Sex? Love? Commitment? The changing face of modern relationships

Multiple sexual partners, deciding not to cohabit, having several significant relationships over a lifetime… Rebecca Newman on why textbook coupledom can’t always tick every box


“You want me to stay? I wasn’t planning on sleeping here…”. In Season Two of political drama House of Cards, Majority Whip Jackie makes it quite clear to lobbyist Remy what she wants from him: just sex. And, why not? Whatever the way people meet, these days there’s an increasing range of ways in which they then choose sexually to interact.

A growing proportion of Londoners are overturning the yoke of old school monogamy and are instead investigating worlds of flexisexuality, of open or group relationships, of Living Apart Together, mono / non-mono and monogamish (more on all this to come). And while this change is embraced most energetically by younger generations, it is also visible in other parts of society - viz liberated women in their sixties who are done with picking up socks.

“In the past people would sleepwalk into marriage,” says Helen Croydon, the author of new book Screw The Fairytale which explores the flowering of alternative relationship models. “Historically you had to pair up: socially and financially, having a partner facilitated your life. Now, we are more affluent, more individualist. Women are more independent. The internet makes finding like-minded groups easier. The more fast-moving modern society becomes, the less relevant a relationship is to our survival. We live in an incredibly exciting time, where we have the freedom to choose what suits us best.”

Coupled with this freedom is the brute fact that being faithful to one person is hard. In most aspects of life the tap of a phone brings us what we want, when we want it, wrapped in a bow. Generation YOLO (You Only Live Once) is ready to choose life. And the obsessive, euphoric early stages of a relationship hold more magnetism than the later, comfortable ones.

“The central dilemma of relationships is the fact we have two separate needs,” Croydon, 36, continues. “On the one hand we crave passion and excitement, and on the other we have this desire for lasting attachment, for a soulmate. But the intimacy we yearn for is the very thing that kills the romance.”

Carine*, who works in publishing and lives in Bloomsbury, tells me she’d always been interested by the idea of multiple relationships. “I’ve got a short attention span and a lot of love to give,” she smiles. “I consider myself to be polyamorous, which is to say I have a real relationship with each of my [two] boyfriends. I enjoy the variety - and as they each have another girlfriend, they do too.”

Carine, 26, understands potential perils, such as jealousy, of her lifestyle choice. But, she says: “in the past I’ve been very unfaithful, so its not like by abandoning the traditional format I’m walking away from something safe - in fact my hetero relationships were pretty catastrophic. I find it far more realistic I could make fidelity work with two people.” Interested? Check out London Polyamory Meetup (, to meet estabished Polys over a G&T at their central London drinks.

With his coming-out Youtube broadcast last year, Olympian Tom Daley became the - incredibly sweet - face of another burgeoning group: the flexisexual scene. Announcing that he was dating a boy, but still ‘fancied girls’ he placed himself in a camp which is gender-blind.


“Where the term ‘bisexual’ seems to be stigmatised by both the gay and the straight community as a bit half-hearted, I identify myself as flexisexual: I positively fall for the person rather than their gender,” says Robyn Exton, 27, co-founder of girls-only dating app Dattch.

Shoreditch-based Exton was inspired to create the app because “most of my friends fall in the sexual scale somewhere between fully gay and fully straight - we don’t identify with any of the old labels. Dattch is a space for young women looking to meet other young women for fun, maybe for sex, where men aren’t constantly trying to muscle in for a threesome.

“Our members are definitely part of a new generation which get together more and more through apps: the old dating sites weren't good enough or cool enough - now there are targeted apps with better results where you can really meet people.” Having gone live last September, Dattch already has thousands of members in London and is currently launching in New York.

Another high profile flexi is new talent  US rapper Angel Haze,  runner up in BBC’s Sound of 2013. Haze, 21, identifies herself as pansexual, an equivalent term more popular in the States.

Last autumn’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes demonstrated that society is less judging of same sex interaction. Compared with the previous survey a decade ago, the percentage of men and women who think they are not wrong at all doubled to around 50%. More, the number of women who have had same sex experiences rose from 4% to 16%, which is to say a good one in six of us. For their own reasons, after years with men clothes doyenne Mary Portas, singer Alison Goldfrapp and SATC actress Cynthia Nixon all moved on to romantic involvement with women.

The survey also showed that while we are more open minded to whom we have relationships with, we are less accepting of infidelity. Today 63% of men (up from 45%)  and 70% of women (from 53%) say it is wrong. Which surely lays the field for a more inventive  approach to making a relationship work - but on your own terms.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why sex parties such as Fever and Little Sins are seeing strong business, as they afford consensual experiment within a relationship. Killing Kittens, a member’s only club which runs upmarket orgies, have seen a radical uptick in their numbers: they threw five times the number of events this year in London as they did last year, and this spring are expanding the parties to Brighton and Manchester.

Founder Emma Sayle, whose account of her parties /Behind The Mask/ comes out in April, tells me “we see a lot of couples coming in to explore within the context of their relationship. They feel secure together, and are enjoying finding new ways to keep the lust alive.”

