Art by Tarini Sethi
“For someone who claims she doesn’t believe in love, you sure do love to listen to mushy Bollywood numbers,” remarked A, as we were driving back to his place for our usual hook-up session. I’d found him off the internet one summer when I was back home for a few weeks. This was a time when smartphones hadn’t yet stepped on the scene (Motorazrs and clunky Nokias ruled the roost), and online dating wasn’t ubiquitous by any means.
I could’ve said several things in response to A’s flippant comment, but I didn’t know him well enough to warrant it. I could’ve told him that I am one of the most romantic people I know, a devourer of trashy 80’s series romance fiction and Nora Ephron films and of course, the unavoidable Bollywood.
Self-aware consumption of pop culture aside, though, my lofty expectations of love and relationships weren’t borne out in the face of actual human beings and their shitty, selfish behaviours. Growing up, I’d had a ringside view of my dad’s extramarital affair and my parents’ acrimonious divorce. Most of my uncles and aunts and sundry other relatives were trapped in miserable marriages; as an adult, I’d seen the same awful patterns replicated in various permutations in the dating lives of my siblings and cousins and friends. To my cynical, weary eyes it was all too clear that “love” didn’t last, and that boredom and infidelity were the more likely outcomes when two people entered into a long-term serious relationship. So why bother?
When I met A, I was 25. I had never been in a relationship. I was having flings aplenty, with online strangers and friends alike, with women and with men.
But I’d always sidestepped relationships. Hook-ups were simpler, cleaner, more honest in their intentions and execution. My friends thought me stubborn and idiotic. But I knew my standards for love, and I wasn’t budging. I’d tell them, “I can’t abide lies and cheating and dishonesty in any shape or form, and all the relationships I’ve seen so far, go there. Or someone loses interest, and it all ends badly.” Sure, there were a few happy exceptions. But they were so rare that I didn’t have any hope that I’d be among the lucky few. At any rate, I wasn’t willing to chance it. The prospect of being alone wasn’t ideal, but it was preferable to the alternative. It helped that I had no interest in marriage or babies. And anyway, I’m queer. What if I fell in love with a girl? Marriage wasn’t going to be an alternative in India in that case either.
Deliberately stepping away from the hetero marriage-motherhood-family narrative was incredibly liberating. I was free to map my own course in life without thinking of a significant other and I began to emphasize the value of other kinds of love that we’re surrounded by, but often take too much for granted. Deep abiding friendships kept me afloat, my immediate family was a constant source of support and my work was strenuous and fulfilling. I was happy, cocky even—I thought I’d cracked the secret to a perfect life. Yup, I was definitely due for a comeuppance.
It came in an unexpected form.
At the ripe old age of 28, I managed to fall in love. The deep, obsessive kind, that brings immense happiness but also incredible pain when unreturned.
The twist was that I fell for two different men more or less around the same time, one a friend and one a stranger I met online. Being in love was an exercise in self-revelation: I hadn’t expected the powerful tunnel vision it produced. In both instances, my emotions had a new, intense focus—the highs were incredible, and the lows, shattering. There was much to learn about the negotiations (and difficulties) involved in holding on to yourself, while being part of loving, intimate, sometimes fucked-up, coupledom.
Neither relationship worked out ultimately. My best friend was mystified, “How can you be in love with R, when you’ve already fallen for G?” I didn’t know myself, to be honest. Weren’t you supposed to have only one “true love” at a time? Yet there I was, struggling to recover from simultaneous heartbreaks.
I didn’t have a term for it yet, but it was the first time I figured out I could love two people romantically at the same time. That term, of course, is “polyamory”—being involved with multiple romantic and/or sexual partners simultaneously.
I’d heard of “open relationships” or “open marriages.” To me, while apparently liberal, these always seemed pretty sleazy in some way. The husband of an acquaintance hitting on all her friends surreptitiously—we’d learnt to keep our distance from that lecher. My friend who once propositioned me, saying it was okay because he was in an “open” relationship. But of course, his girlfriend wouldn’t know it was me he was sleeping with on the side. “No specifics,” he said.
My problem wasn’t with wanting multiple partners. But the lying was unconscionable. If you’re so “open,” why not be honest about it? If your partner has agreed to both of you having other relationships, whether sexual or anything else, why this hush-hush secrecy? It seemed like Ye Olde Cheating, simply repackaged to sound more hip. In theory, the idea of polyamory was great, but I wasn’t sure us fallible human beings were quite up to the execution. We make enough of a mess with one partner, imagine adding two or more to the mix!
