implies being less discerning in one’s choice of partner. The poly emphasis on honesty and communication often makes this community more discerning, not less.

Obsessed with sex?

The misrepresentation of polyamory as being only about sex is worsened by its portrayal in the media, with variations of the image of three pairs of feet poking out from under a blanket.

In a February interview to The Chronicle Review, Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, mentions her experience being interviewed by the Cosmopolitan UK magazine, where she distinguished between polyamory and promiscuity. The text of the story was fine, she said, but she was not prepared for the image that accompanied it—a spread depicting an orgy: “Not a small orgy. Like maybe 25 people.”

Closer home, this reduction of polyamory to sex is mirrored in a July 2016 Scroll.in article on polyamory. The article establishes that “getting enough of, or chasing, sex may not be a marker of success, happiness or liberalism.” The problem with this is the author’s assumption that polyamory is merely about “chasing sex” in order to portray oneself as “liberal”.

As K, who is in her late 20s, and works in social media advertising in Bengaluru, says, “Once you are poly, you are single.” K identifies as queer, and has found that monogamy holds sway even in the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and others) community in India. “To meet someone who understands poly is hard. Your dating pool reduces drastically.”

The reason for this is that poly people are upfront about their orientation, and the number of people who have overcome the societal norm of monogamy sufficiently to accept a poly partner is small. And as for sex itself, K says: “Poly relationships are all about communication. My friends always joke about how I am talking more and having less sex.”

The emphasis on sex also does a disservice to all forms of love that have not been consummated. For instance, Dauria, a Mumbai-based singer, composer and songwriter who runs the Egalitarian Non-Monogamy support group on Facebook, says, “I am engaged in three intimate relationships at the moment, two of which are platonic.” The poly community argues that platonic love can be as intense, as caring and as giving as any love involving sex. It is also evident that asexual people can have deep romantic attachments. We are all very aware of loveless sex. Why, then, is it so hard to embrace the concept of sexless love?

For G, who works as a biologist in Bengaluru, sex has repeatedly been a decisive factor in his relationships. “Romance, sexual attraction, platonic connections flow in their own way, and the issue of monogamy does not come up. But having sex is a different story. Sex tends to force a definition on to a relationship.” It is because our culture is obsessed with sex that it cannot see polyamory as anything but sexual. This prejudice can be an active annoyance. As K says: “Some of my friends refuse to take my capacity for loving more than one person seriously. They call me ‘greedy’, ‘a glorified player’, or dismiss my orientation as a ‘fad’.”

Poly communities tend to have a more enlightened view of sex too. Since sex is discussed openly, polyamory promotes healthy ideas of sex, including safe sex, and full and enthusiastic consent. Polyamory is also accepting of the entire bouquet of sexual activities between consenting participants, and poly communities do not find it difficult to celebrate sexless love.

Who’s afraid of whom?

Comments by monogamous people about polyamory can be paranoid and aggressive. Women, in particular, are targets of violence. Prof. Jenkins writes in Aeon, a digital magazine, about the trolls who started accosting her when she began writing about being polyamorous. “I have been called a ‘c**-dumpster’, a ‘degenerate herpes-infested w****’, and many other colourful names.” The false idea that polyamory is anti-monogamy seems to give some people a licence to be abusive.

The trolls seem to struggle to imagine life without a norm. This is why they see polyamory as threatening to become the “new norm”. But for the poly community, the problem is not monogamy, but, rather, the societal norm of compulsory monogamy. Compulsory monogamy propagates the myth that it is something everyone must aspire, and limit themselves, to.

G is very logical in his approach. “I just do not see why one relationship style needs to be held up as the only valid choice. What normative monogamy does is it makes people count out options when they don’t have to.”

The damaging regime of compulsory monogamy is propped up by existing Indian laws. Danish Sheikh, a Delhi-based lawyer and writer who works in the field of queer rights, says: “The law has a very rigid definition of what a non-marriage intimate partnership constitutes. As a result, crucial remedies such as those under the Domestic Violence Act are not available to women in polyamorous relationships.” From a legal point of view, unmarried partners face problems in renting apartments, and are not recognized as family in the case of medical or other emergencies. “Marriage provides many forms of legal protection, which are denied to alternative modes of being together. The institution of marriage needs to be challenged not just in terms of its heterosexuality, but also in terms of its definition as the intimate union of two individuals to the exclusion of all else.”

