Your post about emotional prudery really hit home with me.
Quick intro summary: I’m worried that due to my promiscuity (as a guy) over the past several years, I’ve stunted my ability to truly, deeply care for somebody.
A quick background: I’ve always been pretty good with women, and in college I slept with more than most guys (9 girls, and hooked up with many more), but I wasn’t completely at the level of man-whore yet. I was always fairly detached, and while I kept some girls around for a few months, it was only as a booty call, and I had really no emotional investment whatsoever.
I still had a romantic side though, and I ended up falling head over heels for the last girl I was sleeping with in college. Having never experienced this before, I acted like a needy little boy, and after a couple months she ditched me. I was pretty crushed to say the least. I hooked up with a few more girls before I graduated, but nothing at all serious.
Just after graduation, I met a girl who I started sleeping with. She was funny, snarky, and a ton of fun to go out with. I pretty quickly fell for her, ignoring blaring warning signs (flakiness, extreme mood swings, fighting with other girls a lot) that my friends pointed out, probably because I was so desperate to rediscover that emotion I had before. Long story short, she went back for her masters that fall. We weren’t together per se, so I slept with some other women, but I was still extremely into her and we’d talk every day. I assumed (and we talked about) us dating for real when she moved back to NYC after her masters. Then I found out that she’d been with a boyfriend the whole time we’d been hooking up, and had spun a web of lies to a truly impressive (I’m awed by it today) degree. I spent the next 18 months or so sleeping with more women than I had in all of college. My count now is around 23-24 (can’t remember exactly).
Some of the girls I kept around for a bit as hookups, others were ONS whose names I didn’t know. However, there was no emotional involvement at all. About 10 months ago, I had finally gotten sick of this, and decided I was actually going to look for a girlfriend. After 4 months or so of dating, I found one, who I’m dating now.
Let me set something straight first: I love being with this girl. I’m really happy when I’m around her, we have fun together, she’s kind, thoughtful, reliable, smart, and hot. I’m physically attracted to her, and I enjoy seeing her and miss her when she’s not around. My friends all love her and think I’ve gotten very lucky. However, I just don’t feel the absolute head-over-heels feeling I had with the other girl. It’s just not there, and as much as I try and convince myself it should be, it isn’t.
I’ve tried to convince myself it’s because she’s not intellectually curious enough (she’s very smart, she works in trading at a bank but it’s just work for her and she doesn’t really read or investigate other things, which I do all the time) or that she’s too submissive, but it can’t be just that. I’m worried that my emotional shutdown for the 2 years prior, and my sleeping with all these women who were honestly not much more than warm bodies has emotionally stunted me and prevented me from falling for her.
Also, while the sex is good, I find myself increasingly comparing it some of the wild and varied sex I had when I was single. Even though she’s hot, I find myself comparing her physically to some of the other hot girls I slept with while single, not even because they’re hotter, but because they’re DIFFERENT.
Now, I’ve shared these feelings with a couple friends who’ve been in a few LTRs (this is my first of any significance). I’ve been advised that this happens when the honeymoon phase wears off. Things can get boring, routine can set in. I’m trying to fight it, and I know she is too. She’s asking to borrow books I read so she can get up to speed on some topics I’m into, and while I hugely appreciate that and find it endearing, it rings false to me, as I want to be with someone who’s passionate about the same things. I feel like I never had the true honeymoon phase of being head over heels. It was more like I was really into her, and I was hoping that would come, and it hasn’t.
I know I’d be less happy without her than with her, and the thought of breaking up with her makes me sad, but recently a few of my guy friends have become single, and I’m starting to miss the thrill of the chase and the chance to get something strange. Maybe I was wrong, and I wasn’t ready for a relationship. I started dating her because I really liked her, and was waiting for what you might call “love” to come, and it’s been 7 months and it just hasn’t. Now I know it’s possible that despite how great she is, she’s just not for me, but I’m really worried that my emotional prudery for 2 years and my sexual promiscuity has had the dual effect of rendering love quite hard for me and of making me too hard to please sexually.