My first substantial conversation with my current boyfriend was, ironically enough, on this very topic. I’d bumped into him online. I held forth on the impossibility of truly honest and open non-monogamous relationships, no matter how noble the intentions. What I didn’t know was, he was already in one, and a successful one at that. As our online conversations grew, and I learned the details of his very non-traditional love life, he began to make a convert of me. The idea no longer sounded so implausible, though it was tricky and delicate, and certainly not for everyone.
Perhaps coincidentally, I was falling in love again. We had tons in common, our conversational chemistry was off the charts. We shared similar political and philosophical beliefs, both unabashedly feminist. He wasn’t offering the stale old happily-ever-after relationship narrative. This idea of love was almost pragmatic. It openly acknowledged that we might want others while being involved with someone else, and that this is not an inherently bad thing. How you choose to act upon said desires, however is an entirely different matter.
If you’re lying, cheating, manipulating and being an asshole in general, you’re going the clichéd route. With openness, and honesty, and the idea that it’s okay to desire others and act on those desires, you’re less likely to be an inconsiderate, miserable human being. Unlike the disingenuousness I’d encountered before, honesty is the bedrock of such a relationship model. The rest of it looks remarkably like what my lofty ideas of love were—a relationship built on mutual trust, respect, admiration, and raging chemistry.
It felt so right, fit so well into the impossible standards I’d set for love, both in theory and practice. I realised that even when I was rejecting it, all this time I’d really been buying into the conventional capitalist model of love after all—where your partner is your property, and only you have sole rights over them. Letting go of this idea was crucial to reframing my approach to my emotions. I didn’t belong to anyone, nor they to me. Being with the other was an active choice, and one that required a declaration of commitment through our actions every day. This was a radical departure for me—the queen of casual sex choosing to have multiple committed relationships!
Well. Polyamory done right, as it turns out, is a lot of work!
It requires exceptionally high levels of trust, honesty, communication, and checking in with your partners, especially about their emotional/mental states. I have learnt never to take my partners or their feelings for granted. I respect their rights and choices as individuals, including the choice to love others. Also, being in multiple committed relationships has actively taught me to be a more generous partner—it is great to see your girlfriend be excited and happy about a new date, and come to you to discuss all the juicy details!
With my various partners, I actively savour the moments we are together—the joy is in the present moment, not only in the presence of pre-decided, typical relationship arcs dictated by social expectations.
This also means there is less pressure for one person or one relationship to fulfil your every relationship or romantic need. Could you do with only one friend who gives you all you need from friendships in general?
Plus, both my boyfriend and I identify as pansexual—for us especially, this arrangement works out so very well, since I’m happier while dating women in general. We set our own rules for what works for us, and so far, it’s worked splendidly. I am aware it might not continue to work out in future, but I’ll deal with that bridge when we get to it.
Honestly, I had expected it to be harder emotionally than it turned out to be in practice. The insane levels of talking and figuring out what does work for us was absolutely crucial. Without such clear boundary-setting and expectations, and being painfully honest with each other, I doubt it would have been the relatively smooth sailing it was for me. When I later dated other women, the same kinds of detailed communication happened with them.
This is non-negotiable, I’d say—being able to trust your partner enough to have the HARD – by which I mean vulnerable – conversations about the wants, needs and boundaries that are crucial for you both.
Equally important is to have the difficult discussions if something in the current relationship is painful for you or not working out well. Like all relationships really, you should ideally be able to figure out how to change your existing set-up so it works better for both. Love is usually unpredictable and often difficult. Learning to communicate, be heard, and listen in your turn is essential, whether in a monogamous or polyamorous relationship. Maybe it’s just more recognised in a polyamorous one!
In some peoples mind there is this question about boundaries of what is allowed and what isn’t. I didn’t have rigidly defined boundaries as such. I was sexually as well as emotionally intimate with several of my partners, both male and female, and everyone knew and was okay about this.
It’s not that all relationships work in the same way. People are different, love is varied and each relationship had its own “rules.” But in each case, I found out that accepting and expecting this honesty and generosity, and being willing to talk things out always helped smooth the path.
