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Friendships, or, That in which we decouple coupledom from the economies of marriage

An abstract image of colourful silhouettes of multiple dancing people with squiggly lines around them

As a teenager, I often walked away from the movies feeling unsatisfied. Although I may have liked the actors – after all, it was the era of Shah Rukh Khan – and the music and dance sequences, the stories seemed reductive and unfulfilling. I enjoyed the beginnings of most films, when two people met, got to know each other, did activities together, met each other’s friends. Then, the movies quickly assumed that the relationship itself needed no further work. These couples were soulmates, glued to each other for a lifetime, or even, seven, depending on how the movies understood tradition. Marriage was an inevitable endgame for these young people. And the plots of these films often shifted at the intermission (an inevitable part of movies in those days) from the relationships themselves to the societal factors that stood in the way of this relationship becoming a marriage. Dialogues pregnant with hints about children told the audiences that society was not against the marriage exactly, but against its effects – the family, the children that would come out of it. I am sure that these movies felt relatable to several people, who, faced with opposition, often spent all their energy explaining their desires for each other and consequently did not really have time to just be in the relationship itself. But as I walked out of the movie theatre, something always bugged me: okay, so Simran boarded a train with Raj. And then, what?

In 2000, Alaipayuthey seemed to be the story of the “then what?” Shakthi and Karthik, played by Shalini and Madhavan do not find a haven in marriage. They learn the hard way that soulmates don’t happen, they are made. To make a relationship last – to enjoy its delight and pleasures – one must work on it. And this work never stops. The 2000s seemed to tell a different story about love than the 1990s – the dushman or enemy was not always an extraneous factor; these were stories about compatibility, and the difficulty of learning to live with someone. And yet, they did not question the idea of marriage. Explorations outside of it felt illicit, as if they were necessarily conducted without the knowledge of the other partner in the marriage. These stories still stuck to a heteropatriarchal framework, where marriage, if not an endgame, was still a huge milestone; children and families, expected outcomes. As India began to open itself to neoliberal restructuring, the couples in the movies seemed also to be remade by these desires. Whereas stories of the traditionally large family as told in a Hum Aapke Hain Kaun or a Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge were slowly fading away, new stories still continued to emphasise families shaped by marriage. These families were small – mostly just the couple, and then a child or two. Isolated units in a world that was learning to question existing forms of kinships and relationship building, without necessarily learning to make new community. If anything, the neoliberal drive was teaching couples that they must be enough for each other – a small, self-reliant, productive unit, that also had the onus of being “happy.”

When queerness and homosexuality became topics of public discussion in the 2000s, thanks to large scale social movements calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, they were still haunted by questions of privacy, self-reliance, productivity and happiness as all liberal and neoliberal stories are. The public domain was dominated by stories of same-sex couples from the dominant castes and classes who benefitted from the shift in economy, and whose imaginations were shaped by the same desires as heterosexual couples – the desire for a soulmate, marriage, children, families. Other images of sexuality still made India’s growing bourgeoisie uncomfortable – relationships that did not seem to promise togetherness for a lifetime seemed licentious, immoral and undesirable. Everything from friendships to bisexuality and polyamory – forms of togetherness that exceed the framework of traditional coupledom – seemed confounding, if not unwelcome. Sometimes, they still are. And although, I am drawing on my own experiences and perceptions of normalised adult relationships in India, it was by no means an Indian problem. India was being shaped by a global shift in desires, just as much as it was being remade by more conservative desires for reviving something truly Indian and traditional. While the latter seemed to reemphasise heteropatriarchy in one form, the former – however nontraditional it may have seemed – was not necessarily aware of the ways in which neoliberal reconfigurations had asserted themselves into all forms of coupledom. Even several seemingly non-heterosexual unions were not necessarily free from other frames of normativity. Insidiously, they fostered the making of small families – productive units that could keep the wheels of the economy turning.

