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Interview – Coupledom is a mix of meanings

A photograph of colourful weaves of threads.

There are times when an In Plainspeak theme of the month, such as this one focusing on sexuality and coupledom, asks that we listen to more than just the one individual. Coupledom, we felt, calls for a couple of interviewees and more! So, in this interview section we’ve got a handful of people, randomly chosen, from amongst our personal and professional circles.

When we do group interviews, we always find that the subject and the interview itself, is approached differently by each person. Here’s a sense of what we’ve got, before you read on and experience the mix for yourself. We all live at the intersections of different identities, some of which include minority and marginalised identities in the space of gender and sexuality, disability, class, caste, age and such. Not all of these intersections, or identities, are comfortable spaces to inhabit. We negotiate our relationships, personal, and those with the wider world, with varying degrees of care and caution. We find ourselves able to be ourselves, to affirm who we are, in some relationship spaces, in some places and parts of the world, and not in others. We find ourselves accepting and not accepting truths other than our own, and other identities, sometimes quite unconsciously. Coupledom may or may not be for everyone, and does not mean the same thing to everyone. Importantly, coupledom does not hold the same value or position in our lives, even in the lives of the individuals perceived to be parts of a couple structure.

Some folks wanted to contribute their honest responses anonymously. We are happy that they have participated in this small effort and we respect their reasons for wishing to remain anonymous. On a tangent, it is worth thinking of the environment we inhabit, where self-affirming honesty requires safeguards of different kinds, from outer and also perhaps inner critics.

We gave our interviewees two cue questions to respond to:
What are the first thoughts that come to your mind when you hear the words ‘sexuality’ and ‘coupledom’ in the same sentence?
What is your personal understanding of coupledom, and how has this concept unfolded in your life experience?

Many of you will have your own responses to this theme. We invite you to tell us what you think and feel, in a manner that respects the space and the dignity of others (we may moderate comments). Write to us at by March 3, 2022 with the subject line: Response to Coupledom and Sexuality.

Here’s what our small group of interview participants said:

Maniza Khalid identifies as non-binary and pansexual: As a Muslim, I recognised the specific models of “good” Muslim femininity and marriage that I was prodded to look up to. Sexuality wasn’t referenced blatantly but any teenager would know that it’s the underlying chaos that the systematic pruning of a child, and rishta-scoping, attempt to control. Among most Muslim communities, sexuality and coupledom are closely linked still, and each curbs the potential of the other. Sanctioned marriage was the narrow pool within which one could explore their sexual being, in a hushed, ‘dignified’ manner. Interestingly, divorce and remarriage were common among the Arab communities that I lived amongst, sometimes playful like speed-dating, but with more paperwork. I appreciated the possibility of exiting bonds that do not feel meaningful.

With those influences, coming to terms with my pansexuality was beautiful and incredibly frightening – a curious mix of feeling liberated but also condemned to choose from the unknown, confronting ways of being that have no existing templates. I was used to being guided by the firm hand of cultural law. In opposition, I took it upon myself to embody from the forbidden – Queer writing and film. However, none of those models allowed me to heal, with my Muslim upbringing in consideration. I knew I was not aspiring to settle into Muslim matrimony in the way that young people in the community are, but I did not know who I was within the scope of relationships. Was I butch? Was I polyamorous? Did I fantasise about Ramadan meals with a partner and a cat? Did I want to subscribe to any religious framework at all?

As someone whose foundations have been shaken often, I can say many of us, Queer people from various intersections of society, do not quite know who we are or what we like, at most times. We are made and unmade, we learn and unlearn, constantly. We discover by living our truths, however momentary they are. I think lovers do not complete but extend our being; I know love is not always about sexual intimacy but I like what bodies can do; I do not identify with a particular gender identity, on most days I’m just a friend, or reader, or simply wondrous about the possibilities of life and people, and myself.

RP identifies as cisgender male: About my identity – I like women. I like men, but seldom sexually. I really like funny.

“Mummy, how was I born?” “You will learn that in some time.” When I hear ‘sexuality’, this snippet of a conversation between the adolescent me and my mum springs to my mind. ‘Coupledom’ brings a more recent memory: “Why are you just with her? She’ll eat you. Did you forget putting me off that couple crap?” remarks my friend, coming to know of my young-ish relationship with an old friend.

I don’t like the word ‘coupledom’. We get couple seats, couple passes, couple hotel rooms, the couple treatment; it is Tinseltown for us ‘heterosexual couples.’ But what keeps me interested in my own ‘coupledom’, my relationship, doesn’t usually meet the eye. Our intimacy — a lifelong learning curve that includes learning about sexuality, social norms, love, life — is something I find difficult to share easily with friends or strangers these days. I feel safer and warmer in sharing the spectra of myself with my lover (who contains multitudes), even when I am sharing about my attraction toward ‘another’, or a complaint against kin.

Intimacy should not be bound by ‘coupledom’ and does not always include sex. The word ‘coupledom’ is inadequate to describe relationships between two people, let alone other kinds of intimacies. Two people contain a multitude of selves.

Jeeja Ghosh is a disability rights activist with a special interest in gender and disability: Sexuality for me, is in the personal domain. It consists of my preference, desires and fantasies. It’s more about my sexual identity – how I conceive of my body.

I am the sole authority to determine or define my own choices regarding my sexuality. Keeping the same logic in mind, people with disabilities can never be denied their rights as sexual beings. Our physical, sensory or mental limitations cannot be the reason for labelling us non-sexual, or for treating us as if we were inert objects. Society cannot be the custodians of our personal choices.

