By Olimpika Oja
Illustrations by Vidya Gopal
My first ideas about what a romantic relationship should look like emerged from what I saw around me as a child. I remember seeing disrespect and violence. I dealt with the painful reality of these abusive relationships by latching instead onto the fantasy woven by Hindi cinema of the 90s, of Raj and Simran romancing to “Tujhe dekha toh ye jaana sanam” in the snowy Alps, overcoming all odds, and Babuji finally saying “Jaa Simran jaa, jee le apni zindagi!” And thus I hoped that in the future, being in a relationship would set me free from my abusive surroundings. When my first boyfriend drove me through the beautiful hillside of the Guwahati-Shillong highway, for the first time in my life, I saw a glimpse of myself – my love for travel. I felt the breeze of love. I understood freedom for the first time, freedom to wander alone, and freedom from my extremely restrictive childhood.
That eight-year-long relationship ended with emotional and physical violence. And my second relationship ended because my partner’s mother behaved condescendingly towards me and my family, and I objected to her behaviour. When I opposed the idea of her living with us after we were to be married, my partner – who disapproved of the work I loved because of my erratic schedule, the long periods of travel, and the fact that I wouldn’t be around 24×7 for our (future) family – told me resentfully, “Go have your freedom” – as if me demanding freedom was to blame for our break up. And that got me wondering. He wanted me to be accountable to him for my choices. But is ‘demanding accountability’ just a euphemism for trying to control someone? Did being in a relationship mean that I could never have freedom? Did being accountable to my partner in different ways mean surrendering control over myself? Or could there be an accountability that was positive and nurturing – and mutual? I decided to ask other people about their experiences of relationships.
What does freedom in a relationship look like? Sofia* (29), an NGO professional, said that freedom within a relationship meant having a safe space, where her “instincts, expressions, and choices are respected and accepted; there is honesty and open communication; a sense of healthy dependence balanced with personal independence and most importantly, a space to be yourself, challenge yourself, and grow.”
For Albeli* (22), an animation artist and a graphic designer, freedom meant being able to have solitude within a relationship once in a while. “Sometimes I like to cope with insecurities and rationalise things by myself. I think this allows for a lot more breathing room in my relationships with other people,” she said.
And for Sonal (31), a filmmaker and a social activist, freedom took on the dimensions of not just emotional independence, but also – as a polyamourous bisexual woman – the freedom of choosing a partner beyond the accepted conventions of love and monogamy. She said, “When I would be in love with somebody, I sometimes had feelings for other people as well. So I used to keep questioning that love – is it really love, when I am also feeling things for other people? It’s only after accepting my polyamoury that I could accept that I was in love with different people at the same time. In one of my monogamous situations, I had to hear so much from my partner just at the mere mention of having a crush on someone. But in poly situations, I can sleep with someone and then have a healthy discussion about it later with other partners. There is a feeling of openness there.”
And what about me – as someone who is far more comfortable with monogamy? What was my own idea of freedom? As a teenager, that was doing something that didn’t conform to the conventions that my parents laid out for me. Once, chopping off my long luscious hair, just to register rebellion against my mother, who used to cherish my tresses, seemed like freedom to me. Now it’s the ability to do so, without being so vengeful. Just out of sheer fun or to try out a new look. Within a relationship, I think my idea of freedom is losing the fear that I might be abandoned, especially if I do not match up to the imagined perfect version of myself. This is not a static space – the fear of being abandoned and betrayed by my most-loved ones still does creep in, but I am learning to understand and deal with the root of this fear. That’s been the most liberating part of my journey so far.
The same person with whom I felt like I had found freedom for the first time brutally hit me for going outside his apartment alone one day. That day, I lost a part of – the part that grew up with him. He wanted to control me, but did not feel answerable – or accountable – to me for the toxicity in our relationship bred by his chronic alcoholism. I yearned for his love, his touch, and his understanding – I felt he owed them to me, but I got none of them. In our relationship, the freedom was meant more for him, while the accountability was more for me to bear. And as I learned through my conversations with other people, I wasn’t alone in wanting to correct that imbalance, to expand the expectation of accountability to demand it from him too.
Nana* (27), a sound engineer, narrated how his ex-girlfriend cheated on him. The most painful part for him was that he was in the dark about how she really felt about him. Still emotional, he recalled, “Arrey mere saath itne saal thi aur mujhe pata bhi nai chala ki aisa kuch hua. As in, main kya tha uske liye! (She was with me for so many years, and I didn’t even know that this was happening. What did I even mean to her!)” He felt that “even getting the thought of being in a relationship means that you are answerable to another person in some way. You cannot be in a relationship and say that you are not answerable for your actions to the other person.” In his case, it was the lack of emotional accountability – including emotional honesty – that resulted in his relationship breaking down. Mandakini* (27), a filmmaker, also said she looked for emotional accountability to some degree. “There are a few basic things that I expect from the other person, like emotional support when I need it, or a basic sense of affection and camaraderie,” she said. “Being together comes with expectations that one has to clearly express, not assume.”
