When 42-year-old Soumya reconnected with an old friend, he felt entitled to ask her to sleep with him. Perplexed, she declined his proposition.
“He knew details about my life and relationship status. He must have assumed I would say yes to sex because I am polyamorous!” she says.
A relatively new concept, polyamory is often mistaken for ‘sex with multiple people’! “Yes, there can be multiple partners, but it is more about intimacy and communication,” says Aili Seghetti, intimacy, dating and relationship Somatica coach (a specific method and philosophy used for sex and relationship coaching), from Mumbai.
A recent survey by sexual wellness brand Lovehoney revealed that alternate relationship dynamics are on the rise across many countries. According to Dr. Justin Lehmiller, social psychologist and research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, this is because of increased media representation and increasing expectations of what we want in a partner.
“Firstly, multi-partner relationships are being represented everywhere — from reality TV to front-page news. This has allowed many people to recognise that monogamy may not be the only option. Secondly, expectations from our partners have grown over time, and people today want someone who can be both a best friend and a passionate lover, which can be difficult — if not impossible — to achieve. As a result, some are considering having different partners who can meet different needs,” Dr. Lehmiller says.
We reached out to the polyamorous community in India to know more about the challenges and myths associated with this relationship style.
“Well, polyamory means exactly what it stands for: many loves!” says 34-year-old Rishav, who claims perspectives are changing, albeit at a glacial pace.
Unlike the preconceived notion of polyamory being only about ‘having sex with multiple partners,’ it is more about having, or loving, multiple romantic partners, who know about each other and sometimes engage romantically with each other.
“Partners in polyamorous relationships can be sexual, asexual, kinky, etc. Sometimes sex is a part of the relationship, sometimes it is not. Sometimes the intimacy shared is for raising a child or running a household,” Seghetti explains.
For 30-year-old Isha, who began her dating life as a monogamous person, polyamory brought out the best in her. It made her vulnerable and emotionally available to her partners.
“I am not polyam because I want to have sex with multiple people! I am polyam because I want to be able to love multiple people,” she says.
During one of her breakups, it became tricky for Isha to discuss it with her other partner.
“Even if I wished to, I could not divulge all the details of my breakup. I feared it would affect my current relationship,” she says. What helped Isha was finding a community that understood and supported her.
“Oh yes, it helps if you have a community of people who can empathise, but unfortunately there are very few who can understand your pain,” says Rishav. Since there is almost no legal or socially-acceptable precedence, polyamorous people can rarely discuss details of their relationship with their loved ones. It is difficult to confide in family members, as polyamory is considered taboo in most Indian households.
Rishav says people often trivialise heartbreak by saying things like “you lost one partner, but you still have another one!” However, breakups for a polyamorous person can feel intense (just like in a monogamous relationship) and can impact the well-being of the person.
In such cases, Seghetti advises self-care and giving yourself time to grieve, just as you would in a monogamous relationship.
Soumya was quite young when she realised it felt natural to be in love with more than one person.
“I also realised that this was not the norm and so I began hiding my emotions. It took a lot of time to finally accept myself and learn how to create boundaries for my relationships,” she says.
Rishav, who insists boundaries are crucial in ‘any relationship structure’, prefers having a heart-to-heart discussion with potential partners. “If expectations and sense of boundaries match, they could go on to become partners. If there is some disconnect, it is good to create some mutually-acceptable common ground,” he says.
Since polyamory requires one to have empathy and respect for partners, it helps to share crucial information like spending a night or weekend away. “I have a primary nesting partner and we try to communicate — about emotions and other relations — every day. I used to do the same with my other partners but realised it is difficult to find people who are not overtly jealous,” Soumya says. She now exclusively dates non-monogamous people and refrains from having too many partners.
Experts claim it is important to revisit ‘boundaries’ of space and time and ‘prior rules,’ if any, with current partners. Discussing each other’s needs can help in prioritising types of activities or ways in which partners want to engage in, whether sexually or romantically. “In many cases, poly contracts can help in defining the relationship and its boundaries. A professional can guide you through this, especially if the relationship has been monogamous for a while,” Seghetti says.
Partners should ideally be open to reviewing, changing or negotiating these contracts as and when needed.
As a polyamorous person married to a monogamous man, Isha faced the unique challenge of navigating both her social and personal life.
It took a lot of effort to get her husband used to the concept and that is when Isha felt the need for a support system. “With most polyamorous people hiding their true identities, it is nearly impossible to connect with like-minded people in India."
Like Isha, many young people in India are experimenting with different relationship styles, despite high cultural barriers or the lack of legislation. However, the absence of family support can leave them feeling lost or alienated. Gradual sensitising of the family by sharing relevant information through literature or videos can be helpful. “Have discussions on the topic in the third person to understand how open they are to the idea. This process can last months or even years. Take it slow,” Seghetti advises.
The head curator of The Intimacy Curator (TIC), a community, Seghetti had started it to ensure those practicing ethical non-monogamy could come out and feel supported. “We protect our members from random people who approach them for sexual favours. We want everyone to experience how it feels to be their authentic self in a safe space,” she says.
The polyamorous community in India relies on small, independent groups like TIC and Bangalore Polycules, for support. When polyamorous people experience jealousy, anxiety or fear, these communities help them navigate these feelings and foster communication between partners.
“I have tried Bumble, Tinder and Feeld, but these apps hardly work for Indian polyamorous people. Only specially-curated communities can offer help and guidance,” Rishav says.
Rishav claims members of the polyamory community can be paranoid about getting themselves tested frequently and hence are safe to indulge with.
It is not uncommon for a polyamorous person to ask prospective partners for STI/STD test reports. “We can ask for reports even if we meet you at a bar! If it is a polyam person, they don’t take offence, but it often shocks people from outside the community,” Rishav adds.
Isha says she feels no shame in asking people for their latest reports. She currently follows a six-month schedule and has no qualms about showing her test reports to others as well. “I have got my HPV vaccination done and I think it’s important to get one if you are sexually active,” she says.
Seghetti’s advice is to always use protection, even while engaging in oral sex, be it in a polyamorous or a monogamous relationship.
Debarati Chakraborty is an independent journalist, who writes on mental health, relationships and sexuality.