Sex without love

When he's done with his other women he keeps crawling back to me. Why do we keep ending up together when the sex isn't even that good?

By Cary Tennis
Published April 16, 2002 7:31PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have this male friend whom I have been sporadically sleeping with for the past 11 months. I'd just come off a years-long, emotionally unfulfilling but sexually satisfying relationship and basically fell into bed with this guy on sight. A frazzled friendship has developed and now I get these pangs of deep feeling for him, but I think I'm just confusing sex for love. The problem is this: He is a whore. He woos a woman, spending a couple of weeks with her, and then does a voodoo disappearing act. When they are over, he comes crawling back to me, talking about how his penis does nothing but get him into trouble. We start drinking too much and end up in bed together again. I've seen what he does to these women and it sickens me, and the fact we keep ending up together isn't doing too much for my self-esteem either; how can I respect myself when I am sleeping with someone who, in theory, I can't even stand?

I know his M.O. because he used it on me initially. He talks about how he was abused, is very open about his ex-girlfriends, is very smart and well-read and witty. Girls tumble into his bed and then he disappears. It's classic and lame and I can not really believe that people still get away with this kind of behavior. The problem is that I think I can change him; I've been around so much longer than the other women and he always comes back to me.

I know I should just be done with him, move on, whatever. But I run into him everywhere I go. I can't make a quick run to the store without bumping into him in the aisle. (Our friends have started to get very snarky, with me being portrayed as some sort of martyr and him as some sort of randy devil. I tell them I don't really care what he does, but I am a notoriously ineffective liar.)

I wonder if I don't seek out men like this because I am looking for some sort of validation or something based on the fact that my father left my mother when I was 3 and I haven't seen him since. Do I just look for someone who will eventually disappear on me to make sure I relive the whole daddy-trauma with every man in my life? And if so, if I find and confront my real father, will I then be able to have a functional adult relationship? Or am I doomed to a life of odd relationships with men I cannot stand?

P.S. The sex isn't even that good.

Dear Isn't Very Good,

If I could just boil this down: You're doing something over and over that feels good at the time but you feel bad about it later. It bothers you that you can't control it, and it bothers you that you make rationalizations that, when your mind is clear, you know are not sound. And so you ask if you are driven to do this by some powerful event in the past that has configured you in a certain unchangeable way, and you wonder if some dramatic event could undo this programming, or if you are doomed to live in thrall to this programming forever.

I would say you need a new way of thinking.

You need a new courage to see reality the way it is. In order to see reality, you need to use your imagination. Consider this: What if it was somebody you really admire doing this; what if she was getting everything she wanted out of it and could walk away from it when it ceased to interest her? What if she recognized that her thing for this guy was perhaps a personal weakness but she turned it into a strength by achieving some detachment from it, by shrugging her shoulders and walking away? What if she came to utterly accept that this guy is a worm, that the thought of "losing him" is not only trivial but meaningless because she doesn't have him to begin with, that her friends can go fuck themselves if they don't approve and that if the drinking -- which seems to lead to these episodes -- ever gets so bad that it's truly unpleasant or dangerous she can always quit.

What if you were completely at peace with whatever you're doing? What would you do then? Would you cease to find him alluring? Or would you find yourself comfortable with the degree to which you like him and the degree to which you have contempt for him? Would you begin to pity him or want to mother him or would you just become bored with his shallow and transparent games?

What I'm saying is that you need the strength to act, but you can only find the strength to act by taking the time to discover and admit to yourself what your own personal truth is about the situation. Once you find it, it becomes a powerful tool. Once you know your own heart, you can do anything. You don't have to explain. You just act. But you have to find it yourself. I can't do that for you.

P.S. You say you think this may be all about your father, and that the sex isn't even that good. In a deep and twisted way, that makes sense: If you were having sex with your father, you wouldn't want it to be all that good.

Dear Cary,

My girlfriend and I have been together for over seven years. She has been one of the most wonderful people I have ever met. Kind, thoughtful, bright and loving, she has been immensely patient over the time of our relationship, moved 1,500 miles to be with me and has been a stellar partner and friend. I love her and will always. Of course, we had problems. Sex between us had been literally nonexistent for nearly four years, and our differences -- over politics, ways we communicate and different lives -- became more pronounced in my heart and mind when I met another woman.

My new friend, with whom I became acquainted over a common interest and shared values, brought a spark back into my life I had long forgotten. Passionate and articulate, she stirred powerful emotions that, I later learned, were shared. I loved her when we first met and still do. We fell into a relationship (she knew about my girlfriend) and, through our agreed-upon carelessness, she became pregnant.

