It is not new to society that a major way to be accepted as an individual is to have a ‘till death do us part’ monogamous heterosexual relationship. If the relationship is an endogamous heterosexual tie arranged by the blood relatives, the chances of it being accepted are much higher. After the Supreme Court of India decriminalized Adultery under Section 497 of Indian Penal Code making it unconstitutional, the agency of married women was brought into focus while expecting married heterosexual couples to be loyal to each other as a social obligation. In India, we are nowhere close to acknowledging romantic and/or sexual relationships outside gender binaries. However, this article loops ahead to explore the complexities of ethical non-monogamy, to focus on the reality of its practice and it being a valid way of engaging in more than one relationship at the same time.
The emphasis in this article is on ethical non-monogamy, a broader term for forming multiple relationships with the consent and knowledge of all partners, where it could be platonic, romantic, emotional, and/or sexual. Most people form multiple friendships over their lifetime and these friendships are not the same: the conversations are not the same – some arise from an ideological space, some from the workspace, school, college, or neighbourhood, and these days, some are virtual. It’s also true that each of these friendships is different and fulfills different aspects and needs in a person’s life. Similarly, ‘polyamory’, a term that may seem vague to many, defines a radical reach outside the accepted monogamous and non-monogamous heterosexual relationships formed out of choice. For someone identifying as polyamorous, the basic tenets are (but not limited to) honesty, transparency, queerness and moving away from monogamy and marriage. This is what separates it from unethical non-monogamy primarily practiced by cisgendered heterosexual men, whose cheating on their partner within or outside marriage is accepted by a patriarchal society.
Practicing polyamory comes with the struggle of breaking down value systems and non-acceptance that may lead to ostracism not only from the heterosexual world but also from the queer and trans community. Claiming oneself as queer depends not only on how one identifies, but also, in society’s eyes, on who one’s partner is; being single does not qualify and neither does being polyamorous as the latter is considered ‘non-serious’. Contributing in a way to the stigma around polyamory, are platforms that apart from celebrating queer journeys, prefer to celebrate queer love stories and their forever-ness, hence making separation or break ups in queer relationships equivalent to divorce. In such a world, presenting oneself as polyamorous leads to stereotyping, and to counter this it may be more acceptable to be seen as having a primary partner.
The idea of having a primary partner for polyamory practitioners may be a way of being perceived to be in a monogamous relationship while continuing to form secondary and short-term relationships. The pressure to be monogamous, to be accepted and to fit within the societal understanding of family that includes two people and their children continues to be a focal point. While queer and trans people remain a threat to an orthodox society, the modern and progressive world is also not willing to break away from institutionalising monogamous structures where loyalty, ‘one true love’, forming family, creation of power and holding resources are valued. Undeniably, practitioners of ethical non-monogamy make an effort to follow its tenets but balancing between partners and having the mental bandwidth to embrace this, leaves very little energy to focus on challenging its monogamous nature and to ensure that all partners have agency. Therefore, polyamory continues to remain a place of exploration where long-term relationships with more than one partner mostly fail to make a mark, or if they succeed, it happens outside the knowledge of society.
The next part of the article brings in an aspect where polyamory is embraced and accepted as a way of building a support system, the forms of associating with multiple partners, its understanding of ethics and a way of creating a family of choice which is nothing less than a utopian understanding.
Many queer and trans people have a blood family. But the sense of support and affirmation received from the community makes a difference where there is no need to explain one’s identity, thus creating a non-judgemental space allowing for moving away from the dysphoria that our cis-het world may build because of its failure to move beyond binaries. Nowadays dating apps, social gatherings and meet ups help in engaging with people from the community, building connections and socialising, mostly because there is acceptance that allows people to be at ease with their gender and sexuality. The idea of ‘one true love’ is so deeply engrained in us by the socialisation process that people make a huge effort to find that one person in whom love, support, togetherness, resource sharing, personal politics, choices etc. all come together, and where compromise and negotiation are accepted as a way of forming relationship. If polyamorous relationships become a way of life, there is no such expectation from one person to be available all the time; there is more agency over one’s body and decision making; and there are different partners to help fulfil one’s needs without the need for compromise or negotiation. People do not share the same feelings for or expectations from each person in their lives; similarly, in a polyamorous relationship, each partner brings different capabilities to the relationship.
In blood families, there is a social compulsion to be there for each other and support each other, while in a family of choice people may decide to stick by each other unconditionally. However, to me, it seems difficult to accept that people decide to stay for no reason. Are human beings becoming so reliable and selfless that they are capable of loving someone unconditionally where there are no benefits for them? In my experience, neither do friendships remain forever nor the chosen family; as people evolve, they continue to build new human relationships and the space for older ones keeps reducing. Also, how many times is there just one family of choice which is purely based on friendship and not attraction? People who are part of non-monogamous relationships may also be a sort of a ‘family’ for each other, may they not? These are questions that further need to be delved into, but one space that continues to be avoided for building chosen family(s) is the space where there is more than one partner. Again, the partnerships don’t need to be sexual all the time; every individual may be able to fulfil different needs and there is commitment in all the relationships. Commitment doesn’t need to be with just one person. It is important to accept that persons are capable of falling for more than one person at the same time and may want to embrace relationships which are outside the heterosexual monogamous structure.
It is not denied that practicing polyamory is more complicated and not as easy as may come across in this article. Jealousy and insecurities are not uncommon feelings in monogamous romantic and/or sexual relationships, so using these as arguments against polyamory is unfair, directly challenges individual choices, and is clearly based on stigma. There is no one rule-book to practice polyamory; every relationship creates its own rules with mutual understanding and respect for each partner. Polyamory is a form of unconventional living that needs more in-depth experiential learning without being stigmatised as ‘unfaithfulness’.