What comes to mind when we hear the word romance? What imagery does our mind conjure up when we think about being in love, or when we are in love? Chances are it’ll be a ‘soft-focus-pink-tinted-Bollywood’ (or Hollywood) fairy tale loaded with warm fuzzy feelings. Perhaps even butterflies in the belly, pounding pulses and sweaty palms.

Whether we identify as queer or anything else under the sun, the rare and special – ‘the one’ who’s everything to us – is what many of us seem to be looking for. And while being in a healthy relationship with the right person can be an amazing experience of trust, communication, support and love, does such perfection exist?

Quote: The point is that we often overlook or ignore signs of toxicity in our relationships. Negativity may sink its claws into any relationship, but the shame, fear, misunderstandings and myths around non-normative genders and sexualities may make the traumas deeper and longer for people in a queer relationship.Don’t we often try to will away problems in our relationships instead of talking about them with our partner, lover or spouse? In doing so, don’t we invite greater trouble as the problems fester and turn the relationship into something destructive, traumatic or suffocating?

The point is that we often overlook or ignore signs of toxicity in our relationships. Negativity may sink its claws into any relationship, but the shame, fear, misunderstandings and myths around non-normative genders and sexualities may make the traumas deeper and longer for people in a queer relationship.

Specific numbers on queer relationships that are abusive are difficult to get, especially in India, where same-sex sexual relations among consenting adults have just recently been decriminalised and still are far from being socially acceptable.

Where numbers are available, the Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey for example, we see that 54% of trans and non-binary people in the US experienced abuse in their relationships. Another 2015 report based on the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that 61% of bisexual women, 44% of lesbians, 37% of bisexual men, and 26% of gay men in the US experienced abusive relationships at some point in their lives.

Why don’t we see toxicity for what it is and get help?

Again, in the American perspective, Dr. Keely Kolmes, a psychologist in California, explains why toxicity in queer relationships is often ignored. Though it’s similar to abuse in straight relationships, she explains that it can be harder for queer people to find the same level of support that may be available to straight people. The stigma surrounding same-sex relationships and queer people in general means that queer people experience higher rates of relationship violence. How much worse, one wonders, is it for queer people in India?

Since queer relationships are already quite invisible in all general conversations, it makes it more difficult to figure out what expectations and behaviours are reasonable or toxic in relationships. Add to this the ‘drama’ label most people (including us queer folks?) ascribe to queer people and their relationships. Think ‘mean queen’, ‘dyke drama’ or the ‘flaming out’ that are seen as de rigueur. This tends to normalise the abuse and toxicity we secretly experience. It magnifies the problem by masking the seriousness of the situation and making emotional abuse somehow a normal part of how queer people relate to each other.

Jeet (he/him) is pansexual, ace, gender questioning, lives in Pune and works in a tech firm. He says, “Almost all of us, within the community, have been through much trauma during our formative years due to our queer identity. Often, lack of resources and / or access to queer affirmative professional mental health counselling causes the trauma to remain unaddressed. When we get into a relationship, the unrealistic expectation that we start with is that our partner is our soul mate, understands all our troubles and will support us through all our struggles. Unfortunately, this expectation isn’t met and that damages the relationship and the unaddressed trauma makes it even worse because sometimes partners treat each other as trauma dumping grounds. Ultimately there’s a complete breakdown.”

He adds: “People still continue to be together, even in a very toxic relationship for several reasons, prime among which is the fear that finding a new partner is very challenging, and most fear they’ll never be able to find another.”

Quote: Mahua doesn’t think that the queer communities have a higher percentage of toxic relationships, just that queer people tend to stay in them more often because of lack of options: “Alienation from society gives us anxiety, and a companion to share our lives is a necessity of our subconscious mind as if our survival entirely depends on it.”Mahua Biswas lives in Kolkata and is trying to help queer people have better access to mental health through her initiative Smiling Rainbow. She feels that if one is queer and grows up in a homophobic environment, one may develop a super complex and toxic relationship even with oneself. Under such circumstances, even the smallest love bombing is enough to fall into a trap.

