Who’s afraid of relationships?

I’m often asked – usually by men who are hitting on me, but also sometimes by interviewers – what I think of polygamy or polyamory versus exclusivity in relationships.

The question leaves me a little…stuck, perhaps is the word. I take a lot of my lessons from the natural world, and I see the boys in my pack of dogs trying their best to hump the girls – futile at most times, since the girls are spayed – and though the boys, who are not neutered, are extremely jealous of each other for my attention, they don’t seem to grudge each other their shared interest in the girls. And the girls don’t seem to have particular loyalties, and were quite happy to flirt with everyone when they were approaching their first heat. I suppose you can’t really justify monogamy or monoamory if you look at the natural world, but then you can’t justify wearing clothes or using money or building houses either.

I’ve always gone by emotion where some things are concerned. Personally speaking, I don’t think a polygamous or polyamorous relationship would be as fulfilling as being with someone who gets you. Just “gets” you. That click of parts fitting together – and I’m not trying to win the bad-sex-writing award, I mean this entirely metaphorically – is just so beautiful. To know you could leave a sentence half-spoken. To know that when you ask, “You know what I mean?”, the person will respond with something that goes beyond what you mean.

When you meet someone like that, all your other criteria melt away. And at that time, you can’t think what you would possibly find in someone else. Not even physicality, because those criteria melt away too.

I’ve been writing a book on the trans masculine community in India, and as I made friends there and got to know them and their partners and through them, various others in the larger LGBTQIA+ community, I found something rather interesting. One of my interviewees said, “There is so much love in the community”, not just among partners, but among created quasi-families, where you could sort of adopt someone as a brother or son or sister or daughter or mother or father. Even within the romantic couplings I came across, I saw that the relationship was so entirely, purely about the person, with no other factors – not even sex. Orientation did not matter. Chemistry did. And I’m not sure where the chemistry comes from, but for all of us, it is part physical and part emotional, I think. I’ve always found that “Opposites attract” is untrue; it is the similarities which draw us closer, sometimes close enough to overcome minor differences. And there is something truly beautiful about nothing else mattering but that person, and conversations with that person, and how you feel around him or her or insert-suitable-pronoun.

Is there such a thing as “The One”? I don’t know, but I think there is, or that there are people who come close to being “The One”. Just as you have a lot of friends, but at a time of crisis, if you had just one call to make, you know just whom you would call, I think there is a good chance of each of us meeting someone who simply fits, with whom we can have literally any conversation, with whom we can be entirely honest without worrying about how we come across.

To me, that honesty is crucial – to be able to say when you miss someone, to say you would like to see someone, to say and show you care, without thinking, “Will s/he think I’m needy? Will s/he think I’m desperate?” And when you are honest, I don’t think the other person will feel “pressured”. But we carry so much baggage, from experience, from books, from cinema, from social mores, that we are often too keen for closure, for confirmation. We don’t any longer know how to enjoy the feeling of anticipation – the anticipation of a first kiss, aching to see someone’s name in your inbox or caller ID, the thrill of interacting in some way.

Perhaps the inability to enjoy this comes from our insecurity. Several psychological studies say we are attracted to people who are attracted to us. I don’t know whether that’s cause for celebration or contemplation. In one sense, it should ease our worries about unrequited love. But on the other, it speaks to a certain insecurity in us, where we are so grateful to someone for finding us special that we reciprocate.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. A statement like “We are attracted to those who are attracted to us” should be examined, layer by layer, in physical, emotional, and intellectual contexts. Maybe because of pornography, a lot of emphasis is placed on the physical, though I think lust could also be rooted in intellectual compatibility. And you will find a lot of people whose Twitter bio says “sapiosexual”, but who are swiping left and right on Tinder.

I can’t really judge Tinder since I’ve never felt tempted to be on it, but I can’t help thinking that it is an offshoot of pornography. Attraction is considered instantaneous, sex a bodily need, and the concept appears to be that you meet and fuck right away. And because we’re wired to build families, you also try to find some other compatibility.

That isn’t how attraction works in our heads, at least not in all our heads. For some people, attraction builds up gradually. This concept of “friend-zoning” has got a lot of us thinking attraction has to be immediate. But as long as two people are of compatible sexual orientation, the possibility of physical attraction always exists, even years into a platonic relationship. It could be dulled by other factors, such as one person being partnered, or the two people differing drastically on beliefs and principles, but chances are that there comes a point where one must choose whether or not to act on it. I think, sometimes, that “one-sided attraction” in the absence of other factors, is simply a mismatch in speed of expectation of sex. And, yes, it is possible that the time taken could be infinity.

Often, I find people saying they may be better off as friends, because “sex spoils everything”. I don’t see why it should. And I don’t see how being in a platonic relationship with someone to whom one is attracted doesn’t put a strain on a relationship.

