Basit Manham was in his mid-teens when he first felt attracted to multiple partners. “Dating was not an option [then],” said Manham, “but I...had an emotional intimacy with several people.” At 19, when he did begin to date, the thought of this simultaneous attraction lingered. At the time, he was unable to put a name to his feelings. It was only later on that he realised that his thoughts were mirrored in polyamory, the practice of having two or more romantic relationships simultaneously with the consent and knowledge of all partners.

Polyamory advocates honest, open, inclusive and egalitarian relationships between multiple partners. While research into it has been limited, there is a growing interest in the practice. It isn’t difficult to understand the appeal – polyamory accepts attraction to several people simultaneously, and acknowledges that each relationship can be fulfilling in its own way. But poly individuals do not claim that it is a perfect solution to all relationship issues. In its attempt to be as realistic about the varying nature of attraction and love, polyamory takes a lot of self-exploration and self-awareness.

“Polyamory is difficult,” said the Bengaluru-based Manham. “There are misconceptions that polyamorous relationships are about fun and sex. But they are more work than regular relationships.”

Defying social systems

Polyamory derives its meaning from the Greek word poly meaning several and the Latin word amor meaning love. It is commonly confused with polygyny or polyandry, but the former defines a man’s marriage to multiple wives and the latter of a woman with multiple husbands. It is also not the same as swinging, which involves committed couples exchanging partners for sexual purposes, or even open relationships, where a primary committed couple is open to sexual relations with others (since these relationships are secondary to the primary relationship).

Ley, 27, a game artist and designer who lives mostly in Bengaluru and sometimes in Spain, does not think there is one right definition of polyamory. “I practise relationship anarchy, which is applying the core values of anarchism to relationships,” said Ley, who wished to be identified only by her first name. “I don’t want to accept societal systems, expectations or roles by default. I try to be aware of power dynamics and work against them while empowering each other.”

So how different it is from the dating app Tinder, through which someone can hook up with various people? Rohit Juneja, a spiritual counsellor, therapist and coach who moved to San Diego after spending much of his life in India, was in polyamorous relationships for over a decade. “Sleeping with several people is not polyamory,” explained the 60-year-old. Besides, the importance of openness, consent and communication among all partners – which is at the centre of polyamory – is not an essential component of Tinder relationships.

Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

Confronting jealousy

It is difficult to quantify the size of the poly community worldwide as many people do not come out in the open, but some findings suggest that the number of sexually non-monogamous couples in the United States run into millions. Juneja feels there is a growing interest in India and a few Facebook groups such as Polyamory India (of which he is the administrator), Bangalore Polyamory and Egalitarian Non-Monogamy – all support and awareness groups – are a testament to this.

Juneja says that being secure in oneself is important for making polyamorous relationships work. In his experience, coming to the decision organically, rather than through persuasion, makes it easier. Some mistakenly turn to polyamory, believing it be a solution to the problems in their monogamous relationships. “Whatever problem one has in a monogamous relationship will only get magnified in a polyamorous relationship,” Juneja said. “One must first build a solid base in the monogamous relationship before stepping into polyamory.” While some of his initial relationships were with monogamous individuals, Manham was always open about being polyamorous. The relationships, he admits, did not last.

The most obvious questions around polyamory are about jealousy. “Jealousy can be felt by anyone,” said Ley. There may be occasions, she says, when her partner could be uncomfortable with her flirting, having sex or starting a romantic relationship with one of their close friends. While she would respect these boundaries, in case she did develop feelings for such friends, she would bring it up with her partner to create a new agreement with which both are happy. “This doesn’t mean that they have to accept my feelings or that I have to control myself necessarily,” she said. “There are multiple options and ways of going around the same situation. It all depends on the circumstances and what each person needs and what each relationship means to us.”

Another way of avoiding misunderstandings is for both to not bring other partners home if there are issues related to space, lack of privacy and not wanting to get so close to the other parallel relationship. “This doesn’t mean we can’t meet other people or spend a night out, but it is a thing we discuss every time the situation comes up,” she said. “Because while it is usually okay, sometimes we have had a rough week and any of us could need more affection from the other.”

