Is our society ready for multiple partner relationships?

My last column on extra-marital affairs generated a fair bit of email. Not just from those who agreed with my position, but mainly from those who didn't. The general theme of what most of my interlocutors had to say centred around the belief that since multiple partner relationships are successful in many parts of the world, they should, therefore, be acceptable in our country as well. Although my research hasn't provided me any convincing data that such relationships actually work in the short or long-term, I thought it may be politic to examine some of the dynamics in some clearly delineable prototypes of multiple partner relationships.

Open relationships

The first of these are what are usually referred to as ‘open relationships', wherein both partners are free to get emotionally and sexually involved with other people without needing the partner's consent every time. In other words, consent is a given. There is also no restriction on the degree of emotional or sexual closeness you can experience with the ‘paramour'. It is quite conceivable that you may end up having a committed relationship with the ‘ paramour' if this is indeed what you want to do, but then, you will have an open relationship with the ‘paramour' too, thereby permitting you to still maintain a relationship with your original partner. In other words, the element of exclusivity gets taken out of your open relationship, although commitment is still inherent.

This is different from ‘swinging' and ‘spouse-swapping' in which the focus is more on sexual rather than emotional intimacy. You're still married to your spouse, but both of you, by mutual consent, engage, from time to time, in sexual romps with other swinging couples. The idea here seems to be to provide both partners some sexual variety, but in a reasonably controlled situation, so that some degree of exclusivity is retained, and when both partners tire of sexual frolic, they retire to lives of companionable monogamy.

And in recent times, there is the new phenomenon called polyamory or simply, poly, sometimes described as ‘responsible non-monogamy'. While the definition of polyamory is not always absolutely clear, and can include open relationships as well in its ambit, it is distinguished from swinging, because it's seen as encompassing sexual, emotional, romantic and spiritual dimensions. The basic understanding here is that anyone is capable of having simultaneous, multiple, deep, intimate relationships, and that the ‘ distracting' elements of marriage, like jealousy, exclusivity, power imbalances etc., are squarely removed from the equation, thereby creating opportunities to grow as human beings.

However, jealousy does appear every now and again, and the successful poly is one who has been able to conquer this emotion and replace it with what is referred to as compersion (the opposite of jealousy, where you experience genuine happiness that your partner finds fulfilment or joy from somebody or something other than yourself). Fidelity, loyalty, honesty, equality, respect and transparency are big virtues among polys, for, no relationship takes place in the absence of consent and consensus. If ever consent is withheld, the reasons have to be substantial.

Polyamorists may engage in long-term relationships in triads, quads or networks. They would still tend to have a ‘primary' relationship and one or several ‘secondary relationships'. They are a growing movement in the United States (apparently there're about half a million polyamorists there) and also participate in Pride parades to highlight the legitimacy of their cause. Polyfidelity is a more controlled method of engaging in multiple relationships. The partners that one can choose from are limited to members of a group, network or commune. And fidelity to this group is demanded at all costs. Otherwise, the dynamics are similar to polyamorous relationships.

And finally, there is the old faithful — polygamy, which, in our country, was not uncommon in the past, but confined, since we live in a patriarchal environment, primarily to the male of the species (polyandry, which refers to a woman having multiple husbands, is too rare to even mention). Polygamy refers to having multiple socially, even if not legally, sanctioned spouses. This means that the polygamist takes responsibility for all of his wives and whatever children may be born of these liaisons. However, in the last few decades, polygamy, whether on account of inflation, recession or just an increasing belief in monogamy, is certainly on the decrease, even in religious denominations or sub-cultures where it used to be acceptable.

Viable alternative?

Some research into multiple marriages is under way in the west, but it's too early to tell whether it is a viable and sustainable alternative to monogamy. However, the fundamental issue is whether such multiple partner relationships could actually be considered to fall under the rubric of ‘marriage', which, by and large, has been a monogamous institution. The general clamour of my email interlocutors has been to expand the institution of marriage to cover multiple partner relationships as well. But, my question is, why? If one is comfortable with monogamy, one gets married. If one is not, one can opt for one of the ‘poly' alternatives. And then one can really understand whether more is actually merrier or whether three is indeed a crowd.

The writer is the author of 3's a Crowd: Understanding and Surviving Infidelity and can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com.

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