When 40-year-old Manisha Agarwal (name changed) logged on to a dating app for the first time, she was paralysed with fear. Married for 15 years, she needed a distraction from her sexless and loveless marriage, but was scared she would be caught in the act. “Kolkata is such a small city. Here someone always knows you or one of your acquaintances. I knew I was taking a risk, but I had no choice,” she says.
Unhappy with her unfulfilling married life, Agarwal desperately wanted to find someone she could connect with. She knew she could not risk having an affair with a friend, so she decided to look for potential partners on a dating app.
She was looking for casual sex, and knew nobody would swipe right for her if she only mentioned her name and age. “Who would want to match with a 40-year-old mother? I had to use my photo, but that left me feeling completely vulnerable,” she says.
Agarwal is just one of the many married women in India who use dating apps to find companionship. According to a recent survey, 77% of Indian women who cheat are bored of their monotonous married life. Although affairs and meetings with men bring excitement to their lives, they also live in fear of the embarrassment and shame of being found out.
The survey, conducted by Gleeden, an online “extra-marital dating” community primarily meant for women, also found that four out of 10 women admitted flirting with a stranger helped them improve intimacy with their ‘official’ partner. Gleeden, incidentally, claims to have 5 lakh members in India, of which 30% are women. Other popular dating apps in the country include Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge.
Reshmi Singhal (name changed), a 29-year-old married woman from Delhi, says she became curious about dating apps after her single friends began using them. As men started approaching her, she felt desired and enjoyed the attention, even though it stayed virtual. For her it was almost therapeutic. The problem, she says, was to know when to stop.
According to the 2019 Gleeden survey, 34% of such virtual encounters lead to a real date in the next 10 days. “These apps work like online shopping portals. You check the catalogue and choose what you want,” says Kolkata-based clinical psychologist Anindita Chowdhury, who has had clients use dating apps.
When we asked married women what they look for on dating apps these are the top reasons they cited:
Sex Without Strings Attached
Married women often use dating apps for casual, no-strings-attached sex. These apps are well suited for the purpose—they are convenient, discreet, and can be uninstalled whenever necessary.
Chowdhury says one woman, who had had a love marriage, ended up having extramarital affairs with men she met online. The woman, in her 40s, said her husband’s interest in sex had dwindled over the years, and instead of confronting him or ending the marriage, she started leading a parallel life, because it just seemed easier.
“The couple had a child and so she did not want to call the marriage off. She was very clear about what she wanted from the men she interacted with on the apps. She sought sex, mostly from younger men. Sex, attention, and time were factors missing in her marital life, and so she looked for these,” Chowdhury says.
“"Later, after some soul-searching, they want to understand why they had extramarital affairs in the first place and how to prevent their marriages from failing."”
“Later, after some soul-searching, they want to understand why they had extramarital affairs in the first place and how to prevent their marriages from failing,” Chowdhury says, adding that a common thread in many cases is that the husband had sexual problems.
Kolkata resident Manisha Agarwal’s story had a similar trajectory. Her partner of 15 years was distant and had had an affair, and after making a profile on dating apps she too “hooked up a couple of times”. However, the couple decided to stay together for the sake of their children and to avoid social censure. While Agarwal says she enjoyed her “alternate life”, the fear of being recognised never left her. She recently started visiting a therapist to take better control of her life and marriage.
Kolkata-based psychotherapist Mansi Poddar, who has also encountered married clients using dating apps, says the sexuality of Indian women is viewed differently than that of men. “Women are perceived as less sexual. Thus, it adds a thick layer of guilt and shame for the woman if she is physically dissatisfied with her partner. So, instead of a heart-to-heart discussion or visiting a marriage counsellor together, she opts for casual sex and secret affairs. Protecting the sanctity of her home holds greater importance for a married woman than her own emotional and physical well-being,” she says.
Married for six years, 35-year-old Priyanka Mehta (name changed) from Hyderabad never felt emotionally or physically satisfied with her partner. “My husband and I were totally incompatible and shared no warmth or trust in our relationship.” she says. When Mehta finally realised she could no longer live with him, she gathered courage and initiated the divorce process. But she still felt a void within.
“I joined dating apps in order to numb the pain of loneliness and for a distraction from the frustrating relationship I was in. I was not looking for a serious affair at all. I wanted someone with whom I could connect on some level, and have an exciting encounter that was not necessarily only sexual. I was looking for something light-hearted and fun, a connection that I missed having with my husband,” Mehta says.
She met a few men on these apps—men that she says were kinder, funnier, and more interesting than her husband. Mehta was completely honest with these men, and unexpectedly they were all quite understanding and empathetic. Unlike her own family members and social circle, they were not judgemental about her failed marriage. “For me it was like an emotional release and a relief to be able to interact with these men,” Mehta says.
“I wanted my husband to hold or hug me, but he never initiated physical proximity. Men should understand that for women, intimacy is not always about sex."”
When Jayeeta Guha (name changed), a 36-year-old resident of Bangalore, became frustrated with the lack of intimacy with her husband, she decided to log on to a popular dating app. Although her husband was a good father to their child and a responsible family man and provider, she says he struggled with demonstrating affection.
When she logged on to the dating app, Guha was immediately flooded with attention and propositions. Soon she realised she was getting addicted to the conversations and they worked almost like a mood-enhancing drug for her. Gradually, the chats gave way to dates, a few of which then turned into physical encounters.
“I wanted my husband to hold or hug me, but he never initiated physical proximity. Men should understand that for women, intimacy is not always about sex. The lack of warmth became a constant irritant for me and I felt as if I was living with a roommate,” Guha confesses. She continues to fulfil her role as a mother and dutiful wife, while the husband provides for expenses.
