"I don't have that kind of vibe or spark with anyone"
There is a growing number of Indians looking for extramarital affairs via dating apps.
Until recently, many used regular dating apps such as Tinder.
But Gleeden – which is aimed at facilitating extramarital relationships – has had a lot of success in India.
When it launched in India in 2017, it had 120,000 subscribers. It now has two million, accounting for 20% of the platform’s global subscribers. More than 35% of these are women.
One of those is Anisha*, who married her sailor husband in 2015 on the understanding he would soon quit his job.
His work took him away for months at a time and both agreed that such absences were not good for a healthy marriage.
But two years later, he remained a sailor and had also become emotionally distant.
Both visits and communication were sporadic, leaving Anisha frustrated.
The Covid-19 lockdowns made matters worse as the couple did not meet or speak for over a year and when they managed to connect, they argued.
With her relationship deteriorating, Anisha came across Gleeden as she was asked to write about the site as part of her work as an online content creator.
What started as research soon turned out to be more significant.
Anisha said: “I connected with a few men and interacted with some of them; eventually I met someone who gradually became a good friend, an emotional anchor and someone I could call at any time for anything.”
Her relationship is now more than two years old and Anisha said she finds it very fulfilling.
“I don’t have that kind of vibe or spark with anyone, not even in my marriage.
“It is not just about being physical, I feel like he is my soulmate. Ours is a very mature relationship and he gives me everything I deserve.”
Never has India been so open about pursuing extramarital relationships.
This has been fuelled by social media, technology and shifting cultural norms. When India’s Supreme Court decriminalised adultery in 2018, it struck a further blow against the stigma of infidelity.
In a survey carried out soon after the pandemic started, 55% of married Indians confessed to engaging in relationships outside marriage, of whom 56% were women.
Bengaluru-based clinical psychologist Rathna Isaac attributes the change to India’s vastly altered social landscape.
She explained: “In the last 10 to 15 years, it seems like the whole country has woken up to the fact that we are allowed to have sex, a kind of sexual awakening among the younger generation.
“Being a virgin is no longer expected [of unmarried women] and all dating apps seem to be doing well.
“So for a lot of older people, they feel like they have missed the bus since these options did not exist when they were younger.
“For some people, they feel they can explore now. In general, there is much more openness and willingness for sexuality of all sorts.”
Sowjanya Tamalapakula, an assistant professor at the School of Gender Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, added:
“Historically, marriage in the Indian context is different from the Western context.
“Here sexuality is organised very differently.
“Traditionally there is no such thing as male monogamy, there is only monogamous marriage; a man can marry any number of wives, but it’s the women who remain monogamous.
“Even in the Ramayana, Rama’s father had three wives.
“It was only in 1955 that bigamy and polygamy were criminalised for the larger Hindu community. So men from upper echelons have always had casual sexual access.”
Professor Tamalapakula also argued that Indian marriages are not always the individuals’ choices.
She said: “Most marriages are done for the parents and family.
“It is a significant institution, where class and caste endogamy (the custom of marrying only within one’s own group) are practised in order to continue to acquire privileges.
“A majority of Indian middle-class and dominant caste marriages are arranged, where the choice of the man is definitely not the woman’s; it is the choice of the parents, family and caste/class group.
“There is no way that the aim of such marriage is companionship, love, affection or desire.
“It is for producing children who will acquire the father’s property and continue the caste/class endogamy.
“But the marriage itself might become unfulfilling. Monotony and mundaneness set in, and people take each other for granted.
“They probably need a window as both men and women find it difficult to break the marriage.”
As Anisha said, relationships outside marriage are not only about physical fulfilment.
Dr Isaac said: “It is also emotional satisfaction that is not available in the marriage.
Professor Tamalapakula added: “Not all relationships outside marriage are necessarily sexual in nature. Women need validation and emotional fulfilment.”
Infidelity is not a new phenomenon but women are making bolder decisions as Dr Isaac elaborated:
“Women definitely have more freedom of movement and choice than they had before.
“Many are working and leave the house every day so there is a lot more opportunity.
“I feel women are more willing to say they want sexual satisfaction.”
“In earlier generations, if the husband wasn’t cheating and/or gambling away the household money, that was enough.
“Today, I see women much more directly express that they want sexual satisfaction irrespective of their relationship status. So there is much more ownership and acknowledgement of their sexuality.”
According to Dr Isaac and Professor Tamalapakula, women are laying claim to something that has been a male prerogative.
Dr Isaac said: “It’s a society where men can move around freely and have many more sexual outlets like a ‘happy ending’ massage, girlie shows or any number of places where women are objectified, and where men have a lot more socially sanctioned options to get some sexual thrills outside of marriage.
“Now women, too, want it.”
Gleeden’s India country manager Sybill Shidell said safety and anonymity are the foundations on which the app was built.
It is free for women but men have to pay to contact women.
Ms Shidell said: “We differ from other platforms because of our extramarital dating experience.
“We have strong security measures in place since we recognize the sensitivity of extramarital relationships and want to give our consumers peace of mind when connecting.
“We are built to safeguard user identities and personal data, providing them with a secure environment to discover significant connections covertly.”
Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Pune are India’s top five cities for Gleeden users.
But membership has been growing in places like Bhopal, Gurugram, Vadodara, Kochi, Dehradun and Patna since the pandemic.
Professor Tamalapakula believes that access to Gleeden and other dating sites for women “may probably strengthen the institution of marriage rather than deconstructing it” because of the social stigma surrounding divorce, especially for women.
“Women choosing to be on platforms like this also means they do not want to break the basic societal structure of marriage.
“Compared to the number of dead marriages, the divorce rate is not on par.
“Women are still suffocating in such marriages rather than divorcing and finding someone else.
“So [Gleeden] is mediating this situation: you can still keep your marriage and find fulfilment outside it.”
Anisha said: “My own family will not be open to divorce.
“The extended family, society will label me a divorcee and look at me very differently. I also have a child to consider. With this, both of us are clear and it works well for us.”