They are also environments where people who are mono / non-mono (ie where one party is ‘allowed’ to stray in a sexual, but not emotional sense), or monogamish (where a degree of sexual infidelity - perhaps kissing or light play -  is afforded both members of a committed couple) can blow off steam. “It’s a place which is firmly about no-strings attached exploration, where you can experiment in a safe way.”

Professor of social psychology Eli J Finkel would approve. In his recent paper The Suffocation of Marriage he advocates consensual non-monogamy as one of a series of ways to re-oxygenate a relationship. “There are many avenues through which we can achieve our [romantic] goals,” he tells me, “Many of us are asking a tremendous amount of our spouses.”

Citing the Jack Nicholson’s line to Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets, ‘You make me want to be a better man’, he argues that we overburden our central relationship: where we once looked to our other half to meet our basic needs, we now look to them for all manner of support - from sexual satisfaction to self-esteem and personal growth.

To shape a sound relationship, as well as considering sexual interaction with people beyond your partner, Franklin advises the cultivation of ‘emotionships’ - friendships which support your emotions (cheer you up, let you vent etc) and release the pressure which is often all heaped on the head of your significant other.

He’s also an advocate for Living Apart Together - emulating the model of Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton in which “committed or even married spouses have separate residences”.

I asked Ben*, a 40 year-old teacher who lives in Lewisham half a mile away from his partner of six years, what he sees in the LAT lifestyle. “To begin with it was because Tori* was still living in the (former) marital home, and I didn’t want to make things hard on her kids. But then I realised I like my space. And I like the fact that we go at it hammer and tongs those nights we do spend together.”

The Office for National Statistics reckoned in 2006 that two million people were LATs - which means three in every 20 people aged between 16 and 59, about the same as co-habiting. While some will be early in a relationship, or tied apart by circumstance, recent studies suggest a decent proportion have specifically opted to live apart. In April 2013 the Economic and Social Research Council interviewed 600 LAT couples, finding first that LATS are young (two thirds of them were under 35) and secondly that a third of them were in separate dwellings through choice.

“Why not keep the romance alive by living apart?” adds Croydon. “People are realising you don’t need to pile everyday demands on our partners, that relationships don’t need to be validated by seeing each other five nights a week.”

For people who, like her, prefer a hefty degree of independence Croydon has founded matchmaking site for people - you guessed it - who don’t want to be committed for all of the time.

“With conventional relationships it is presumed you’ll be monogamous, one day you’ll move in, and suddenly you’ll be giving up your Sunday’s to go to their uncle’s fiftieth. People don’t really want that any more. I work 13 hour days, and on Saturdays I like to do my own thing.

It’s not a no-strings site, but it’s  for people like me who want to find meaningful romance with genuine chemistry, trust and regularity but who don’t have the time or the personal circumstances for the conventional 5-times-a-week relationship.”

Launched in January, parttimelove has more than 1,000 London members, with most men between 26 and 35, most women between 46 and 55. What, I ask, about when you are elderly? “I don’t want to live with someone just for that. Anyway, there are so many ways to meet people in cities I am not worried about being lonely. Through the site I’ve met, for example, divorced women in their fifties who are now choosing to be independent: they don’t want to live with a man again, they’ve had enough of looking after someone; they want a lover.”

Further, the august figure of economist Alvin Roth, Nobel Laureate, has suggested that as we live longer and child-rearing takes up less of our lifespan, we may want to be with different people for different stages of our lives; that “new forms of polygamy-over-lifetime relationships” could arise. He’ll no doubt be glad Cameron Diaz agrees. “Relationships can last for two or five or 20 years,” she has said. “I don’t believe in sharing your bed with someone your whole life”.

Topically, chef Albert Roux, 78, has recently left his second wife to move onto a new stage: a friendship with a 40 year old cloakroom attendant.  After trying four of them, actor John Hurt has concluded that ‘marriage isn’t necessarily for me’.  The Royal Court is showing Abi Morgan’s latest play, The Mistress Contract, the true story of two divorced Americans who decided wedlock didn’t work for them and have instead lived for thirty years in a setup where he keeps her, in return for contractually agreed sexual favours.

Is there a downside to a world of greater sexual fluidity? Psychologist Meg Barker, author of Rewriting The Rules, a guide to designing relationships on your own terms, tells me: “There are less clear distinctions now between being single or coupled, monogamous / non-monogamous, hook-ups etc - and because there are no rules, no script, people have to [work their relationships] out for themselves. It’s easy to get hurt when you're figuring out these things, but open communication and a commitment to kindness goes a long way.”

So, the great news is that in 2014 we can make our own beds, and choose how to lie in them: with with a boy or a girl, with sometimes several and maybe sometimes none at all.  The only ties that bind us are respect, honesty, openness and kindness. “In the future,” adds Croydon. “a lifelong commitment may seem a radical idea. Everything else in our lives is driven to convenience, to making the most of our time, to having fun. Our lives are so variable it’s time to recognise that one size doesn’t fit all, and take pleasure in drawing our own boundaries.”

Original article published in ES Magazine, in March, 2014

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