New Male Friends
When 36-year-old Rachna Chatterjee (name changed) moved cities after marriage, she missed her busy social life. A management consultant, she had to travel quite a bit for her work, as did her husband, and they ended up spending only a couple of weekends a month together.
“I have always been a very social person and wanted to know more people outside my new office. I started using dating apps to connect with interesting men and often met them over a coffee or beer. Interesting conversation was my intent, although things are not always that simple on dating apps, as I soon realised,” she tells us.
While Chatterjee was upfront about her marital status, many of the men she met faked theirs. “I even received a phone call from someone’s wife! That kind of shook me,” she recalls. She says she had met him thrice and had no intention of getting physically involved with him. He was fun to be around, and she enjoyed the company. However, he had never told her that he was married.
For Chatterjee, the basis of a successful marriage is transparency and so she informed her husband that she was using dating apps to meet people. “He is not on these apps but of course he meets men and women at bars or pubs when he travels for work. I don’t think meeting someone new can be a threat to your marriage, unless you are already unhappy with your spouse,” she says.
New to Bumble BFF, a platform where you can swipe to find new friends, Chatterjee enjoys connecting with other women who live in her city or when she travels for work. “It really is a lifesaver for women like me, although I still wouldn’t mind meeting interesting men,” she says.
For Shreya Das (name changed), a 37-year-old homemaker from Bangalore, it was the gradual boredom that set in in her married life, that made her log on to dating apps. Married for 10 years and child-free by choice, her arranged marriage started losing its “spark”. “I started to feel the need to connect with more people outside my family and friends. I did not have a specific agenda when I logged on to dating apps. I had seen some of my single friends hooked on to these platforms and wanted to get the same thrill,” she says.
Das initially hid her marital status from the men she found interesting. She would disclose it only when she met them rather than during a chat. Although most dates were limited to coffee and conversation, she admits there were some grey areas. She says she had to be quite firm about not allowing these interactions to turn into sexual encounters. “Over the three years of my using these apps, I have realised that most men just want to hook up, which is absolutely their prerogative and I respect that. But the radio silence that greets you when you mention you are not interested in casual sex is strange. Still, I have been successful in making a few good friends on the apps,” she says.
Das tells us that for two years she did not tell her husband about her use of dating apps since he was “slightly traditional” and might not take kindly to the idea. However, last year she opened up to him and showed him her profile and those of some of the men she chatted with. “Of course, he was uncomfortable, but I told him of my experiences. To my surprise he gradually warmed up to the idea. He said if I had to be on these apps, I should be careful and judicious with those I interact with,” she says.
To Feel Desired
In India, where married women are associated with certain roles and ‘virtues’, dating apps can help them discover other facets of their personality and feel desirable again. “In most Indian households, the woman is either the ‘bahu’ or wife or mother. These dating apps have opened a new world for these women, who can now openly express their desires and be new versions of themselves,” explains psychotherapist Mansi Poddar.
Devika Chauhan (name changed), a 33-year-old designer from Mumbai, confesses she started using dating apps to continue feeling desired by men. She was in a loving marriage and was emotionally and physically satisfied, but she missed the carefree days of being single and being able to meet any man she chose.
Chauhan travelled a lot and used an app to find out what men in different cities and countries were looking for, and if she still fit the bill. “I was never a stickler for conventions, and I do not see why marriage should stop someone from wanting to feel desired. I would even want my husband to be the most desired man in a room full of people!” she says.
The matches and quick replies provided instant gratification and lifted her mood. She says she functioned better at work and at home when she received attention and compliments. “Who doesn’t enjoy being told they look amazing or are fun to talk to? If it doesn’t cause friction in my personal relationships, then why not use the apps?” Chauhan asks. She did meet a few men, but according to her none were interesting or engaging enough to continue being friends with. Also, with a busy work and social life, she did not have the time to invest in meeting men regularly.
While Chauhan is open about using dating apps with her husband and friends, she chooses to keep her marital status undisclosed on her profiles. “If I do match with someone, I tell them I am not single, without revealing the fact that I am married. My marital status is very personal for me and I refuse to share anything regarding my life with men I don’t know. I do not want them to assume I have an unhappy marriage or a dissatisfied life just because I have a Hinge or a Bumble profile!” she says.
Same-sex relations in India are still a taboo, and many lesbian and bisexual women marry men due to of societal and family pressures. Since they cannot openly discuss or act on their sexual preferences, some married women take to dating apps.
Sahely Gangopadhyay, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist from Kolkata, says, “Online dating apps have made same-sex encounters relatively easy. My clients tell me they opt for their preferred gender and keep their marital status discreet. We even have couple-friendly hotel rooms these days, that they can use, though usually I have seen women simply going out for a drink or a movie with their female friends,” she says.
Gangopadhyay says she has a client who found it easier to voice her needs under the garb of an altered name and relationship status in the virtual world. Unfortunately, when the woman’s husband came to know of her secret, he turned even more violent. It is a vicious cycle, Gangopadhyay says, where the woman looks for affection outside her marriage, but then ends up suffering even more abuse at home. “We need to understand that different women have different needs and the only way to deal with them is to be able to voice them without fear or guilt,” she adds.
Most Indian women, unhappy as they may be with their conjugal life, do not want to end their marriages as that entails facing societal questions and having to feel guilt and shame. Instead, they lead parallel sex lives until they feel things have gone out of control or that the affairs are affecting their personal lives.