For Sonal, accountability lay in realising and questioning the power dynamics of your relationship, and this can be an internal process too. “Your partner becomes vulnerable to you,” she said, “and in your anger, you exercise the power to hurt the person. There is a sadistic pleasure in that power and it is important to be cognisant of the power play, it can get addictive after a point of time if not checked.” She believed it is important to hold oneself accountable as well, like Sofia, who said that she chose to be accountable to her partner, as he did to her. So did Mandakini, who added that being accountable is fine as long as it’s something you choose for yourself, rather than something imposed on you.
Mandakini thought it was important to do the simple stuff – basic manners and responsible behaviour – like keeping someone broadly informed of your whereabouts if you live with them and plan to be away or unavailable for a long period of time. But she did feel that women are disproportionately held accountable within relationships. She felt that women are expected to conform to rules about how they are supposed to behave and think, and not be ‘too independent’ – limitations that got in the way of her last two relationships. Considering that I too faced these unfair expectations in my first two relationships, I can only agree that our society ensures that in relationships, especially in heterosexual ones, women are expected to be more physically and emotionally accountable to their partners than men are. And perhaps that’s when holding someone accountable can also seem like trying to control them – when it’s a one-way expectation, and unquestioned ideas about gender play a part in that.
Although Nana claimed that he doesn’t think women are held more accountable because of their gender, he said that one of his exes broke up with him was because she thought he held her “too accountable” to him. He said, “She used to live on the outskirts of the city, so I used to get concerned when she would party till late in different places. And one day, suddenly, she uploaded a Facebook picture with her ex. When I asked her why she had done so, her reply was, ‘I am not answerable to you.’” And as if joining the dots himself, he said about his cheating girlfriend, “You know, I myself was guilty of not telling her about a major part of my life – the substance abuse that I was into. She never knew about that.” Though he had expected honesty from his girlfriend, he realised that he too hadn’t been completely truthful about himself to her.
But is there a way for freedom and accountability to exist at the same time in a relationship? Mandakini felt, “It’s knowing what is acceptable to your partner and what is not; and deliberately not doing something that would hurt them.” She thought it possible to have a balance between the two, while Sonal differed, saying that in everyday life, it’s far more complicated. “Mujhe lagta hai ki bolne ke liye ye bohot aasan hai, lekin aisa hota nahi hain waaqayi mein (It seems easy to talk about, but it doesn’t work out this way in reality),” she said. “When I am in a relationship, I would like to do whatever I want, meet whoever I want and have agency over my body. But in reality, jealousy and insecurities operate. Toh aap kabhi bhi uthke kahi bhi nikal ke nahi jaa sakte. Aap ko apne partner ko kabhi toh loop mein rakhna hoga. (So you can’t get up and go out whenever you feel like it. You will have to keep your partner in the loop at some point.)”
Sonal recounted how she once worked on a project that involved travel for around 15 days at a stretch sometimes. Soon, her partner asked her not to go on such long trips at one stretch, but divide them into smaller ones. “It did affect my work, because I had to plan things very differently,” she said, “so was that person wrong in interfering in my work? I am not sure.” In Sonal’s view, holding someone accountable to you so that your needs are met, even if you don’t intend to restrict them, may end up restricting them anyway.
We all want freedom in our relationships, to be ourselves, and to follow our dreams. But how do we ensure this for our partners? “To be free in a relationship, you have to learn to manage the interdependence healthily,” said Sonal. “You have to maintain healthy relationships with your family and you both must have friends who are independent and not mutual friends. Once in a while you have to encourage each other to meet your own set of friends. Also, your partner can’t be your counselor or your mother or father – your partner has to be your partner. You need to work very consciously on not mixing the two up. That is the best way to have a space for independence and usme accountability honi chahiye. It is only then that a relationship and freedom can have a possible co-existence.”
For me, the conversations revealed that everyone’s expectations of freedom and accountability are shaped by their own personalities and experiences, and there isn’t a strict template for how a relationship should play out. In my own relationships, I initially felt that my partners were answerable to me, on my terms. If I wanted something, it had to happen. Say, if they weren’t free when I wanted to meet, or had a completely different perspective on something, I thought that they didn’t love me, or I would doubt myself, thinking that I was always wrong. But now I know how mistaken I was. I’ve learned that people can agree to disagree and still have a loving relationship, and that not all of our expectations of each other might be straightforward – it’s fine for things to not be simple. I think it helped me gain perspective when I spoke to people about their experiences and learnings too, rather than keeping my thoughts to myself. And from speaking to other people, I’ve come to realise that at moments like this, it is necessary to be kind and have healthy communication with one’s partner(s) – to figure out your expectations of each other, together.