Torn between two lovers

How can I move on when I keep thinking about the ex I left? What is the latest sleeping-around etiquette? How can I ask a girl out?

Published November 27, 2001 8:17PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

How do you ask a girl out? Is there a preferred phraseology? I have not had much success with the blunt approach ("You wanna go out sometime?"), even though it provides a certain philosophical satisfaction for yours truly. In fact, the best response I have gotten is embarrassed demurral, while the worst undoubtedly provided colorful anecdotal material for anyone sitting nearby.

Of course, it could be one of those things where she's going to say yes if she's asked and she likes me, and no if vice versa, regardless of how ham-fistedly the interaction is handled. If it matters, I'm 23, a senior in college and haven't ever had a date qua date.

Blunted on Reality

Dear Blunted,

I love questions that have a clear answer.

The flaw in the example you cite -- "You wanna go out sometime?" -- isn't that it's too blunt, but that it's too vague. What you need is a date, a time and an event. Ignore the murky realm of "asking a girl out" and concentrate on the specifics of the proposed activity. Then she can say yes or no without necessarily committing to wanting or not wanting to go out with you, which is only fair: How can she know until she's tried it? And if she's sensitive to the awkwardness of it, and appreciates how much effort it took you to ask her, a no could mean that she prefers Stockhausen to Varese, or she thinks that Green Day are losing their edge what with the rock-star lifestyle and all. Instead of, like, you are such a loser for even thinking I'm in your league.

So do this: Get some tickets to an event. It doesn't have to be an expensive event, but it has to have a starting time and a location. Even if she doesn't like you, she might like No Doubt. Of course, she might ditch you inside the gate, but that would simply mean that you went out with her only once. You're just gathering material for a novel on how to date anyway, right? You didn't really expect her to stick around and rub against you.

The exact words are as follows: April/Mandy/Michele/Chloe/Moon Unit, I have a couple of tickets to see _________ next Tuesday at the Warfield; would you like to come with me?

Dear Cary,

I have a question about good karma in the bedroom. My best friend and I are both recently single after serious relationships. She and I have been hitting the town with much greater vigor than ever before. I have decided that for the moment I am emotionally unavailable. Things are too up in the air for me -- I've got a job in politics and I'm trying to decide about grad school. My friend and I are wondering whether it is considered acceptable in modern dating America to sleep with more than one person at a time. I don't mean literally, as in the same room, and I'm not talking health -- I'm on the pill and won't let someone near me without their wrapping it up.

I'm talking good karma, or what's fair to others. Is the general consensus out there that it is OK to shack up with more than one person as long as you haven't had "the talk"? I've asked friends, but mostly I have 20-something male friends, and I'll give you one guess what they say.

Looking for Clues

Dear Looking,

This is a huge question that any reputable general advice contractor ought to subcontract out to a team of licensed ethicists and smart people. But I'm one of those unlicensed guys with a rusty truck and a gimpy dog, so I'll take a shot at it.

First off, my guess is your 20-something male friends said, "Of course you can sleep with more than one person." I agree with them: Of course you can.

But you really ask two questions: What is the custom in Dating America, and what is OK for you? I would guess that the prevailing custom in Dating America is that it's occasionally OK for relationships to overlap, so that for a period of time you do have two or three guys coming and going in your bed, as long as you're generally in the process of making a decision, and you're not seriously entertaining the notion that such an arrangement could endure. (It's like when you go to the grocery store and you have a watermelon and a cantaloupe in your basket because you haven't decided whether the sweetness and festiveness of the watermelon outweighs the fact that it's really not great for breakfast; and while the cantaloupe might last longer, it's also smaller. And maybe you actually take them both home this one time, and have them at different times, but overall, you're usually going to have either a watermelon or a cantaloupe in the fridge, but not both. For one thing, they're both rather large, as are men, and most modern women just don't have the room.)

More important than prevailing custom, however, is the question of how you treat each individual. That's where the real torture begins. We are so woefully passionate about sex that even the most tortoise-shell glasses and turtleneck of partners might go a little Can't Bust 'Em and workboots at the thought of sharing you. Sex brings out the whisky bottle-buster in all of us. You can't expect to control or contain the damage you could do, but there are some ground rules.

First, you don't have to tell on the first date, or even the second, but you definitely have to tell after the first night of sex. Everybody who's having sex gets to know who else is having sex, or at least that there are other who's who are. That's my rule.

Another rule is that if the guy opts out when he finds out, you have to let him go. You can't tell him you'll break it off with the other guy just to keep him in your stable. If you break it off with the other guy, then you can come back to him and tell him you've broken it off with the other guy. The principle here is that your actions must precede your words. That's a safeguard to keep you from saying manipulative things out of wishful thinking or fear. Don't use words to control what people do. Only use words to convey the truth of the situation.

Don't give out big details, just tell the basics: "There's somebody else as well as you." If the thought of some more finely etched pectorals than his own sliding down your glistening shoulder blades is cause to pocket his travel toothbrush and erase your number from speed dial, that's his decision, not yours.

Another rule is that you're not allowed to use your narrative gifts as a tool of torture. Don't reveal details just to hurt someone; in fact, details have such sharp edges that they can cut by accident even when you're handling them carefully. So while disclosure is mandatory, explicitness is forbidden.