Your letter raises some interesting questions about the way humans experience emotions relating to sex and love. The most important one is whether promiscuity has a long-term, negative effect on one’s ability to fall in love. I don’t think it does have a causal effect, though there is a correlation between past promiscuity and compromised relationship quality. I waded into the research on this one and found it extremely informative, so at the risk of seeming pedantic, I’ll summarize it here.
Helen Fisher is the foremost authority on the chemistry of the brain in love. Her work focuses on the three distinct emotional mating strategies that comprise human mating. They are Lust, Romantic Love, and Attachment. These strategies evolved separately to achieve different goals, and they are not mutually exclusive, but act independently of one another. Fisher says that one person can experience all three simultaneously with different people in mind – she describes it as a “committee meeting in your head.” Obviously, humans can feel sexual desire for individuals for whom they feel no romantic attraction or emotional attachment. We are also capable of falling in love with a person other than someone to whom we are attached, though we are not capable of being in love with more than one person at a time.
|Lust||Sex drive||Motivates seeking of sexual union|
Craving for emotional union
|Facilitate mate choice|
Promotes positive social behavior
Looking at your history, a few things seem pretty clear:
- Of the women you hooked up with in college, only one inspired feelings of romantic love in you. The rest obviously excited your sex drive, but were contained within the single mating strategy of lust.
- You had strong feelings of attraction, or romantic love, for one woman your senior year. It should be noted that the emotional state of “being in love” is not necessarily positive. It may reflect anxiety as well as calm, despair as well as joy.
- The snarky, lying cad chick clearly met the criteria for romantic love as well, though she was obviously a poor choice, which is very clear in retrospect.
In short, I see nothing here that would impede your ability to fall in love if the right woman came along. In your current relationship, you made a clear decision to seek a girlfriend, and found her in four months. The odds of finding “the one” in that time period seem remote, though it’s obviously possible. Clearly, you feel lust for her, and you also like and respect her. However, the characteristics of romantic love are conspicuously absent from your description of your relationship, which you acknowledge in saying that the feeling “is just not there.” I don’t think this has anything to do with your sexual history – I think you simply did not fall in love with this particular woman.
While I do think it’s possible to will oneself into an emotionally unavailable state, you don’t appear to have done that. You are very emotionally available, in fact – you crave the emotional union of attachment, but there is no love object with whom to experience it. It’s therefore not the least bit surprising that you would feel sexual desire for other women, or just a general urge to get access to variety. If you were in love, you would be pouring your energy and focus into creating the emotional union you craved, and in that state of limerence you’d be far less likely to feel the itch to be with someone else.
The economist Robert Frank has suggested that emotions serve the purpose of sustaining commitments that require forfeiting immediate rewards.
When one experiences feelings of love for a romantic partner, for example, the immediate positive reward the emotion produces counteracts the pull of desire for an attractive other… In doing so, emotions help us to stick with strategies that lead to rewards in the long run despite the fact that they often necessitate forgoing smaller immediate gains. For example, if one were drawn away from every possible romantic commitment by the prospect of finding a still more attractive mate, one could never reap the fitness benefits of long-term mateship, including cooperative child rearing (Hurtado & Hill, 1992; Marlowe, 2003; Pillsworth & Haselton, 2005) and assurance of mutual care in times of dire need (e.g., Nesse, 2001).
I don’t think we can say why we fall in love with some people and not others, nor can we talk ourselves into that heightened emotional state by breaking the relationship down into specific behaviors, and try as she might, I don’t think your girlfriend’s reading list is going to create that rare magic for you.
However, there’s another risk associated with male promiscuity. It’s generally not an issue for men who are wired strictly for short-term mating. In this culture, though, plenty of guys have lots of casual sex while young, fully intending to settle down later, marry and have a family. They may find the transition to monogamy especially difficult.