All I remember when I look back at all of this, as a queer woman struggling against the tide of the stories I had internalised and normalised for myself, is a feeling of joylessness. Although the legal world began to change its lens with the reading down of 377, queerness was still anchored in the popular imagination to a marriage and family, except between a couple of the same sex. Searching for something that decentred family formation, without dismissing the need we all feel for being in secure bonds of love and pleasure, I ran into the writings of Paromita Vohra and Ruth Vanita on friendship.[1] These authors – both of whom I love for their capacity to draw on their own positionalities to talk about sexuality, love and connection – taught me to explore human desire for bonding outside of the domains of marriage in a meaningful way. I was not simply stuck within the binaries of “same-sex” or “opposite sex,” assuming that any reference to “same-sex” is in itself already revolutionary. But the call to recognise friendship, is a call to recognise so many forms of community that are made invisible by the emphasis within a liberal or conservative framework on “marriage” as the only path to family making.

Friendship too is a deep desire for bonding and connection, but because it is oftentimes without sex, people always assume that it falls outside the domain of sexuality. Yet, if you dig up the literature on friendship – going even as far into a Eurocentric canon with the writings of Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida – you will find that friendship is inevitably tied to explorations of pleasure in connections that fall outside the domain of family. Friendship doesn’t give you the one you love as “next of kin” in the traditional sense. In a typically liberal or neoliberal framework, your next of kin is still related to you by blood or marriage, as they are in a very traditional or conservative sense. In that sense, the “liberal” often valorised in our world is not very different from the “conservative.”

Friendship, on the other hand, “tends towards homosexuality,” according to Foucault[2] in a very different way. Shaped entirely by curiosity towards someone else, a desire to spend time with them, to remake oneself in relationship with them, friendship is often framed in Foucault’s writings as a relationship in which two individuals remake the boundaries between each other in a mutually consensual relationship. Now whether that mutual remaking of boundaries leads to sex or not is not as important as the fact that it is shaped by a deep desire for connection, companionship. Derrida in his work, The Politics of Friendship,[3] goes on to talk about how this desire for connection defies the forms of brotherhood and kinships that rely on the traditional family, and therefore challenge all forms of institutions, including the state and the military which are consolidated around ideas of brotherhood. Instead, according to both these writers, friendship inserts love – as desire for deep connection – where it is least expected and erodes the sanctity of powerful institutions. Although these texts – particularly Derrida – were dense, I found something that felt a lot like joy run through my veins for the first time in years.

Friendships shaped by curiosity and exploration are built around what Derrida calls philia. Philia here is not the “love” that is marketed on Valentine’s Day by Hallmark cards, but a deep desire for attachment. A desire that breaches boundaries and reformulates them in a consensual manner. Read broadly, friendship makes room for all forms of explorations between people – it is almost already polyamorous in that it does not ever demand that you make friends only with one person. It does not locate all exploration in sex, but makes room for often marginalised forms of sexuality, such as asexuality. It also does not efface the self in the name of duty to family or society. Curious exploration of oneself in a bond with another is also a curious exploration of the self. In fact, friendship allows one to be in a relationship with oneself – and makes self-care seem just as important as care for the other. What a good friendship demands is consensual, symmetrical, respectful exploration. It does not proceed towards a predefined destination like marriage. It also does not assume it is eternal – we are surrounded by stories of friendships that ended, just as much as we swim in stories of friendships whose legacies remain long after the friends themselves are dead. So, we are taught to focus on the acts that keep the relationship going – on the acts that make companionship deeper.

And in fact, if the coronavirus has taught us anything, it is this – we as humans crave connection and companionship, not marriage. There were plenty of people stuck in abusive households during isolation, asking us once more to reckon with the fact that traditional coupledom is not the safe haven that we are told it is. On the other hand, what we all missed were our close companions, the ones who make our life meaningful, because with them we learn to explore and rewrite the boundaries that we make around us in safe, comfortable ways. We grow with them; we become something other than what we could be on our own. We become more in a joyous way.