We are not so highly evolved that we can navigate the swirling eddies of erotic passion, attachment, dread, fear, loneliness, insecurity, resentment, competitiveness and betrayal without going a little crazy.

On the other hand, what's wrong with going a little crazy? Isn't that exactly what you're up to right now? Because you're young and you're emotionally unavailable? (Now that would make a New Yorker cartoon: The tuxedoed suitor with the bouquet is standing in the lobby and the doorman is saying, "I'm sorry, sir, but the lady is emotionally unavailable.")

There's a lot to learn by sleeping around that you just can't learn any other way. Most folks eventually reach the same conclusion: It isn't something you can carry off for very long. Things usually swing too wildly out of whack.

Just keep in mind that sex is like a gun. It's a powerful weapon we don't let children play with for good reason. And while there's no ironclad law against what you're contemplating, you are likely to get some raised eyebrows and occasional warnings -- not because you're doing anything wrong, but because everybody knows that what you're doing is emotionally dangerous.

Dear Cary,

I'm a successful, attractive 30-something who hasn't had a fulfilling relationship in three years. I meet plenty of men, but I tend to expound on how happy I am single and how I can't picture myself married, when I actually do want to be in a relationship.

I recently met a man I am interested in, the first man in ages that I wanted to call. He did call. I again started running at the mouth about how I don't want to get married and how I love being single. It was as if my mouth had taken control. Well, you guessed it, my phone isn't ringing. Should I forget about the man and take this as a valuable learning experience, or call him?

You'll probably tell me to call. Just know: I am a big chicken.


Dear Footinmouth,

Well, you're right. I am going to tell you to call.

So call.

And don't try to explain over the phone. Just call and suggest that you get together.

He might not want to get together. He might already have concluded from what you said that you're not relationship material. If he doesn't want to get together, leave it at that and move on. But if you get together, maybe then you can explain a little bit, but not too much. After all, if you're the type whose mouth runs away with the words, you don't want to give it too long a leash. You want to do only the minimum of explaining to undo the other thing, the wrong impression, and then let the relationship take its course.

And ultimately, of course, you're going to have to learn to control your mouth. Listening helps, because while you're listening you're not talking. And thinking before you talk helps, too. Not only does a person who thinks about what to say tend to say better things, but she looks kind of alluring, too. Not only that, but what you say after a few seconds of thought can seem more weighty than it would if it just came out all at once. It can be a kind of seduction.

So good luck. Your new program is this:
Think about what you want to say.
Look at the person you're talking to.
Then speak.

Dear Cary,

Approximately 10 months ago, I emerged from a three-year relationship very angry and hurt. I had finally mustered up the strength to leave this man whom I loved dearly. I was unhappy for many reasons and it seemed the longer I stayed and the more I hoped things would change, the worse things became. We were madly in love and though we hoped for a future together, we both eventually realized that we were at different points in our lives and needed different things.

I took time to heal as best I could and, on the advice of many, even dated a bit. Five months ago, I warily began seeing someone I met through a friend. I explained to this new man that I had recently ended a relationship and that I was not ready to begin a new one. He understood but urged me to see that our connection was unique and worth exploring. Since then, we have grown very close and happy. He is the most emotionally mature and sensitive man I have ever been with. He has since moved away for a job. We are maintaining a long-distance relationship, and I have plans to visit him soon.

However, I still have feelings for my ex. I think of him often, and I know he thinks of me too. We recently began talking again, and he's made no attempt to hide his feelings for me, and I am guilty of the same. We have spent nights together talking and being intimate. Obviously, we have unresolved issues and feelings. Did I not give myself enough time to heal? Should I stop communication with my ex? Should I end my current long-distance relationship? I am confused and torn. I still love my ex, and I believe that I love my current boyfriend as well. Is it possible?

Torn and Confused

Dear Torn and Confused,

I think it is certainly possible to feel love for two people at the same time, to "be in love" with both of them, but only during a period of transition. Leaving one lover for another isn't like flicking a switch; it's like walking across a bridge. While you're on the bridge, both the lovers are in your life: the one you're walking toward, and the one you're walking away from. If you turn and look back, a tear might come to your eye. But you keep walking. And when you get to the other side, your new lover and you disappear into the Marin Headlands, and when you look back toward Fort Cronkite, you can no longer see your old lover standing there, either because he's turned and walked away or because you've simply gotten too distant.

You need to weigh your options and decide which one you're walking toward. To do that, you have to get down to specifics. What were the problems with your ex? Do they still persist? Was he dishonest with you? Did he do hurtful things? What was it that made you angry?

If you're honest and you don't kid yourself, you will probably decide that it could never work out with your ex-lover. In fact, you decided that once, didn't you? That doesn't mean that being intimate with him isn't enjoyable; it just means that it's not going to work out in the long run. And being intimate with him does threaten the other relationship. So if you want your new relationship to work, you're going to have to give up the intimate pleasure you had with your old boyfriend. It will hurt to give that up, and you will miss it, but you can't have everything you want. Your new lover won't stay with you if you can't be faithful to him, will he?

By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coupling Love And Sex Sex Since You Asked