By Nitya Pawar
Illustrations Ayangbe Mannen
When we live in a rented house, we care for it, keep it clean, decorate it maybe, but we do something to keep it well and good. If a rented house deserves that amount of care, don’t the people in No Strings Attached (NSA) relationships deserve that too? I’m writing about the questions that have revolved in my mind, that I’ve felt hesitant to ask out loud, but finally started to. NSA: it’s something everyone around me talks about as the ideal way to have some intimacy in your life. Everyone acts like it’s understood what it means. But is it? I’m not so sure. So I decided to talk to others about it.I asked Akash, 24, straight, male, how he defined No Strings Attached. He said it is “being involved romantically, being there for each other like a couple and doing things together but without the expression of love or without the commitment of marriage.” I began to wonder: is my ‘set-up’ an NSA?
Describing his experience Akash said, “I would never do it again, it is not for me. When I got into it, it was all sudden; she came after breaking up with her boyfriend and I thought ab ye fir matha khayegi but then we ended up sleeping together and I was in it! I ended up falling for her but she only wanted a temporary physical relationship. Ekdum ghamasan ladai hui thi khatam karte time, kahe ka communication (We fought horribly at the end, no communicating and all that)! No respect was given to my feelings; she kept asking how could you break our deal! If it weren’t for “feelings” we’d still be together. I got into it without thinking about where it would lead – even though I agreed to her definition of NSA. What I’ve learned is, maturity and clarity are definitely required for a successful NSA.”
Zara, 26, straight, female, too had the “feelings” issue come up. “There was no sex involved, but only sexting. It was all fun at first, but then I started having feelings and I felt this is not right. If I’m feeling feelings that will make things hard for me. He would talk only when he wanted to. I was strictly not allowed to ping first which made me feel used. So I was like, that’s not cool. I didn’t feel it would last so I didn’t want to invest. He tried a lot to convince me to stay on in this sort of NSA relationship and did not take it well that I wanted to stop. It came to an abrupt end.”
Hearing this disturbed and confused me. Was I also doing what the other two people had done to my friends – disregarding them as people with feelings? Or was I standing at the receiving end in my ‘set-up’ – disregarding my own feelings? Now, you must be wondering, what is this ‘set-up’, that I keep mentioning. So here is a glimpse:
Growing up in an atmosphere where hugs were rare but sexual advances towards a child were frequent, I ended up believing that my body was dirty; it didn’t deserve ‘love’ but ‘sex’. The more people accepted my body sexually, the more I kept detaching it from love. But maybe it is because I also detached love from sex – how could something “dirty” (which I saw sex as being) be part of something serene? And how could something temporary – like the body – be part of something permanent, meaning spiritual, as love? For me, love became something where the physical connection wasn’t necessary at all; in fact, I actually pursued a guy for years because there was only an intellectual connection. My idea of love only involved emotional investment. If I didn’t accept my body, how could I accept sexual bodily pleasures in the form of love? When I entered college with such a definition of love, I kept scoring zero in the department of love. Once I got dumped because I wasn’t yet ready to have sex in the relationship and once I got dumped because I was too invested emotionally too soon.
I wondered what this casualness of love was which I lacked. Were bodily pleasures casual or was it the temporary nature of the connection that made it casual? Because apparently, I wanted a relationship which was emotionally rich and permanent. After having one emotional breakdown, I decided not to invest emotionally anymore. But then how would I have any connection? Physical desires toh bure the na! I was exhausted emotionally and sex without the-great-love didn’t feel all that great because I kept holding back one part (bodily feelings) of me, not letting myself be completely into the moment.
Matlab I could not apply the popular definition of NSA in my life. So what could I do now? I came up with an idea of not naming the thing and calling it as ‘set up’. I kept saying “it’s complicated”, again not really accepting my bodily desires, kyunki ye toh ganda hai, it’s dirty, only intellectual and emotional desires are pure!
The set up (of NSA, but not really accepting it, you know!) kept becoming a mess because I kept feeling unhappy about it, treating it like it did not matter and hence kept looking for ‘real emotional involvement’ outside it. Though I claimed that I was really liberated sexually, I was not respecting my own choices somewhere; neither was I really able to respect my partner for only being involved physically. I was acting cool but not really feeling it.
While struggling with this situation, I began to wonder whether it was always the case with NSA. Did people always end up feeling like shit or making others feel like shit? Do other people also believe in not labelling it or they label but define it differently? Can physicality of love be treated like we treat the emotionality of it? Aakhir yeh NSA naam ki chidiya hai kya and how do people negotiate this? More importantly, can I make peace with this idea? Could something as fleeting as bodily pleasures be considered love? Did love always have to last forever?
Rohan, 24, gay, male, got into NSA relationships through dating apps mostly because the idea sounded super cool to him. He defines NSA as “outside my room, you don’t know me, I don’t know you. All you need to know about each other is the desires, no other details. We will talk only when we are free and only about when we are going to meet next.”
