Modern lovers: The 'sexual body warriors' and pioneers transforming 21st-century relationships

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Boy meets girl. Boy and girl get married. Boy and girl live happily ever after. Forget it, old-timer... To celebrate Valentine's Day, Sarah Morrison meets the people redefining love in the 21st century.

You probably should not ask psychotherapists to divulge what they believe is meant by the term "modern love". The response you get may be enough to set you pining for a Mills & Boon. "Uncertain", "radical", "challenging", and even "nostalgic" are some of the words that will be thrown around. They will talk about the inability to define a notion that is constantly in "flux", but they will also hit the nail on its irritatingly imperfect head. "Modern love has become more complicated," argues the psycho-therapist and bestselling author Susie Orbach, "but it has also become much more interesting."

A quick glimpse at the statistics tells us why. If we align love and romance with marriage, things do not look good. There was a time when 50 out of every 1,000 women in the UK got married annually. Now, marriages are at the lowest rate since 1895. Fewer than 20 women per 1,000 married in 2009 and, since 1981, the number of people tying the knot each year has fallen by a third. But our thirst for desire, romance and life-changing relationships is more prominent than ever before, the experts say.

In the 21st century we can buy phone apps that locate the nearest suitor, search online for a prospective husband, go to sex therapy and unleash our inner thoughts, or opt for multiple partners to satisfy our soul. There are more ways than ever to find "The One" (or two, or three, or more), it is just that our map to get there has become worn. In short, just as Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim wrote in The Normal Chaos of Love: "Love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves."

Over the past few weeks The New Review has spoken to a number of people who are attempting to understand – and in some cases rewrite – the rules of love in the modern world, from an Islamic couple who turned to the internet to arrange their own marriage, to three wives who raised a family together and love both their partners in equal measure. We spoke to the sexual "healers" who eschew monogamy in favour of an open relationship and to the single gay man who finds two-thirds of his partners via his iPhone. If love were a T-shirt, this group of people would be the first to admit that one size no longer fits all.

Yet Orbach wants to dispel the myth that traditional love has been replaced with a lust-fuelled array of casual relationships. She believes that the artist and film-maker Steve McQueen's recent film Shame, which chronicles the busy life of a sex addict (played by Michael Fassbender), is testament to the desire for more than attraction alone. "[The film] is all about the emptiness of not connecting with the self because you can't connect with another person," she says. "Attachment is important. My experience still tells me that people, most people, want somebody who is there for them."

The author Kate Figes, who interviewed 120 couples for her book Couples: The Truth, an exploration of modern relationships, is inclined to agree. She surveyed British children aged between 11 and 18 in 10 secondary schools in 2007 and found that almost every young person k thought they had a soulmate somewhere. For Figes, notions of "romantic fantasy" have never been more popular here and abroad. "The idea that love can still save you, lift you out of the boundaries and mediocrity of life seems stronger than ever," she concludes.

But while narratives of "The One" have survived from Pride and Prejudice to Bridget Jones's Diary, it seems that romantic fiction has fallen short of reality. In psychology lecturer Dr Meg Barker's new book, Rewriting the Rules, due out this year, she cites research showing that up to 60 per cent of married people have affairs. Some surveys find as many as 80 per cent of married men would cheat if they knew they would never get caught. In other words, people might want monogamy, but in truth, it is getting harder to find. So are people just closing their eyes and hoping to block out the noise? Well, no, but as Barker asserts, "some of the radical ways people challenge love doesn't necessarily involve swinging from chandeliers".

Celebrities including Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson and Will Smith have all either expressed doubts about monogamy or spoken about being in an open relationship. In fact, the "new monogamy" as it is called, involves fewer labels and definitions and largely avoids categories at all. There is "friendship with benefits", a "hook-up culture", and "polyamory", the notion that people can have multiple relationships that may be emotionally close and sexual in nature. This term first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. Dr Christine Campbell, senior lecturer in psychology at St Mary's University College, Twickenham, who is carrying out studies on jealousy in polyamorous relationships, says: "The worst label you can call a polyamorist is a 'swinger'; they are very clear that it is not just about sex, but also emotional connections."

There may be an absence of quantitative research into the number of people who define themselves as "poly", but few will deny that the growth of the internet has enabled the community to become more vocal. Sites such as Facebook and OkCupid.com, one of the largest American dating websites, now allow users the chance to define themselves as in an "open relationship". OkCupid estimates that around 6 per cent of all its members fall into this group. What's more, online dating is no longer a tool just for the technically savvy and socially square. Almost a third of all couples with access to the internet now meet in this way, according to a recent study by the Oxford Internet Institute, which surveyed 17 countries – up from a meagre 6 per cent in 1997. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, it also turns out that online dating is more common among older people – 40 and over – than the young.