This doesn’t mean I am a polyamory evangelist, however.
The whole point is that there is no one right way for people to love and be in relationships. After a bunch of trials and errors I’ve stumbled on to something that feels so right for me.
But monogamy is what suits most others I know. Ethical polyamory is not for everyone, and that’s fine.
I often find myself having to explain how I conduct my relationships to disbelieving friends and acquaintances, though. The most common question is, “Aren’t you jealous when he is with his other girlfriend/boyfriend?” And the answer to that is kinda simple, really. Yes, you do feel varying degrees of jealousy But, you can deal with it.
First, you have to admit to yourself you’re feeling envious, and not to judge yourself harshly for feeling sad or shitty in general. Next, it is crucial to be frank with your partner about it. It helps if you can figure out together what is specifically bothering you, and what you need to do to feel better.
Pinpointing the negative emotion and then discussing it with the person you love openly helps get rid of it, for the most part. Cuddles also help. A LOT. It takes practice, and a whole lotta self-awareness, but I’ve found that it is doable. We’ve always been told that we should be jealous if someone we love likes someone else; you’re supposed to feel devalued if your partner chooses another as well. But if everyone is differently valuable, maybe we can learn to be happy for each other, if we try, even if conditioning is not easy to shake off?
Yes, it can be tricky. And will of course vary from person to person. So far, whether I’ve dated/slept with other men or women, I’ve never seen my boyfriend show any signs of being jealous. He has always been super happy for me if I ever clicked well with someone else. The two women I’ve dated seriously had different responses—one was perfectly fine, while another had major difficulty handling her feelings of possessiveness.
For me, I’ve largely found that as long as my own dynamics with my partners are great, I’m not really bothered or jealous about the others they may be dating. Feeling jealous often usually comes when there’s something else in the relationship I’m feeling insecure or unsure about.
Also, it’s not compulsory to like whomever your partner is dating. Starting out I wasn’t sure how I’d react to my boyfriend’s other partners in person. Turns out, as with any other friendship, it depends on the individuals involved! I am friends with one, largely indifferent to another, and don’t particularly like the third. I find the one I am friends with interesting, intelligent, generous, accomplished, and brimming with self-confidence—the kind of person I get along with, so why shouldn’t we be friends who happen to share a common love?
If anything, this friendship feels more radical than my non-monogamous relationships, because it hits at the very heart of ideas of female competition, backstabbing and sautens. The Other Woman (or one of them, at any rate) is my dear friend, and it feels wonderful. But it doesn’t always happen – that’s what boundaries are for.
My last girlfriend couldn’t handle her jealousy of my other partner two months in, so she stopped dating me. We continue to be friends, and still care for each other, but that was the right choice for her. Letting people go gracefully and changing conventional expectations of significant others is also something I’ve learnt to do, and am still learning.
Yes, logistics can be tricky, esp. time distribution wise. A large part of why I could pull off simultaneous relationships successfully without driving my introverted self stir-crazy was because some were local and some, long distance. It made time distribution a lot easier. While I was in mostly daily contact with everyone online/over text, in person meetings were spaced out. I would meet my (local) girlfriends regularly throughout, whereas I’d spend more extended chunks of exclusive time with my boyfriend during vacations. In figuring out how you spend time with each, it is important to be fair to your partner(s). This hinges on really good communication skills and the courage to say what you want, yet being able to negotiate what works best for you both. Most people think polyamorous people have lots of sex, and we do, but we also do a crazy amount of plain old talking!
While polyamory is most definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, it has led me down an intensely personal route of self-exploration, and opened my mind to possibilities (and people) I had never considered before. Polyamory (unlike the fairy tales) acknowledges openly that nothing lasts forever, and a particular relationship may not either. Situations change, people change, what they want changes. And that it’s perfectly okay, even if it may sometimes be sad (perhaps inevitably so). Internalising this has led to a healthier set of relationships where I’m concerned.
And it continues to feel like absolutely the right choice for me. I have a sneaky feeling that it will continue to do so for a long while, really.
Alaspriya likes nothing better than lazing her days away, with books and Star Trek for company. Humans are nice too, sometimes.
Tarini Sethi is a fine artist and illustrator based in Delhi. Her work largely revolves around human intimacy, discomfort and romance. She works with different media exploring sexuality in a humorous way. More work: http://tarinisethi.tumblr.com/