The first time Aina Singh came across a representation of polyamory was in a short story she read as a child. It was about a couple whose marriage had hit the rocks, and the wife began living with the ‘other’ man. That’s when the husband asks her why the three of them can’t be a family. “That story made me happy,” says Singh, a Master’s student from Pondicherry, who is polyamorous.
Polyamory is a relationship practice between more than two consenting partners. And if it seems unfathomable, it’s only because we’ve always been told that we should commit only to a single person. And we’re talking exclusively about heterosexual partners. In fact, if monogamy has a tagline, it’s “I’m a one-man-woman”. But not everybody swings that way. Singh finds it unhealthy to curb one’s instinct for polyamory just because monogamy is seen as the ‘correct’ format in society. She says: “Having several different relationships takes the pressure off every one of them.”
Granted, we see few examples of polyamory around us, but it’s hardly “abnormal”. Manavi Khurana, a counselling psychologist and founder of the Karma Centre in New Delhi observes: “People want to explore, they want to have sex with more than one person. Look at porn-watching habits online – people like variety. But offline, they have to be with this one person in bed.”
If these limits define monogamy, then being poly can be liberating. The practice isn’t the same as a series of one-night-stands, and it can take on various interesting dimensions. Take Prateek*, for example. A Delhi-based businessman, he also practices BDSM. Within his marriage, he was the ‘dominant’, while his wife was a ‘submissive’. Eventually, he wanted to tap into his submissive side, and for that, he began exploring options with other partners. It took him and his wife about six months, but they worked it all out.
Poly people are often accused of infidelity. “This is coming from the idea that an individual is a property, and that you own their time, and their body,” says Khurana. “The institution of marriage kind of upholds that. While polyamory is a lot about giving up control and sharing.”
She says many poly clients who have approached Karma Centre have talked about the judgement they face. “Polyamorous individuals don’t look like unicorns!” Exclaims Khurana. “I think other psychologists should read about the umbrella of sexuality, and stop pathologising these identities.”
Further, society’s lack of acceptance takes its toll. Singh recalls some choice reactions: “Some men tend to think that I’m a ‘loose’ woman. Others think I will never give them my ‘loyalty’. Women think I can’t give them my best because I’m secretly straight and just greedy. On the other hand people looking to quickly hook up and forget me are more at ease.”
Khurana says Indian society hasn’t evolved to a level where we can include others in our lives, or love more than one person. But maybe this is the start of that evolution. Look at dating culture. How we form relationships today are very, very different from how our parents did things. A UK-based survey in 2014 found that the average relationship now lasts only two years and nine months. As of 2011, the divorce rate in India has doubled. And while our rapidly changing society has a role to play here, it’s also worth considering just the stresses of heterosexual monogamy – you have to worry about bills, about the household and more. “In contrast,” adds Prateek, “these things don’t exist when you don’t share a household with your partner(s).”
The short story Singh recalls from her childhood — it’s real. And Prateek has first hand experience. A few years ago, he found himself in a poly household in the US, with one female dom, two male subs, a female sub, and a switch. And while you’d be hard-pressed to find this arrangement in India, it’s a different story abroad. Poly households like these, he explains, have one authority figure – a patriarch or matriarch – to monitor everything. As such, polyamory subverts one of the most basic units of modern society – the nuclear family. And it has the same transformative potential that same-sex or inter-caste marriages have.
But it takes work. For those of us seeking poly relationships, Prateek believes there’s a few cardinal things to remember: Don’t lie. Be honest. Communication is very important. And be clear about your limits with all your partners. Sexual health is another thing to be mindful of. For two people who are “fluid-bonded” (meaning that they seldom use protection during sex), they must be upfront and keep other partners informed
When it comes to polyamory, society still has its defenses up. But the chinks are there. The upcoming film “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” depicts a famous historical poly relationship. In India itself, the marriage between Kuchipudi dancers Raja, Radha and Kaushalya Reddy made big news. And with a little more understanding and effort, we can soon reach a place of respect for these non-normative identities.