It is the middle-aged, too, who have borne witness to this period of enormous social change. Almost 50 per cent of babies were born out of marriage in the UK in 2010, according to Dr Kathleen Kiernan, professor of social policy and demographics at the University of York, compared with just 8 per cent in 1971. Fifty years ago, it was regarded as uncouth for people to live together outside of marriage – fewer than one in 100 unmarried adults under 50 were shacked up – now, it is one in six. And while two-thirds of those surveyed in 1987 thought the idea of sex between two adults of the same gender was always or mostly wrong, in 2007, this figure had dropped by almost two-thirds.

But while Dr Barker says couples are still "taught to meet somebody, settle down and live happily ever after", Orbach insists she is meeting more people yearning for different and more equal relationships. As gender equality improves and the recognition of same-sex relationships spreads, she says: "Modern love is about redefining the conventional."

The 'Appy singleton: Alex

Alex, 35, a journalist from west London, meets two-thirds of his partners via Grindr, a free app he downloaded to his mobile phone. He checks the application, which lets gay men instantly find each other using GPS technology, five or six times a day. When he logs in, on the bus or on a work trip, he views a gridded display which tells him where the nearest logged-on men are to him (in feet), what they look like and sometimes even what their sexual preferences are; he is also able to "chat" to them in real-time.

"Grindr is very similar to other dating websites in the gay world, but it actually shows people who are near you," says Alex. "If you see someone's profile, you know they are close to you and not all the way across town. It is a sexualised service and a lot of people use it pragmatically to fix sex within the next 30 minutes. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but I typically use it for dates. I will talk to somebody, exchange messages and pictures, and if they look OK, I will go for a drink and take it from there.

"I would say about two-thirds of these dates will end in sex, but I have never formed a relationship from Grindr. I do sometimes meet men over a few months, but it is more of a casual-sex-type thing. Grindr helps you pre-select people and keeps it within your comfort zone. Once I was on a work trip and went on Grindr in the evening. A guy started 'talking to me' and, after a few messages, it turned out he was sitting in the next armchair. We had a drink that evening.

"I haven't had many embarrassing moments on Grindr; if you don't like somebody, you can just block them and you become 'invisible' to each other."

"Ten years ago, people would go to clubs and bars to meet people, but these days you rarely meet someone who is out by themselves. I haven't met anyone offline in a couple of years.

"The gay community has always led the way in terms of technology, because there are a sparser number of people. We were forced to start using messaging boards before sites such as Craigslist became popular. If I started seeing someone I was interested in sufficiently, I'd stop using Grindr. I am happy to use it now as you never know what's around the corner. In my experience, relationships come when you least expect them."

grindr.com

The sexual body warriors: Mike Lousada & Elena Angel

Mike Lousada, 44, and Elena Angel, 38, describe themselves as sexual healers, using intimate bodywork and therapy to empower people sexually. Mike, a former investment banker, and Elena, a former singer, have been in a committed relationship for two years and view themselves as "soulmates", while remaining open to the idea of additional sexual partners. The couple, who believe sexuality is "fluid", say they are part of a growing movement that wants to support and nurture sexual understanding, whatever people's lifestyle choice.

Mike, who defines himself as a psychosexual body worker with mostly female clients, does not consider himself gay or straight. "Our sexuality sits along a spectrum and it changes moment to moment depending on how you feel and who you are with; it is a fluid state," he says. "Our love doesn't fit in a box. The most important thing is our commitment for each other, but it is not up to me to tell Elena what she can and can't do and vice versa. The possibility exists to explore with other people. I see relationships like an alchemical crucible – into the crucible of our relationship we pour ourselves and we nurture the alchemical change that occurs. The function is growth.

Elena, who works under the tantric and Taoist tradition, describes herself as 98 per cent straight. "People come to me with sexual issues; I see sex as part of the physical human experience," she says. "Some people want training, others want more confidence, but it is important to understand and read the human body. The freedom of expression today is fantastic, it is possible to choose your own partner rather than have one chosen for you, but the ease at finding partners can lead to discontent and a loss of depth. Mike and I feel very much like twinned souls; we have a fundamental connection that cannot be severed."

Mike, whose therapy includes body massage and even having sex with certain clients, says: "It is not like we are going off and having exciting experiences, it is purely therapeutic. I am trying to support women who wish to reclaim the innocence of sexuality.