The perils of normative monogamy are many. And these perils are more present in India than we acknowledge. Let us conduct a thought experiment. Count the number of people you know who are stuck in unhappy marriages (but are afraid of the social stigma of divorce)—with abusive partners, cheating partners, or partners who are sexually or temperamentally incompatible. Add to this the people who are separated or divorced and face social condemnation, and those who are unhappily unmarried. Chances are that in spite of all the secrecy that shrouds failed marriages in India, you may know of more than a handful.

Now consider what these individuals go through. They are constantly exposed to opinions and judgements by a society that sees them as failures and their lives as somehow incomplete. The choice seems to be between the normative, monogamous marriage—and nothing. In response, polyamory is not propagating any norm.

It is important to distinguish between polyamory and polygamy. Polygamy is often an equally oppressive institution, where one person, usually the man, has more than one spouse (polygyny). Polyandry, where one woman has many husbands, is a comparatively rarer form.

One thing is for certain: Polyamory is not for everyone. Many poly people, in fact, are quick to acknowledge this. Vidya says, “I have respect for consensual, thoughtful monogamy. Some people prefer to cover the complete depth of intimacy with one partner rather than the breadth of multiple partnerships. Also, some who may be inclined towards polyamory may not have the fight in them to face the societal taboo around non-monogamous relationships. Either of these are valid choices.”

Normative monogamy is not usually as generous. Instead of recognizing the validity of multiple ways of living and loving, it, like a brutal conqueror, tends to force several separate ideas to merge into “the only one”, the only legitimate option. It lumps together love, sex, exclusivity, and throws in cohabitation and coparenting.

In fact, as Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel mentions in her popular TED talk, “Rethinking Infidelity”, the norm of monogamy has become even stricter, because it is only recently that marriage has been linked to love—and love is something everyone wants to succeed at. “The fact is that monogamy had nothing to do with love,” Perel says. “Men relied on women’s fidelity in order to know whose children these are, and who gets the cows when I die.” She goes on to note that, ironically, adultery was where people sought pure love in the past.

For those who are polyamorous by nature, the norm of monogamy can make them feel extremely guilty and ashamed of feelings of desire and love. It can result in them suppressing their feelings till these erupt in unsafe behaviours, including ill-considered sexual escapades, or in them feeling trapped in a monogamous relationship and resenting their partners. The norm of monogamy can also separate them from their families, with parents often being unable to accept that their child is polyamorous.

It is possible for some lucky individuals to find in one person an emotional partner, a sexual partner, a partner in the household who does their fair share of the work, as well as a responsible and involved parent—but is this the only aim society must promote? Or can there be other ways of finding love, running a household and raising a family?

Standing in the way of any other approach is the chief concern of monogamous people with respect to sharing their partners—“How will I overcome the torment of jealousy?”

The heart of jealousy

Poly people are often asked how they manage jealousy. It appears that most poly people do not experience jealousy in the way society expects them to. “I’ve never been particularly jealous or possessive, not the typical girlfriend that is depicted in the media. I enjoyed hearing stories of my partners’ sexual experiences with others, whether past experiences or current attractions,” says Vidya. K adds: “I wouldn’t hang on to my partner at a party, I wouldn’t care if my partner had a crush. I hate how the world advertises jealousy, and people just mimic it.”

It is telling that we have so many words for the negative feelings that arise from sharing our partners—words like jealousy, possessiveness, cheating, infidelity and betrayal. But, as Anchalia, an advertising professional in her mid-20s who lives in Mumbai, says: “We’re already sharing our partners! With their friends, family, work and hobbies…. In fact, isn’t it common to say a partner’s work is their ‘mistress’?”

So much of love lies in taking pleasure in your partner’s happiness, even if it is inspired by something outside the relationship. But though we have all felt it—think of a time when your partner achieved a career milestone, or became fascinated with a new hobby—we needed the poly community’s open-minded attentiveness to give the feeling a name. That name is compersion. The question then ceases to be “What is making me jealous?” and becomes “What is preventing me from feeling compersion, which is such a warm and thrilling emotion?”

Anchalia says polyamory helped them see jealousy for what it really was (Anchalia identifies as genderqueer and prefers “they” and “them” as first-person singular pronouns). “When I was younger, I believed in the idea that my partner is supposed to be my everything. I would get jealous when my partner would hang out with his best friend!” Monogamy fuels jealousy in ways that make us believe we are experiencing it because of a third person in our partner’s life. “As I explored polyamory, I realized jealousy was not about the third person, but about my needs not being met... needs that I expected or hoped the relationship would fulfil.”