He describes his experience as “There are two dead ends of an NSA relationship, Love or Boredom. When I got bored of him or when I could see that he is falling for me, I started coming up with excuses to not meet and avoided him which backfired. The person tried to reach me repeatedly which really irritated me. Then to all my resistance, I had to have an honest conversation with that person, and then with a mutual decision, the relationship ended.” He adds “You are not going to be in only one NSA relationship. Jealousy spoils the set-up and eventually, you need to hurt a person. You should be really straightforward with people ki this is what I want, these are my needs.” When he said “Aaj kal ke time me, when your job takes you various places, NSA seems like a good idea to satisfy your desires.”, I felt great that someone really is accepting their bodily desires, but when I dug deeper he said, “It makes me sound so desperate, it’s depressing! NSA is not about love, but fulfilling bodily desires.”
Listening to him talk about his experience, I kept wondering if love and desire are really two exclusive sets. Aren’t they two parts of each other? Aren’t caressing or hugging also sexual bodily desires but in a loving way? Don’t our bodies want to be loved at times in life?
Priya, 22, bisexual, female, polyamorous told me “I get bored with one partner and conventional relationship is not my thing. I am a person who gets bored easily by certain kind of people. I need more experiences and as a young person I didn’t want to stay with one person forever.” She defines NSA as “only physical relation without having any romantic emotional connection. NSA has helped me focus on my studies better being my stress buster.” Are emotions always the sign of complexity? She answers this by saying “I am now in a committed relationship so for me, it depends where a person is in life and what they want from life.”
Talking about managing romantic and sexual multiple partners successfully she said “Everyone needs to be in the loop and be aware what is happening. I am not a possessive or jealous type, but some people are and they become really abusive. It was awkward to deal with earlier but it became easier with experience. Now I choose people with similar thinking only, people who want the same things from the relationship as me.” She makes a distinction between the ideas of NSA with strangers and Friends With Benefits. “There are fewer expectations from strangers. You could just say it directly and end it when you have other priorities.”Anjali, 29, straight, female, on the other hand, believes that it is easier to go ahead with friends. She says “FWB is more comfortable for me because of the familiarity.” She defines NSA as “friends in public space, but sexually involved in private space.” She has been in a long term relationship for 7 years and has shifted to long distance open from the past one year with the same person. She has had occasional parallel NSA partners in that past one year. She believes “They need not know who else I am sleeping with, all they need to know is, I am not emotionally involved with them.” While talking about her overall experience she says, “My experience here, outside India, has been really sorted and easygoing. I don’t want to get married but it is not like I don’t have desires. In NSA I feel happy living on my own.” She believes that “Having a clear, respectful and honest communication with the other person always helps.”
Listening to Priya and Anjali, it hits me that I am in a friends with benefits situation in my NSA – by which I mean open-ended- relationship, and my guilt of giving my body satisfaction without the involvement of ‘the permanent love’ was not letting me accept my own feelings of affection for my friend. Both these ladies accept their bodies and understand their desires. Love is not in the permanence but in the little things that all of us do to show that we care, a hug, a kiss, a card, a cuddle or an absolutely comfortable silence! I am beginning to see myself as an example of falling in ‘love’ multiple times and it is okay! I am beginning to understand that my body has desires of being loved and that is okay! I am beginning to understand that love is not really about waiting for a forever happily ever after, but enjoying the present with all its ups and downs. I am sinking into the idea that the more I love my body, the better I understand love!
Me: “Listen, do you think we can be properly in a romantic relationship now or maybe end this No Strings Attached? I am kind of starting to have feelings for you, and hence my expectations from you are increasing.”
Him: “I definitely don’t want to end it, but romantic relationship… I am not sure, I have not thought about that because of our earlier deal of not having a future.”
This was the conversation I had with my partner in the ‘set up’ a couple of days after I heard these NSA stories. You see, I finally was able to use the phrase “No Strings Attached”, accepting my desire of bodily pleasure along with the feelings that are changing! And taking the risk of discussing it – well, it made me feel better.
My take away from these stories is simple; The more I respect my body, the more I respect myself and the other person! As for what the other person feels it has to be taken account even if not mirrored totally.
And lastly, because people like tips (I do too), here is what I understood about tips for a respectful, workable NSA!
- “Be very clear what you expect from the relationship.”
- “Choose people who match your thinking.”
- “If you feel guilty or shameful in NSA, don’t do it.”
- “Handle the situation maturely.”
- “Be really straightforward – don’t play games. If your feelings change, bring it up.”
- “If the other person’s feelings change, don’t shame them, but talk it over and see if it’s time move on or not.”
Nitya is a masters student who likes to make bags from old jeans in her free time. She loves mountains and colours.