My news of this relationship and pregnancy with my girlfriend and family was, as you might expect, painful and shocking for everyone involved. Up to that point, I had been my family's "good kid" and a seemingly solid partner. And the whole situation certainly wasn't a cakewalk for the new person, who was also dealing with physical and emotional torrents as she decided to go through with the pregnancy. I prepared to move my own life to be closer to her and to embark on a relationship with a person who was to have my child.

At some point, the forces of others, stress and emotions conspired against us and derailed the potential relationship with my new partner. She broke off things and, amid the unraveling, chose to terminate the pregnancy. She was left to deal with her emotions about that decision and I was left to pick up the pieces of my life, though I had committed to helping her through the difficulties. Through all this, despite the advice of virtually everyone who knew, my seven-year now-ex-partner stood by me, offering her support and friendship despite what I had done. Part of me knew there were other motives -- she desired a reconciliation -- but her gesture was still wonderful at a time when I felt like my world had crumbled.

Shortly after the termination, my passionate friend said she still loved me and wanted to try again. Much as I appreciate my former partner's loyalty, love and years together, I still love this new person, despite everything. There are things I am unsure about -- from her flighty personality to her occasionally out-of-control temper -- but she seems to be making inroads toward stability. I also have some insecurity that she will decide one day to push me away, as has been her pattern. Knowing that I care for her, she is now pressing harder for me to relocate to be near her.

My question is simple -- am I freaking nuts? My head tells me this new person kicked me to the curb for auspicious reasons and I should make a better go at my passionless relationship and make up with my ex-partner before she comes to her senses. My heart wants to hold on to this new love, flightiness and all. It's the eternal question, I suppose.

So spare me the yummy chai of kind advice and give me the hard facts. Karma owes me a spoonful of castor oil in that chai eventually. Why not here?

Possibly Squirrelly but Not a Chipmunk

Dear Squirrelly,

This whole thing was a disaster and you should clear out, move to another town and have a sign posted on your lawn warning others what happened in the last town you were in. And the sooner the better. Everybody acted foolishly. The woman who got pregnant and dumped you and then informed you she'd aborted the kid: Wow. That was a knifing. And your betrayed partner standing by you like Mother Mary: What's she still hanging around for? She should have gathered her tattered pride and fled. But she's still there offering "support" in the hope that you'll come back to her? You're not fabulously wealthy by any chance, are you?

Anyway, somebody has to have the guts to clear out and not come back and it might as well be you. So say bye-bye.

And in your new town with your new name and your new anonymous face, get some principles and live by them. Don't drink and listen to old Smiths songs. Avoid martyrs and harridans. And if you have sex, use a condom. Better yet, use two condoms. You evidently can't feel anything anyway.

Dear Cary,

This one may be more along the lines of emoting rather than asking for advice, but I really would like to know what you think.

I am 31, a transactional lawyer in a fairly liberal Southwestern capital city. I find that I've fallen in love with a woman who works in the same office building I do, though for a different firm (she is 34 and a securities trader).

She is everything I could ask for in a woman: intelligent, funny, ambitious, drop-dead (and I mean drop-dead) gorgeous, etc. We met through mutual friends at a New Year's day gathering, and I've been goofy for her ever since.

My last relationship was with a woman five years my junior, who was in school for the whole, rather messy three-year off-and-on affair (I was already practicing law). I came to realize that that particular relationship was based mostly, as I think I remember you putting it in one of your previous columns, "intense sexual attraction between two very incompatible people." Having had four years of a Catholic education, I continually question my motives, and after that one finally ended, I promised myself never to get involved again unless I at least saw the potential for a genuine love.

So, here I am. This one has potential for days. The problem is that she is slow-playing me like crazy -- we go out maybe once or twice a week in a good week but always have an amazing time. I haven't even kissed her yet, but she is very sexually explicit in her conversation with me, which drives me insane (i.e., she told me the other night that she'd like to perform a certain sex act with me during halftime of a football game -- and that ain't the half of it).

I've repeatedly expressed my attraction to and affection for her, and she has said she is also attracted to me and finds me sexy, but "is just not ready for something like that right now." When we met, she was in the process of bouncing a live-in ex-boyfriend who is, as far as I know, history. Despite being one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen, she is not at all promiscuous (she claims to be able to count all of her ex-lovers on the fingers of one hand), which heartens me a bit, though it doesn't lessen my frustration.

Between the time we spend together, which is great, there are long lulls in contact and communication, and I feel like I initiate everything (though it's probably closer to 70-30). I really don't want to blow this -- I can see myself with her for a long time -- but I constantly struggle with whether to push her toward a decision or to hang back and let it happen (if it ever does happen).

This woman is certainly worth the wait, but I am incredibly frustrated (to the point that I have vowed never to call her again on at least two occasions, only to break the vow within three or four days). I guess I need some assurance from her that when she does decide that she's "ready for something like that," I'll still be around and ambulatory. In the meantime, I've ceased pursuing other women, which is indicative of how head-over-heels I am for her.

