Love, sex, marriage and polyamour
First published in +DailyO India Today click on this to read
A man learns at 55 as he did at 25 - especially when it comes to matters of love. Jairaj Singh - the editor of DailyO - taught me a new term "polyamorous" as distinct from polygamous or polyandrous in his fascinating piece.
In essence, polyamorous means having several sexual partners while remaining committed in a monogamous relationship - with the knowledge and/or permission of the partner.
It might sound like a repackaging of the '60s "open marriage" concept, wearing an extra wrapper of monogamy. Some may call it "cheating"- or, perhaps, nuance it a bit as "honest cheating" since it is done with the tacit consent of the "significant other". In the example cited, there is also a slightly strenuous attempt to distinguish it from a "one-night stand" by adding a dimension of "emotional connect".
It is often said marriage is an outdated institution - a format of human relationship that has not evolved over time. Successive societies have tried to tinker with its construct but haven't succeeded in changing the basic template. Yet, the subliminal urge to "beat the system" as it were has existed since time immemorial.
While society may view it otherwise, Darwinian social anthropologists find nothing unnatural about it. In his seminal book - The Red Queen - Matt Ridley brilliantly debunks the theory that marriage was devised for human reproduction. Apart from the "no brainer" of babies can be made even out of wedlock, Ridley explains how there are species which reproduce asexually. The real purpose of marriage, therefore, he argues conclusively is evolution - to keep the human genes a step ahead in the game. Ridley submits the apparently scandalous thesis - based on the solid foundation of Darwinian principles: we (both men and women) are designed for a system of monogamy plagued by adultery. Marriage, he asserts, is a "child rearing" institution and not, as generally assumed, a "child bearing" institution.
Coming back to the story of Mimi in Jairaj's piece - at a superficial level, it can be dismissed as a pragmatic understanding between partners caught in a long-distance relationship. Her insistence on "emotional connection" can be dismissed either as a mere excuse or simply a "turn-on" factor. In fact, Ridley himself talks in his book of how wit and intelligence are powerful instruments of seduction.
But, that's pure genetics. The point Jairaj's protagonist makes about how "we expect one person to be all things to us" hits at the crux of the issue. She explains, we want our partner to be "our lover, our spouse, our confidante, our saviour, our friend, our intellectual stimulant, our therapist, and how is that even possible? How can we impose so many expectations on one person without them falling short?"
At first, it might appear to be a modern day problem - where spouses have to often live apart for reasons like work or get little time to themselves due to either or both partners spending hours at work and in commute. In such situations, parallel relationships often develop to fill gaps which are not necessarily sexual to begin with. But as emotional closeness develops, these often naturally transgress into physical intimacy leading to complications.
However, living apart or spouses keeping long hours outside home whether on work or leisure is not a recent phenomenon. In earlier generations, it was mostly the male members who were away. That does not mean women did not have their share of polyamoury. But then, on either side, it was more a matter of passive acceptance or feigned ignorance.
I was discussing the same issue - before I read the article - with a friend from the advertising world a few days ago. He insightfully explained that three developments have changed the paradigm in recent times:
1. More women going out to and travelling on work;
2. Television (the "saas-bahu" serials);
3. cell phones and social media.
These three elements he feels have made women more aware and articulate about their own psychosexual needs. Many affairs (if one is allowed to lapse into that time-worn cliché) happen over cell-phones (WhatsApp and SMS) and social media. And, it is common for spouses to discover a cheating partner while scrolling down his or her smartphone inbox or while going through their Facebook account.
So finally it all boils down to "trust" as Jairaj's protagonist Mimi puts it. But, Matt Ridley contradicts this by saying "jealousy" is an essential ingredient of - not just heterosexual but also homosexual relationships. Then, where does it leave us - the age-old principle of "ignorance is bliss"?
Tagore puts it beautifully in his romantic classic, Shesher-Kobita (The Last Poem).
When asked if he will admit to his fiancée that he is having an affair with Labanya, Amit tells a young friend - "Yes, of course".
He asks, "what if she doesn't accept?"
To which Amit says, "then it will be my life-long mission to make her understand".
Amit explains: people like to bathe at home and also to swim in the lake. Both are necessary - one utilitarian and the other romantic. Even if you have a well-appointed living room, in life, sometimes you need to step out into the garden and get a breath of the fresh air. Someday - hopefully - she will appreciate this "truth" herself.
Mimi's midnight swim in the pool with her one-night lover may have been a bit of this and that. As the wit at the neighbourhood pub said: "If children are entitled to their childhood, why not adults to adultery."