The only difference between a friend and a romantic partner, aside from the physical aspects, is the way we treat them. And because there’s so much emphasis on sexual expression and sexuality over romance in the media, in movements like the pleasure narrative in feminism, we sometimes fail to look beyond the sex to what really matters.

One of the questions a journalist recently asked me was, “Why do you think there are so many divorces these days? Are people acknowledging differences, or is it to do with women’s empowerment, or is it that we as a generation are unwilling to compromise?”, and I had this answer to give her, which draws from what I’ve said about friendships and relationships:

I’ve not analysed what keeps family courts busy as such, but I’ve noticed a pattern in several relationships. People often say they make better friends than they make a couple. Celebrities are particularly fond of saying this. And we plebeians find ourselves wishing relationships could be like friendships, easy and honest.

I think the real difference is the space we give each other. We can allow relationships to work as easily and honestly as friendships, but we don’t. We believe we have to “make” them work, and we end up wringing them dry. I would say, just ask yourself these questions: Would you keep count of who texted first, and who texted last, and who called when, in the case of a friend? Would you have a problem with your friend wanting to go on a solo holiday? Or to unwind with some alone time after a tough day? Would you expect a friend to text you everyday, to want to meet you everyday, to make space for you in the middle of a hectic workday, to call you when s/he is out with other friends? When you’re able to give that much space to a partner, when you’re able to believe you don't have a right to disturb him/her, when you're able to avoid the panic of “Oh, does s/he not love me anymore?” or “Is s/he losing interest in me?” when someone tries to make that space for himself or herself, that’s when a relationship really works as easily as a friendship. When you are able to leave things be, let them take a natural, organic course without choreographing each move.

To answer your question, I think ‘compromise’ is not the right word. We need to re-evaluate our expectations from a relationship. We draw most of these expectations from sitcoms and rom-coms, which is pretty much like drawing our expectations of sex from pornography.

Which brings us to the things we need to re-evaluate. Let’s start with resolving conflict. When our expectations of each other don’t match, instead of getting into a pointless argument with bitter consequences, we just need to understand who has the power: the partner who needs least cooperation from the other has the power. If you want to exchange “good morning” and “good night” texts, you do need someone to press a button at the other end; if you want alone time, you don’t need someone to press a button at the other end. You simply have to switch off. If you want to know about someone’s past relationships or want to speak about your own, you need that partner to want to talk and listen. If you would rather not discuss them, but your partner wants to, you have the power to refuse to listen or talk. So negotiation is basically, “Will you please…?” followed by “Yes” or “No”. Conflict can be avoided for as long as the powerless partner does not irritate the empowered partner with “But whyyyyyy will you not…?”

When I was cobbling together this piece, from various other answers which I’d given in the same interview, I wish I’d spoken more about evolution and the things which could be coded into us. We often speak of how “women can multi-task”. I’m usually wary of generalisations like that, but when you look at what we know about prehistoric life, there could be certain cues.

The norm appears to be that the men used to go out and hunt, thinking of nothing but keeping themselves safe and bringing home the meat and veggies. The women left behind would have to keep themselves safe and warm, their children safe and warm, and perhaps improvise a meal or two while they waited for the men to return. If we look at things from the perspective of the prehistoric woman, she is teetering on the verge of paranoia at any given moment, though at the time, it wasn’t really paranoid to think a dude who doesn’t get back on time or doesn’t mark himself safe after an earthquake has probably been eaten by a wild animal or buried under rubble. The prehistoric man, of course, assumes everything is bright and cheery at home, and he has no reason to send a pigeon or pterodactyl or whatever the quickest and cheapest mode of aerogramme was at the time while he’s out hunting.

I am not sure whether it’s true, but it makes things a lot more peaceful if we assume we’re all less evolved than we think we are – that it’s natural for one partner to be anxious about the other one, and natural for the other one to be oblivious to everything else while absorbed in the modern, preferably vegan, equivalent of hunting. I say “partner” and not “woman” or “man”, because when the woman is a journalist or writer or mountaineer, and the man has a 9-to-5 job, he’s the prehistoric woman, in a sense.

Perhaps prehistory also has something to offer on polyamory. The instinct to spread the seed is evolutionary in the male of a species, if you’re into Darwinism. And the natural response of the female, who has to grow the seed into a version 2.0, subjecting her body to various distortions and then stress over what to feed it, while the male has already gone forth and made preparations to multiply through several other females, is “Dude, do NOT get me pregnant”. Maybe in this century more than ever, thanks to condoms and women’s education and employment and overpopulation and other little factors, the compulsion to proliferate the species through a series of uteruses and providing for the young on a single income/resources are no longer the norm. And so we’re in a strange place, where women are not running away from a male who is eager to mate, and men are worried about being seen as predatory.

This, again, is why honesty is becoming so important. A relationship works when there is no need to play games. And when you’re not playing games, you don’t need to worry about who is losing. 

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