So tell me, just what the hell do you think I should do?

Champ to Chump, and Back Again

Dear Champ,

If this woman is a securities trader, she's probably got more balls than you and me combined. The way you're acting, she can hardly tell you're there. You're just some spectral presence paying for steaks. So be a man. Make your goddamned move. Kiss her hard on the lips. She'll either slap you or fuck you. Either one would be an improvement.

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I have been dating for three and a half years. One year ago, he moved to Chicago to be near me. I love this guy and want to marry him, but he shies away from the question and won't even discuss moving in together. Sometimes, he says things like, "We should travel when we retire," which is confusing since I don't know if he means together or separately.

He's 28 and I'm 26 and I don't know how much longer I want to stay with this guy if he's not going to give some sign that he wants to tie the knot. He says for sure he wants to get married someday and also have children, but he's not ready to say he wants to do those things with me. What should I do?

Hopefully He'll Get Moving Soon

Dear Hopefully,

I don't see why you don't just propose to him: yes or no. But the women I've talked to find the idea alien; perhaps it would seem mocking or controlling, especially if you bought a ring. But life without cliffs to jump off of or back away from gets muddy and drab; it lacks contrast, and narrative drive. Things have to happen.

Barring a straight-out proposal of the take-me-or-leave-me variety, you could endeavor to understand what is going on in his head, and try to make your own assessment of whether he intends to marry you or not. There could be a lot of reasons he fears committing to you, and he could be resisting because he senses you're pressuring him. You might be displaying an off-putting impatience. Or he may be the child of messy divorce and failed marriages and just be wary of repeating that kind of chaos and pain. But you won't find out any of this if your questions are in the context of trying to persuade him, or trying to overcome his objections. He'll stonewall. So seek first to understand who he is, how he feels and what he really wants. And then make your own prediction: What do you really think he's going to do? Do you get the gut feeling there's no future? If so, drop him. But if you really feel he's with you in his heart, and he's the guy, then while he's buying time, you have to buy some patience.

Dear Cary,

I often get hurt and angry because I think my boyfriend is looking at other women. I'm afraid it's going to wreck our relationship. He sometimes even says he doesn't want to go out because he's afraid I'll get mad just because his glance "happens" to fall on what "happen" to be attractive women. And yeah, seeing as they're in pretty much every ad, on every billboard, etc., I understand that he can't just stare at the ground. I don't even know if he is looking, really. Of course he must be, sometimes. And I have seen it happen, for sure, sometimes. That's what they're there for, after all. Just thinking of all of the images I see of women everywhere, sexy, often barely clad, in perfect lighting, and all done up for the cameras, I feel actual, physical pain. I'm so pissed at not being able to go out on a date with my boyfriend feeling able to relax, feeling like he wants me, only me, that I am the one he wants to look at for the whole of Just One Night.

I might be more sensitive than most women (but then again, maybe it's just that I'm worse at hiding how I feel). But is it really unreasonable to feel the way I do? I don't know if you, being a man, are the best person to ask. Men don't have to watch their dates gazing appreciatively at other men all scantily clad and gorgeous on every poster. Men don't have to compete with all that billions and billions of dollars can buy. And because you're a man, I don't know what, if anything, of any real help you can say to me about how it feels (or "should" or "should not" feel) and how I can (or should or should not) deal with it. I don't know if I can trust you to give me a sincere, human answer to something that is generally derided but is real pain.

I'm unable to keep from wondering how often my boyfriend wishes he could touch this one's breasts, find his way between that one's thighs. Worse than that, I wonder how often he is truly enchanted by the sight of one of these women.

And I'm an attractive person to begin with. But that doesn't matter. How can any woman truly feel good about how she looks, given all of this? How many women feel like I do but don't want to admit it? Am I the only one ending up feeling miserable and crazy jealous over it all?

(And I'm sorry, but simple admonitions to believe that those images don't matter won't work.)


Dear Jealous,

If you care about political justice for women, you have to look at the big picture. If your outrage is truly about equality, and this irritation with your boyfriend's habit is just a symbol of that, then it is your duty to work toward tangible progress in the area of women's rights and well-being. If you do not accept the challenge, if you do not turn your anger into something of use to others, then your complaint is nothing but childish petulance, isolated and impotent, worthy of no more respect than the arrogant demands of a Fifth Avenue matron. If you do not put it to good use, you will grow into a small, unhappy person.

It will take some work and some compromise, because politics is the art of the possible. But your only honorable option, if you feel this strongly, is to attack the culture and its symbols in a principled way.

And don't attack your boyfriend. There's no point in that. Instead, attack models -- billboards of models that is, not actual models. Actual models will scratch you.

Cary Tennis

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