Yes, being in a relationship entails that we co-create a world together, which belongs exclusively to us. However, we are social beings and our existence cannot be something that is outside the boundaries of societal norms and practices. I am not saying that we adhere to the unreasonable demands of society which interfere with this private domain. It is nevertheless important that we as social beings understand that we are somewhat liable, as well as responsible, to our families, community and society.

A identifies as a queer Muslim woman: When I hear the words sexuality and coupledom in one sentence, the first thing that comes to my mind is marriage. Growing up in Pakistan as a Muslim woman, I was wired with the ideology that sex and coupling are only acceptable in a marital relationship and marriage was only possible between a man and a woman. However, when I fell in love with a woman and had a sexual encounter with a same-sex partner, I could not imagine that coupledom was possible for us. Being a couple for me also meant to be acknowledged as a couple, which, at that time, wasn’t possible because of our circumstances, two South Asian Muslim women living in Muslim majority countries where homosexuality is criminalised. Today, after almost a decade-long relationship, moving countries and continents, and at a point where we are finally married and live together in Europe, the meaning of coupledom has changed for me. I no longer associate it with marriage only, though marriage is one way and can provide protection to a couple. Coupledom for me is being together on the same page with my partner (sometimes even finishing each other’s sentences), understanding and respecting each other, and growing together not only as a unit but also as individuals. It also means being vulnerable in front of my partner and knowing that I’ll be supported, having each other’s back, and trusting that she has my best interest at heart even when we may disagree. It is a partnership where both partners are invested in each other’s happiness and growth.

Kumam Davidson identifies as queer, male: I speak from a context where there is little or no space for sexuality and sex even within a hetero-patriarchal set up. Romantic relationships and straight marriages do not celebrate sexuality and sex, but only celebrate marriages, motherhood and the institution of family. Ironically, married men have multiple wives that suggests male sexuality is less tabooed than that of others. This explains why discreet queer, gay, bisexual men, marry women, whose sexuality we take little into account.

In such a context, sexuality as such is a strongly tabooed idea. Speaking from my personal positionality of being a queer man who desires men and boys and enjoys fleeting intimacies with young men, I am often labelled as ‘promiscuous’ even in community circles. There is a strong obsession with ‘soulmates’ and ‘forever’ instead of ‘supportive’ and ‘healthy’ relationships. Pleasure has very little significance in relationships and it often gets critiqued from a standpoint of promiscuity, sexual health and HIV. There is fear to desire and be desired. There is hardly any autonomy of body and selfhood in today’s context.

The silver lining in all this is young folks from my region who are celebrating their coupledom on social media and that sets the stage for visibility, conversations and dignity. There is a wave that is slowly galvanising, led by young queer, bisexual, gay, lesbian persons today. As for me, I am proudly promiscuous and not settling down with the ‘soulmate’ ‘forever’ thing. It’s really overrated though I am not against it.

Vasu identifies as a woman, is heterosexual, and divorced: I am a heterosexual woman in my 40s working with an international organisation on development issues. I have lived and worked in different parts of India and other parts of the world. These experiences helped me liberate my understanding of sexuality and coupledom, beyond the confines of the time when I was married in my mid-20s. An awfully toxic and severely co-dependent marriage, after a 7-year courtship that repeatedly illustrated what was in the offing, yet my desperation for coupledom kept me in deep denial.

The relationship was to fulfil so many yearnings packaged as love – sexual needs, intelligent and fun conversations, the need for a decent partner (read not a pervert) and above all the unending desire for validation. What helped the quick exit was the final realisation that it was a terrible bargain, with my freedom and individuality being curtailed. Post-divorce, the decade that followed still saw similar patterns – a terrible cocktail of unaddressed depression, and a desperation for coupledom, a companion to travel with, watch movies with, satiate my physical desires and above all, to be in love with.

In the past few years, I learned that I can have sex without being emotionally attached, but I am wary of what oxytocin and serotonin can do to my brain. There is always this danger of someone looking like Cumberbatch after a few intimate dates! I no longer search for love, but I hope to find a sensible person with a kind heart and a healthy body to anchor with, and for this to evolve as the basecamp of our lives. Unfettered in our curiosity for the world and its people, but enriched by our journey and mutual love for life and the world around us. It won’t be easy, but I suppose it is worth trying.

Anchi identifies as a woman, is single and exploring possibilities beyond heteronormative, age-appropriate coupledom: As a 35-year-old single woman who has experienced a global pandemic before she has experienced a proper adult relationship, I have to say my idea of coupledom is largely theoretical or fantastical and based on very limited second-hand exposure to couples around me. I have been trying and absolutely failing at changing my single status for almost a decade now, but what’s interesting is that the link between sexuality and coupledom has sort of changed for me over the years in the process.

When younger, I truly believed that love and desire were inseparable, and one couldn’t exist in the absence of the other. And now, while the endless quest for love is still most definitely on, I have also been able to acknowledge my desires and act on them with a bit of frivolity. It might be the thought that one would never be this young, with this body and this frame of mind ever again in life… and not exploring one’s sexuality because of not having found the perfect version of coupledom, has just started to seem silly.

It also took some time for me to let go of the idea of not exploring possibilities beyond heteronormative, age-appropriate coupledom. I claim to be bisexual, but I don’t think I have ever seriously imagined myself as part of a same-sex couple. Not sure if that is because of social conditioning or just plain personal preference, but now, I think I’m a lot more curious to find out.

While I still run a mile away from words like Polyamory and truly believe no amount of therapy would lead to it not triggering my abandonment issues, I can possibly see the merit in the argument that it’s almost impossible to find a single partner who matches your intellect, sexuality, values, interests, humour and what not. It is nice that people nowadays are exploring their sexuality and the idea of what coupledom means to them. While continuing to try and find love in the time of Tinder, I’m happy to say I’m Bumbling along and pushing my own limits.

Cover Image: Pixabay