Vidya clarifies: “Polyamory does not mean an automatic absence of jealousy. Many poly-identified folk consider jealousy a healthy and natural emotion, often pointing them to their own deep-seated insecurities or fears.” And such emotions can arise in any relationship and at any time. She adds: “I learnt over time that ‘jealous’ is not a blanket adjective for a person. Each of us may have different triggers for jealousy—specific experiences of feeling excluded, or feeling threatened. My partner may be great friends with one of my lovers, but deeply jealous of another.”

In the poly approach to jealousy, people are encouraged to discover the fear that is at the source of their jealousy. Next, they must find ways, with the help of their partner, to feel reassured and manage their anxiety. “This is an ongoing process, involving lots of honest and loving communication between partners,” says Vidya. Compare this to the resentment, rage and desire for revenge that popular culture tells us is the natural response to feeling jealous.

What does overcoming jealousy look and feel like? Vidya reminisces about the time she spent with two of her partners. “I have vivid memories of how fulfilled I felt, hanging with both of them, feeling just…love all around,” she says. “We would do extended family-type dinners, with our core friend circle and our other lovers. It made me very proud that through all the usual relationship ups and downs, we could reach there.”

Deep soul work

“Polyamory made me more comfortable with myself,” Anchalia says. Jealousy is not the only internal emotion that poly-thought helps one to manage. It encourages us to be honest with ourselves, over and above fitting into a societal template. This honesty reveals more emotions that we would have otherwise neglected or denied. It is harder to suppress a part of you that you have already acknowledged exists.

As Dauria puts it: “What my experiences have taught me is to be mindful of myself. Taking the time to observe my emotions, and acknowledging their origins, has always led me to the awareness that the true source of my struggles is in my beliefs and expectations. This perspective reminds me that holding my partners responsible is futile—the true answers lie within. As a result, potential arguments turn into respectful, open-hearted dialogues about our fears and insecurities, which actually end up deepening our bond.”

This “deep soul work”, as Dauria terms it, is a progressive acceptance of the self, even those parts that society claims are “wrong”. Love leads one to accept the self in the face of societal sanction because love is the very force that has constantly broken down social barriers. Stories of transgressive love abound in all cultures, even in Bollywood’s depictions of interfaith, intercaste and interclass love. It is this irrepressibility of love that gave the LGBTQ+ community the strength to assert their existence in a society that attempted to criminalize and invisibilize them.

“We are talking about something called love,” Dauria says, “which is an incredible, transcendental force. What the societal norm of compulsory monogamy attempts to do is enforce rules and regulations on something genuinely profound. But that is impossible. Love is beyond any strategy we create to control it.”

***

Poly gets screen time

A handful of TV series and films that depict polyamorous relationships

A still from ‘House Of Cards’.

House Of Cards (Netflix)

While Frank and Claire Underwood are downright diabolical, their relationship often provides a soft counterpoint to their ruthlessness. In the early part of the series, Frank, Claire and Edward Meechum get entangled romantically, and later, Claire’s relationship with the writer Tom Yates receives Frank’s support and encouragement. Scenes with the three of them having breakfast together at the White House portray a healthy and familial equation.

A still from ‘I Love Dick’.

I Love Dick (Amazon Prime Video)

The Amazon series, created by Jill Soloway (‘Transparent’), is based on the eponymous Chris Kraus novel. To reduce ‘I Love Dick’ to polyamory or polyamory to ‘I Love Dick’ would do them both a disservice, but this witty comedy about a married couple’s mutual obsession with an artist has some poly resonances.

A still from ‘You Me Her’.

You Me Her (Netflix, outside USA and Canada)

While the series is big on drama and outlandish coincidences, it does depict a “throuple”—a polyamorous triad—and brings up many of the questions and issues that individuals face when in an unconventional relationship.

A still from ‘Unicornland’.

Unicornland (Unicornlandseries.com)

This Web series follows the experiences of a ‘Unicorn’—a bisexual woman who is willing to date couples. Unicorn is a word informally used in the poly community to refer to bisexual men and women, because they tend to be the rare and magical creatures couples look for when opening up their relationship. The series alternates between the Unicorn’s bad dates and her encounters with more caring couples.

A still from ‘Professor Marston & The Wonder Women’.

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women

Releasing in theatres on 27 October, this indie biopic tells the true story of the poly family that created Wonder Woman, which received a blockbuster film debut earlier this year. The Harvard psychologist W.M. Marston created Wonder Woman along with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and their partner, a former student of his named Olive Byrne. The three lived and raised children together. When Marston died in his early 50s, the two women continued as partners for the rest of their lives.

Partho Chakrabartty is a writer from Mumbai, currently pursuing his master of fine arts degree in fiction from Temple University in Philadelphia.

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