When trying to have conversations about polyamory and family, popular misconceptions about non-monogamy can conjure in many people’s minds, the image of a cult leader with 50 wives and 300 children. But the practice of queer, ethical non-monogamy, like other ethical relationships, is a far (faaaar) cry from this because one of its most fundamental aspects is the freedom to consent to the types of relationship structures and roles that one is part of. In this guide to queer ethical non-monogamy, we delve into what being part of a non-monogamous family looks like in our society.
Meet the participants:
Duha (she/they) is intersex and polyamorous. She has a platonic partner and is a molecular biologist in the making.
Hari (he/him) is a writer and drawer. He lives in Bombay with his wife and cat.
Paras (he/him) is a mental health professional and founder of The Alternative Story and is closely involved with the polyam community.
Ruksaar (he/they) is a teacher and researcher, coming to terms with being queer, pansexual and polyamorous, while mothering their 8-year-old.
Families can be chosen
People who identify with being non-monogamous, which is deconstructive in its ideas of self-designed relationships, are more likely to have unique and intentional ways of defining ‘family’. With many non-monogamous people also identifying as queer, the idea of “chosen families” is a common theme.
Has your idea of family evolved since you started identifying as non-monogamous/polyamorous? How so?
Duha: “Before identifying as polyamorous, my idea of family was shaped by monogamous ideals and looked like the conventional nuclear family, but with norms that were flexible. Although a lot of my life has revolved around forming queer chosen families, due to my ignorance at the time, [the idea of] polyamorous families translated to “unstable families” for me. However, since discovering that I am solo-polyamorous, I have started to believe that polyamorous families should be normalised.”
While they may still observe more conventional or heternormative traditions like marriage, non-monogamous people may try to explore [and express] their identities even within these structures.
How has marriage impacted your experiences of being a polyamorous person?
Hari: “My partner and I had been together for over ten years and married for 4 years, when we first heard of polyamory. It was scary at the beginning and felt very wrong because we were concerned if we were messing with our marriage. But we talked through the whole thing. We made it a point to talk about everything we felt, however hard or awkward. We talked about each other’s dates, the sex, the new things we learnt and other observations. And we still do. Did our marriage get in the way? Not at all. It became a strong foundation that we used to explore other possible relationships. It enabled me to explore my sexuality with other people including men, a rare privilege that very few married men enjoy, without any guilt, hiding or lying. Polyamory, for me, has been liberating.”
Ruksaar: “12 years ago, I married a woman who I fell in love with and believed loved me. We were close friends before that, and I had shared about my gay experiences from boarding school with her. I felt that although I had some gay experiences and fantasies, I was mostly a heterosexual man in a happy monogamous relationship. Till I realised that’s not who I am.
When I fell in love with another close friend and my wife found out, the aftermath of anger and abuse broke our relationship. We still continue to remain married for several reasons. The past four years have brought me clarity through much pain, that I am a queer, pan-romantic and polyamorous person, stuck in a heterosexual monogamous relationship. I am stuck because I cannot leave my child.
Now, I am learning to find happiness within the institutional space of marriage, while living a life of my own in companionship with my and my child’s close friends. Some queer folks and some allies—overall a loving family.”
Cohabiting as a non-monogamous family
Cohabitation can add several unique dimensions in a polycule. While the range of relationship structures that non-monogamy allows for can pose more choices when trying to figure out if one prefers to cohabit with their partners, there are several conversations that need to be had to ensure that all partners are comfortable and secure.
Duha highlights their ideas on cohabitation as a solo-polyamorist:
Duha: Personally, I have struggled with finding comfort with the idea of living together as a polycule, because cohabitation is very anxiety-inducing for me. But I’ve learnt that one need not restrict their idea of family as having to live together.
What are some common challenges that people living in non-monogamous families (cohabiting or married) seek support with, in therapy?
Paras: First and foremost, the question of having dates/partners over when you are in a cohabiting relationship is a big one. Not all non-monogamous folks are okay with kitchen-table polyamory. When they are, landlords, neighbours or housing societies may get nosey. Even the issue of domestic workers coming in while one’s partner is at home can be hard to navigate. Division of time at one’s own place with one’s cohabiting partner, vis-a-vis at another partner’s place is also something that comes up.
The larger social understanding is that cohabiting means a shift towards becoming more monogamous. Cohabiting with someone but also being non-monogamous is something that friends also may not understand very often.
There are also several barriers posed by the social and legal frameworks that dictate how visible, legitimate and legal it is to cohabit as non-monogamous partners. As pointed out in this article by The Wire, “the dominant mononormative view in the law is not restricted to India alone, it is ubiquitous on an international scale.” Non-monogamous partners are unable to seek support from legal provisions such as the Domestic Violence Act and face issues with renting apartments, not being recognised as family in the case of medical and other emergencies, matters of inheritance, child custody, separation and adoption.
However, expanding on the existing mononormative frameworks to include non-monogamous people is not impossible. For example, based on recent news reports, Cuba is to adopt a progressive family code that recognises the existence of multiple family structures.
Thinking of the children
Raising children in a non-monogamous family is met with challenges particularly because of social stigma and discrimination. Even with the 2010’s being labelled as the “decade of the parenting manual”, there is very little discourse that is inclusive of non-monogamous families. Non-monogamous families are also met with disapproval by the society and suffer from a lack of legal frameworks, as discussed earlier. Internalised polyphobia can make it hard to communicate with children and co-parents/partners about matters like going on dates with new partners.
However, the benefits of non-monogamous parenting as pointed out in multiple studies can offer a lot of hope. This article by Today’s Parent points out how, “the priority put on openness, honesty and emotional literacy can foster an environment where children develop a tendency for higher emotional intelligence.” Another article by BBC Future highlights that children raised in non-monogamous families, “are more insightful and wise, and open to understanding diversity and many forms of religion and culture.” A shift from the typical two parent structure can also in some ways, make it easier for parents to adopt gender non-conforming roles of parenting.
What are your thoughts on the phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child”, in context to parenting as part of a polycule or non-monogamous community?
Ruksaar: It does take a village to raise a child. And I found my village in my close friends and their children, who are also close friends with my child. We call it “community parenting” and take care of each other’s children as our own, involving them in the activities we do. – I take the kids on my field work, organise sleepovers and movie-watching sessions, while others pick them up from school, feed them and oversee their play till I go and pick them up after work. Mothering my child has now extended to mothering 3-4 other brats, who in their own way have offered love and support to all of us and made us into this oddity of a family. Words are failing me, but R’s words are always a rescue, “Appa, I will have a sleep-over with my best friends, and you have a sleepover with your best friends… Friends are also family no!”