"Elena and I both understand this and it doesn't affect our relationship at all. What I find shocking is that you can go through five years of psychotherapy training and just have one weekend on sexuality. They are missing a huge part of life that is present for all of us, whatever relationship you are in. To ignore that is a gross oversight. We'll have a healthier society when people have a healthier relationship with their sexuality."

mikelousada.com, dakinishyama.com

The polyamorous family: DK Green, Rachel Green & Luisa Green

DK Green, 45, and his wives, Rachel Green, 49, and Luisa Green, 47 – affectionately dubbed the "tripod" – have lived together for more than a decade in a committed polyamorous relationship. They have raised three children and, like most other married couples, they share one bed – albeit 7ft in size – in their home in Chesterfield.

Only, they are not married – and will never be allowed to be under British law. DK Green, self-defined "daddy of the house", is biologically a woman and the mother to all three children – Kirsty, 25, Tony, 22, and Lina, 14 – as well as five step-grandchildren. His two wives were married to him and each other via a pagan ceremony known as handfasting. They have brought other partners into their home, on the condition of mutual consent, but say they view their marriage as "sacrosanct".

DK, who has been in a heterosexual marriage before, says: "We all met online in 1999, within two weeks of each other. The three of us are loyal to each other; nobody does anything without the others' consent. If it's honest, open and hurts no one, it is not cheating. We respect each other as wives, although I am head of the household. The response has been varied. Lina, our youngest, has had the hardest time, but that's as much to do with the fact that her parents are gay as that she has three mums.

"Some of the children's fathers are still very much part of their lives. There is a tribal kind of feel to our family and our children always have someone to go to. If they want advice or a cuddle, they come to me. If they want a laugh, they go to Luisa, the American, and if they want to know something, they go to Rachel, because she's a genius. We all havethings to offer them. Then there are the practical things: three of us were able to buy a house together; one of us [alone] couldn't. We are traditional in a non-traditional sense. We have children, grandchildren, mortgages and bills; there just happens to be three of us.

"For all the benefits, there is three times as much to deal with. We are talking about six relationships between us, but we probably work at it harder than the average couple. People absolutely believe that you fall head over heels with someone and can't possibly see someone else, but my love for Luisa doesn't change the fact that my love for Rachel is deep and abiding. Just like a parent can love more than one child, so too can you love more than one partner. Your heart doesn't split in half, it doubles; there is an endless supply of love."

The cyber couple: Muhammad Ali & Catherine Heseltine

Muhammad Ali, a 39-year-old private tutor, and his wife, Catherine Heseltine, a 33-year-old nursery teacher, had both been married before they met on SingleMuslim.com, a website that enables Muslims to search specifically for prospective husbands and wives.

One month after they first viewed each other's online profiles, they met in Manchester and, four months later, in August 2010, they were married in a Bengali and English ceremony. Now they live with their four-month-old daughter, Amani, in north London. They joke that they "clicked" from the moment they first laid eyes on each other.

Muhammad, who received a subscription to the site from his sister, says: "In Asian culture, you are traditionally introduced to people through your family network, but now what your parents want and what you want are different. My parents came to this country in the 1960s, while I was born and bred here. We have different mindsets, which would have made it difficult for them to match me up with someone through traditional means."

Catherine, a Muslim convert, says: "You can filter people [on the site] to find who you are compatible with. People say it's not romantic, but it can be. I asked things such as, 'How much do you practise your religion?' and said I wanted someone who'd do their share of the housework. I knew that would put some guys off. When Muhammad messaged me, he wrote: 'If my profile doesn't make you run for the hills, please contact me.'"

"We met up the Saturday after the General Election and spent the day together in Manchester," reveals Muhammad. "I'd met three of four other people on the site, but I'd been rejected, so I was nervous. But it was very straightforward, we already knew we had a lot in common and shared values. People do everything on the internet now. They buy books, clothes and even shop for food at Tesco. Why shouldn't they be able to find a partner online?"

"My dad is very old-fashioned and has never gone on the internet," admits Catherine. " When I told him about Muhammad, he said, 'Wow, I didn't know that you could download a boyfriend.' In his wedding speech, he said: 'I'm so glad Catherine met a nice young chap off eBay.'

"The thing is, I knew what I wanted in my life. You can never guarantee you will meet the right person, but with an internet marriage site, you are doing something proactive. It is better than sitting on the sofa waiting for Prince Charming to knock on your door."

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