Talking things through

Jealousy, she says, is “an emotional reaction to things that happen around us and how they affect our concept of self-worth. We can’t make anyone else but us responsible of it, but we can and should talk about it.” And that’s arguably the most important component of a polyamorous relationship – open and constant communication with your partners.

Manham mentions a joke in the poly community: most people are average at communication skills, which polys excel at. Still, it doesn’t always work that way. Some partners may prefer not knowing or divulging all the details of the other relationships, perhaps to avoid resultant jealousy. But polyamory frowns upon this approach. Juneja feels that “jealousy is more when there is secrecy, and less when there is transparency”. In his experience, secretive poly relationships tend to fall apart. People who are unable to invest in complete transparency would perhaps find open relationships or swinging, which do not touch the emotional aspect, a more comfortable choice, he says.

Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

In many polyamorous relationships, the different partners are not always kept separate. They may co-habit and even raise families. “When you find that your partner is attracted to someone else, you should feel joy and pleasure for them and want to include this other person in your lives” said Juneja. That sounds incredibly difficult, for other than jealousy and possessiveness, there is also the fear of losing your partner to the other. Juneja agrees this is a risk in any relationship. His own relationship with a woman who was attracted to another man resulted in all three of them living together in what was a happy arrangement until it lasted. Eventually, his partner and the other man got married and there was no longer room in the relationship for Juneja. “Such change of feelings can happen in both monogamous relationships and polyamory,” he said.

Raising a family

Polyamory is often dismissed for being greedy, or selfish, or just a phase, but for those who mindfully practise it, these are frustrating interpretations of their choice. Manham agrees that polyamory not being accepted by society makes it difficult to practise. Some may tire of the obstacles and finally resort to the approval of monogamy. It is presumably difficult when children or marriage enter the picture, but Juneja, Ley and Manham are quick to emphasise that polyamory is not restricted to single people. “People who practise polyamory can create families and that is a proven fact,” Ley said. “Is it more difficult? Maybe. Because there aren’t many examples out there and they face stigma. However, things like co-living, parenting or long-term plans can benefit from polyamory, because you are likely to have a support network and a community and not just rely on one person to do all this with.”

One of the most well-known polyamorous relationships was that of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, with his wife Elizabeth and their partner Olive (both women inspired his iconic character). Their relationship was the subject of the movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, widely regarded as a realistic and sensitive portrayal of polyamory. The movie showed the joy they found together, and the difficulties the relationship went through – after all, it was the early 20th century, when there was no definition to their bond. But the movie did also point to an inequality in their relationship, which by definition polyamory defies. Olive seemed at a distinct disadvantage because she was not married to Charles. When things got rough, it was Olive who was asked to leave by Elizabeth. She was only asked to return later when Marston was dying of cancer. The story, though touching, revealed the hierarchy that can make certain partners in poly relationships dispensable because they are not part of the primary relationship.

Difficult path

There are different ways in which poly relationships work. Some choose a non-hierarchical arrangement with equal commitment to multiple partners. Others involve more spontaneous, evolving arrangements, depending on how much time partners want to spend with each other. The investment in spending time with multiple partners can be difficult. “Google Calendar,” said Juneja with a laugh, in response to how one manages the different strands of poly arrangements. A lot of it, he says, depends on the location of the partners and the agreements you have. Ley has evolving agreements based on what feels right for the relationship. “We talk about what we want to do, when to meet and go by our availability, desire and needs, and come up with an agreement.”

Considering the complexities, polyamorous relationships appear difficult to sustain for a long period. But Juneja, who is currently focused on monogamy, disagrees. “My polyamorous relationships did not work, but there are several that do.” His focus is on building quality over quantity, because “if I can’t do it in one, then I cannot do it in many”. Ley feels that “there is no reason why you can’t have life-lasting polyamorous relationships. As any other human connection that you want to maintain, it requires ongoing teamwork, and accepting that relationships go through different phases without meaning that they have to end necessarily.”

This open and expansive interpretation of love and relationships may not be for everyone. It requires a great deal of self-exploration and constant communication. Whether one agrees with polyamory or not, it is difficult to dismiss the essential pillars it is built on. For good communication, generous love and equality among partners are worthy goals in any relationship.