She adds: “The only utopia we imagine in our lives is a ‘romantic relationship’ and we run after it despite knowing that it’s nothing but a mirage.”

Mahua doesn’t think that the queer communities have a higher percentage of toxic relationships, just that queer people tend to stay in them more often because of lack of options: “Alienation from society gives us anxiety, and a companion to share our lives is a necessity of our subconscious mind as if our survival entirely depends on it.”

P (he / him / them), a queer man and teacher living in Kolkata, says people don’t know what constitutes toxic behaviour: “Till they know, they won’t be able to identify toxic behaviours or raise a voice against them.”

As a kinkster, P also has a unique perspective on toxic relationships within the kink community. He says that when it comes to the kink or BDSM scene in West Bengal, people have little idea about basic concepts such as consent, safewords and more, and something starting out as consensual play can quickly become non-consensual, violent and dangerous. These toxic behaviours go unnoticed and unreported because of a lack of support systems.

Another reason could be shame in talking about issues around sex and sexuality because they are so personal and taboo. There is also the fear of losing the person and the thought that we might never find anyone else if we let go of a relationship. Queer people who are closeted, married heterosexually or branded ‘too old’ may also feel the lack of options. Moreover, in the world of Instagram and TikTok, there is pressure to show a perfect life to others, and that perfect life includes having a partner.

Sanghamitra, another Kolkata resident and a techie, feels that the one thing that makes it more difficult for queer people to seek expert help while dealing with toxicity is the dearth of queer-friendly counselling. She has been following Dr. Ramani Durvasula, an American clinical psychologist, who has dedicated her career to study narcissistic personality traits and has a YouTube channel, which, though not queer-specific, is helpful in understanding red flags, toxic patterns, transitioning out of a toxic relationship, and healing. Sanghamitra has found that it has helped her to overcome her own traumas.

Koyel Ghosh, Managing Trustee of Sappho for Equality, Kolkata, mentions that toxicity often goes unaddressed in the queer communities because there’s a lot of internalised stigma and shame in queer intimate relationships as a result of what has been imposed from the outside. “When the relationship doesn’t work out, and there’s toxicity, there’s the fear that the forever critics will point fingers and say we told you so.”

Koyel adds: “Very often, people in queer relationships may replicate the dynamics of hetero-normative relationships they’ve observed around them all their lives, and unfortunately not everyone has the access to the information to understand what kind of violence they’re trapped in. Even when it’s pointed out, their defences are always up since it feels like a judgement not only of them, but their gender identity or sexual orientation as well.”

Nonetheless, she feels strongly that queer people need to reflect where and how they’re replicating the kind of structural violence that heteronormative relationships very often perpetrate.

Red flags to look out for (in others and ourselves)

Insecurity: Jealousy is common, but not necessarily healthy. Insecurity often manifests as excessive jealousy, constant need for reassurance, and attention seeking.

Lack of space: Constant calls or messages that disrupt work, social engagements and other relationships might be Bollywood romantic, but they’re not healthy. Partners need to have space to pursue separate social lives, passions, and interests and grow as individuals. The ability to set healthy boundaries, having and meeting one’s own needs, negotiating how much time to spend together and what one’s comfortable doing sexually are some of the essential elements of a healthy relationship.

Gaslighting: When we treat our partner poorly, then pretend as if it didn’t happen, and make them question reality is a toxic trait.

Feeling unsafe and exhausted: One should feel happy, emotionally safe, and taken care of with both partners putting in equal emotional labour into the relationship.

Controlling: In a healthy relationship, both partners have their own opinions and decisions are mutual. One partner exercising control and making decisions about every aspect of the other’s life is toxic.

Threats or acts of self-harm: If one has to stay, or change, or give into demands out of fear of losing one’s partner, it should be a matter of concern.

