Dear Captain Awkward:
A girl I’ve been seeing for 5 weeks broke up with me and it hit me really hard. It took me a night to realize that I had attributed a lot of emotional weight to staying over at her place on week 4, when she asked me to come over and stay the night . So when we had the break up talk the week after that, I felt completely blindsided.
In my mind, staying the night means we are Officially In A Relationship. I was already imagining meeting her friends and hopefully eventually her family, stuff like that. In the days following that night, she invited me to a gathering with her friends and also to a dinner her friend invited both of us to, so it seemed like my expectations of what that night meant were holding true; up to that point I hadn’t met any of her friends. And then a week later she wanted to break up.
I told her my feelings about that night during the breakup, and her response was the typical “you built up too much of this relationship too fast, maybe slow it down in the future.” But I really don’t think I can change how I feel about staying the night with someone. Based on talking to some friends, it seems like people my age don’t attach nearly as much weight to this as I do, as it’s just one of Those Things You Do in a new relationship. Is there anything I can do to resolve this disparity in the future when dating someone new?
Basic background: I’m 28 years old and I didn’t start dating until I was 25. The longest relationship I’ve been in was 6 weeks. I’ve read about attachment patterns in adults and I solidly fall into the anxious-preoccupied model.
Aw, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. It sounds to me like she liked you a lot and was still deciding about things when you spent the night together, which happens (the human heart is unpredictable and subjective)(people attribute different importance levels to getting intimate for the first time), but it doesn’t make the ultimate rejection sting any less.
Finding a solution to predict or resolve how “people your age” feel about when & how to start spending the night together isn’t really going to work, but I think there are a few things you could try out that might work better for you and give you a greater feeling of control:
a) Go slow. Some people can gleefully fuck on the first date and stay through brunch or even dinner the next day without having it mean anything in particular. You know that’s not you, so, slow down. That doesn’t mean that you have to be celibate, but in the first few weeks of dating, think seriously about kisses and make-outs that are not goal-oriented, conducted with the understanding that “pants stay on” and that “everybody will sleep in their own bed at the end of the night.”
I don’t want to fall into the boring trap of the Rounding-The-Bases-Model of sex, where every “base” means an escalated level of intimacy – kissing can be plenty intimate/sexual/emotionally charged and this may not work for you, like, at all. Still, if you want to try this, when kissing starts to seem like a good idea to everybody, kiss/be kissed by your dates. Kiss the bejeezus out of them. Make out. Enjoy. Savor. Take breaks to talk. Kiss more.
The name with your email is male, so forgive me if I am assuming wrong, but there is a lot of pressure for men to be always up for sex and to be the aggressors and the escalators in sexual encounters with women. Give yourself permission to not play that role by default and to be a little old-fashioned about it all and see if you feel better – more excited, less rushed, less pressured.
b) Level with your partner. When spending the night starts to seem like a good idea to everybody, talk frankly about what it means to you.
“Yes, I’d love to – I really like you and that is very exciting! – Can we talk about it for a second first? For me, (having sex/sleeping together/spending the night) with someone is a sign that I want to stick around for a while and really get to know them. It isn’t casual for me and I don’t ever feel good about having a one-night-thing. It’s ok if you approach all that differently, or if you’re still deciding, and I’m not mentally picking out china patterns – I’m enjoying what we’re doing now very much! Just, if I’m gonna stay over tonight I want to make sure you’re on the same page: That you see this as the beginning of A Relationship, that you’re excited to stick around for a while and see what we could be together, and that you’re ready for us to be exclusive/monogamous*. I know everybody moves at different speeds, so if that’s not quite the case tonight, I’m more than okay holding off or slowing things down until it is. “
*(If monogamy is your thing, and I think it might be).
See what your partner says and how they react. If they seem unsure, if it’s too much/too fast, if they are still thinking about how they feel about you, stop. If they pressure you to have sex/spend the night/level up the intimacy in the relationship without giving you the reassurance that you need, stop. If what they want doesn’t match up with what you want, stop. If having an honest conversation about your feelings and needs around sex or where your relationship is going “kills the mood” with a potential partner, it’s definitely not the right moment to sleep with them. If you’re meant to pick it back up, you will. People who want to bone each other are extremely resourceful about finding “the mood.”
If you have the conversation, and things seem to stall out at for the moment because your partner is still deciding where you fit in, it can get really awkward and feel like rejection/disaster/why bother? even if everyone is doing their best and it will all be fine later. We don’t have a lot of cultural scripts for “I like you, but let’s slow down a bit and be sure” even though it’s an extremely common thing to negotiate in new relationships.
If your partner is receptive and kind and gets it and seems to still be into you (and you’re still into them), and there’s an “Ok, so, now what?” awkward moment, try this:
a) Verbally reassure them that you like them and that it’s okay if they aren’t sure right this second – it’s worth it to you to wait a little while and be sure. (You say you are anxious-pre-occupied in your attachments, and one way to manage that over time is to provide others with the kind of reassurances them that you’d like).
b) Say, “I’ll text you tomorrow.” (& follow through with that).
c) Kiss them goodnight, if they’re up for it.
d) Go home/physically separate, if that’s what you need to do to take care of yourself emotionally.
e) DON’T OBSESS.