Although the attachment that friendship refers to often exists in a plane outside of marriage, the idea of attachment itself is complex. As Jessica Fern’s Polysecure cautions, all of us who have grown up in a liberal or neoliberal framework or within a traditional, conservative family are taught to normalise attachment through references to the security offered by long-term monogamous marriages. She found in her own experience, and in the conversations she had, that monogamy was a confusing framework for bisexual people, many of whom felt they were either being asked to be homo- or hetero- sexual in order to experience attachment within monogamous frameworks. And monogamy does not present itself as an issue only for bisexuality; it is at a crossroads with curious exploration itself. In her attempt to dislocate attachment theory from monogamous marriage and relocate it within a queer spectrum, Fern explores in Polysecure various forms of consensual bonds that couples find themselves in. In each one, she explores the importance of connection to another and to the self as grounds for feeling safe and secure. This is starkly different from the forms of security promised to us through liberalist and neo-liberalist frameworks, which centralise financial security and situate the family unit (including same-sex families) as the primary unit of production. Fern does not underplay the importance of financial security, but rather calls attention to other forms of comfort and security that spring from finding oneself in the companionship of someone who is able to be mutually curious, explorative, supportive and loving.

Alain de Botton,[4] who has in our times risen to become an expert on love, calls attention to another myth that is also perpetuated in stories that valorise the idea of soulmates and permanent monogamous unions. Communication, according to de Botton, takes a backseat in these situations, because the stories we are given about soulmates ask us to assume that perfect union is possible without the utterance of words, without language. This myth according to him teaches couples to devalue companionship that is negotiated through the constant communication of ideas, opinions and desires. Intimacy, according to de Botton, is not a given in any relationship; on the other hand, intimacy, be it sexual or asexual, is negotiated within a safe space where one is able to articulate one’s desires, however weird they may seem, and then be recognised and accepted as one’s endearing traits. Communication, according to him, is key in these situations.

This brings me to my discomfort with the rom-coms of the 1990s. As a teenager, I had neither the vocabulary nor had I built the capacity to give my discomfort a voice. But if I enjoyed the beginnings of movies – Raj and Simran in Europe in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ), for example – it was because this part of the film showed two people being curious about each other, negotiating their boundaries, discovering their desires, their sense of attraction and attachment. But once the plot shifted to societal oppositions to their marriage, it often made marriage seem like the only possible outcome of all mutual explorations, whereas it is really just one among other possible paths a couple can walk. Unlike what we are often told within a world that even without explicitly using the language of economy or nation is often urging us to act for the betterment of the nation or the global market, we do not need marriage in order to feel secure or safe. Even when we are in a marriage, we are safe only as long as there is a friendship between the people who are married. So, if we are to explore coupledom in a meaningful way outside of the heteropatriarchal confines within which it is placed, it is not simply enough to replace a Raj in DDLJ with an Anjali, and celebrate same-sex couples. It is important to step into the fullness of the promise that queerness holds – the capacity not simply to diversify “hetero” coupledoms, but to truly question the political and economic institutions that normalise some unions and marginalise or pathologise others.


Derrida, Jacques. 1994. The Politics of Friendship. New York: Verso Press.

Fern, Jessica. 2020. Polysecure: attachment, trauma and consensual nonmonogamy. Oregon: Thorntree Press.


[1] I am referring here to multiple articles by both authors, and I would suggest that the reader, for pleasure if nothing else, googles them and takes a deep dive. But a good place to start is Ruth Vanita’s “Dosti to Tamanna: Male-Male Love and Normative Indianness in Hindi Cinema,” in Everyday Life in South Asia ed. Diane Mines and Sarah Lamb (Indiana University Press, 2002), 146-58 and Paromita Vohra’s Alchemical Solutions.

[2] Foucault’s interview Friendship as a Way of Life summarises this thought:

[3] Also read:

[4] Although I am referring to multiple essays that Alain de Botton has written, this podcast is a delightful entry into his body of work:

Cover Image: Photo by Maarten Wijnants on Unsplash