Ghosting: Toxic partners might leave the other partner hanging for days without communication and suddenly come back with sincere apologies and explanations.

Another relationship: This is no comment on monogamy or polyamoury. But is one of the partners married or about to be or planning to be? Or are they in another romantic and / or sexual relationship that they don’t plan to give up? Then the other partner should have the time and space to think how the future may pan out and whether they still want to be with their partner. The lack of these options can be a sign of toxicity.

Dirty secret: If you’ve never met your partner’s friends, been at all visible on their social media, are a hidden facet of their life, think about why.

Lack of respect: Is it their way or the highway? Are they open to discussion?

Apologies without change: Healthy relationships have issues too, but partners work to make things better. In an unhealthy relationship, there are apologies but no real change in attitudes or behaviours that cause the problems.

Pressure around sex: When one partner takes all the decisions on when to have sex, use of protection, sexual acts, and even filming or photographing of the sexual acts, then that’s a sure sign of toxicity.

Barriers to getting support

Queer folks find it difficult to seek support because very often it doesn’t exist, isn’t known about, or is not easy to access. In addition, there is stigma, shame and the fear of being outed. Queerphobia in society makes it almost impossible to speak out. Queer people also feel that they won’t be believed because the assumption is that sexual and relationship violence only occurs in heterosexual relationships with male perpetrators and female victims. Same-sex relationships are assumed to be more ‘equal’, and this can be a barrier to telling someone.

The toxic partner may also threaten to ‘out’ the other partner if they complain. There’s also a huge community and social pressure to maintain a ‘perfect couple’ image.

Quote: For those queer people who’re questioning the worth of remaining in a relationship that deep inside makes them unhappy, it’s not a dead end. If they want to open up their hearts to someone, have questions, or are confused, help is at hand. Whether or not they discontinue the relationship they are in, it may be worthwhile to take a step or two for their own sake.Kaustav Manna, pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology in Kolkata,agrees: “What happens in queer relationships is that people are so scared to reach out to someone they’re attracted to in the first place – because they don’t know whether the person will reciprocate the love or react badly. The chances of just finding someone in the normal course of life are far lower for queer people than for cisgender straight people. So, the world of queer love becomes restricted to dating apps like Planet Romeo and Grindr. Because of this limited pool of prospects, queer people tend to accept the people they get, and think that’s the best they can do. The toxic red flags go unnoticed or unchecked, and rarely do queer people choose to talk about the grim parts of their relationship.”

But support is not entirely missing

Fortunately, queer people in some of the urban centres in India, and sometimes beyond them too, do have options for support. These options – in the form of mental health counselling, relationship and family counselling, sexual health advice or legal aid – are slowly growing in number and improving in quality.

For those queer people who’re questioning the worth of remaining in a relationship that deep inside makes them unhappy, it’s not a dead end. If they want to open up their hearts to someone, have questions, or are confused, help is at hand. Whether or not they discontinue the relationship they are in, it may be worthwhile to take a step or two for their own sake. We list here a few resources that may help them do just that:

Sappho for Equality runs a helpline service for queer people and needs-based tele-counselling at 0091 98315 18320, open all days 10.00 am to 9.00 pm. They also have facilities for face-to-face counselling in their office.

Orinam in Chennai provides peer and community support, information on gender and sexuality, counselling, legal aid, and crisis intervention support to queer people and their friends and family members. Write to them at orinamwebber@gmail.com (all emails answered within 24-48 hours) – if you want to be called back, please leave name, phone number and best time to call in your email messages.

Varta Trust also has an online locator for queer-friendly mental health, sexual health and legal aid service providers located in different cities and towns across India. A search in the listing for mental health service providers can help locate several queer-affirmative counsellors who address issues of relationship dynamics, marriage, intimate partner violence and family acceptance. For legal advice, especially if there’s a need to deal with abuse and violence, readers can shoot off an email directly to vartablog@gmail.com.

Main illustration credit: Debjyoti Ghosh