Ha, I joke. You’re going to obsess. I would obsess. It is perfectly normal to obsess!
The key, when you are obsessing, is to distract yourself and/or channel that energy in other ways. Masturbate furiously. Work out, or do something creative or otherwise absorbing. Call a friend and tell them all about it, or write it all out in a letter or email that you don’t send. Play video games. Have and feel all the hopeful/mushy/vulnerable/sticky feelings in the world, just don’t vomit them all over your maybe/maybe not girlfriend…right this second. You’ve got to give it a little time to work itself out. Send one (promised) text along the lines of “It was so great to see you last night, hope you slept well” or something else pretty simple and kind (“Good Talk, everyone!”). Then maybe turn your phone off for a while. Go to a movie in a theater.
f) Pay attention to reciprocity in communications.If you send the promised next-day-thanks-for-the-date-and-the-good-talk text, and the person texts back and normal conversation/texting levels ensue, great! If you start making plans to meet up and it’s all easy and natural, great! Relax. Flirt. Things are still on.
If there is a long, weird silence, if things get stilted and it’s impossible to make plans, then pull back, at least for a few days or a week. Don’t flood the person with emails or texts or calls or chipper “Just checking on our plans!” Part of this is “bracing yourself for the coming rejection,” absolutely, and part of this is “giving the person permission and space and time to think.” Don’t read too much into any one communication or gap. Look at patterns. Look especially at how you feel. Do you feel happy/comforted/hopeful? Do you feel like you could ask this person for reassurance, like, “I’m feeling kind of vulnerable after our talk, everything still good?” The right person for you is going to make you feel like you can ask that.
Your goal is a certain kind of relationship, and you get pretty invested in your dates before any of this comes up, so yeah: If you tell someone about what sex means to you and then suddenly things get weird or distant or sour, it will suck. You will be okay in the end, but the short term will suck like it sucks right now. What you might have next time that you didn’t have before is the knowledge that you took care of your own needs to the fullest extent that you could.You used your words, you asked for what you wanted, you gave the person every kindness and consideration, you were real and true about what being intimate means to you, you showed integrity and patience and a willingness to be vulnerable. The right people for you, specifically, the ones who will stick around to know you and like you and love you, specifically, are going to be happy and excited and grateful for the way you spoke up.
Finally, I truly think that the “almost, but not quite” people are going to appreciate what you did by speaking up, too. Maybe that one moment gets “ruined” and the relationship doesn’t go anywhere, but your honesty, integrity, and courage will leave the world better than you found it. In the movies and other media, the sex we see is all zipless and effortless and we have so few models for how awkward and vulnerable sex with other people can be. Most/many movie sex scenes involve people getting together for the very first time, but I rarely see on-screen couples who are about to sleep with someone for the first time stop and have either emotional or very practical talks about what about to happen. Where are all the”I have an STI, here’s what you need to know” talks?
- The “I’m/You’re a person who can get pregnant/make someone pregnant, how are we handling all that, pray tell?” talks.
- The “I’m super-ticklish, please don’t touch me in x, y, z places” talks.
- The “Here are my kinks” talks.
- The “Oh by the way, I have some giant scars, don’t be freaked out” talks.
- The “I have some past traumas from abuse, so please never grab me or hold me down, even as a joke” talks.
- The “Ow, that hurts, not that way. Try this” talks.
- The “Nope….still nope….not quite…ah, well, tomorrow is another day” talks.
- The “I see this as basically recreational and not especially meaningful” talks.
- The “Hey, I really like to be emotionally involved before I have sex, so let’s hold off for now” talks.
- The”My sexual identity is ______, which means ______” talks.
- The “I have been thinking about and wanting to do this with you basically forever, I am so psyched right now!” talks.
- The “My antidepressant is killing my sex drive lately, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t initiate sex, I totally wish you would because I miss doing it with you so bad” talks.
- The “I am too stressed out right now, ask again later” talks.
- The “Let’s try to make a baby!” talks.
- The “It’s my first time and I’m nervous, go slow” talk and the “It’s not my first time, and I’m nervous, go slow” and the “I don’t really know what I’m doing, can you talk me through it?” talks.
- The “We have 10 minutes until the kids wake up, let’s get this DONE” talks.
- The “I feel self-conscious about my body” talks.
- The “Intriguing offer, just ate a giant meal, tho” talks.
Alllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll the talks, forever and ever and ever, until everyone has good information for making decisions about who and how and when and why they have sex, and everyone feels heard and seen and believed and safe.
Ideally, we have sex and relationships with other humans at least partly because we want to feel awesome and make each other feel awesome. If emotional connection and reassurance that this relationship has a future is what you need to feel awesome, then you should ask for awesome. It won’t always be perfect or even go the way you want it to, but that doesn’t mean you should accept substitutes.