The more women a man has had sex with, the lower the odds that he can be sexually gratified by one woman. Ever.
I. You’re likely to experience a more dramatic drop in your physical attraction to a woman after having sex with her.
Males get a huge dopamine rush upon “getting it in,” and that fades once orgasm has occurred. In general, men find their partners less attractive after sex, while women find their partners more attractive.
Evolutionary psychologist Martie Haselton explains that high-count men lose even more attraction for their mate after sex:
For men who pursue a short-term mating strategy, first-time sex signals both that a goal has been achieved and that there is a possibility of becoming entangled in an unwanted long-term relationship. After first-time sex, the feelings men and women experience do indeed differ. Women more than men experience a positive affective shift toward increased feelings of commitment for their partners (Haselton & Buss, 2001), whereas, men who have had many sex partners (defined as 6+), (and therefore successfully pursue a short-term strategy) experience [an especially] negative affective shift marked by a drop-off in physical attraction to their partners (Haselton & Buss, 2001). These effects are hypothesized to prompt behaviors to secure investment (for women) or to extricate oneself from a potential romantic entanglement (for short-term oriented men).
II. Marital sexual satisfaction declines more than 5% for every partner a man has been with other than his spouse.
As far as I know, there has only been one study that looked at partner count and sexual satisfaction, which I first referenced in the post Manwhores: For Casual Sex Only. The study measured the effect of promiscuity on later degrees of marital sexual satisfaction. The sample was national and random, from the National Health and Social Life Survey. It included 313 married men and women, aged 18-40, all with their first spouse.
88% of males and 85% of females indicated that they were “very satisfied” with their marital sex life. However, results indicate that for every additional premarital sexual partner an individual has, not including the marital sexual partner, the likelihood that they will say their current marital sexual relationship is extremely satisfying versus only being moderately satisfying goes down 3.9%.
When running models separately for males and females, the male model was more significant at 5.3%. This means that a man with a number of 10 before marriage is 53% less likely to be describe himself as extremely satisfied in marriage. By implication, all men with 20 previous partners will feel moderately sexually satisfied in marriage at best.
Women’s partner count had a lesser effect, with the likelihood of being extremely satisfied decreasing 4.6% for each partner. The females’ result did not meet the criteria for statistical significance, while the males’ did. From the study:
This may be due to the evolutionary biological theory that males tend to be more invested in or notice more the physical aspects of the sexual relationship, while women tend to be more invested in or notice more the emotional aspects of the sexual relationship (Buunk, Angleitner, & Buss, 1996). Due to this difference, premarital sexual promiscuity may not influence females as much because the past emotional connections are no longer salient and the focus is on meeting the needs of the current relationship.
Further, women tend to be aroused more and are more likely than men to report attraction increasing in long-term relationships, indicating that having previous sexual experiences may in fact lower the overall comparison levels and comparison level for alternatives for women in a marital sexual relationship (Knoth, Boyd, & Singer, 1988).
When people are faced with having to choose one option out of many desirable choices, they will begin to consider hypothetical trade-offs. Their options are evaluated in terms of missed opportunities instead of the opportunity’s potential. …One of the downsides of making trade-offs is it alters how we feel about the decisions we face; afterwards, it affects the level of satisfaction we experience from our decision.
A majority of college men still judge their female colleagues more harshly than they do fellow male classmates for the same sexual behavior: 63% of men say they lose respect for women who hook up frequently, and only 41% say they feel the same way about men who engage in the same behavior. But the majority of women hold a reverse double standard, assessing men’s casual sexual behavior more harshly then other women’s. More than 70% say they lose respect for men who engage in casual sex, while less than 60% lose respect for other women.
Given that a minority of students engages regularly in casual sex, this is not surprising. Of course, there may be an element of “sour grapes” or disappointment reflected in these numbers. Whatever the reason, it suggests that women who have previously not engaged in much casual sex may disqualify men with a promiscuous past.
Here’s my advice, assuming you still wish to fall in love:
First, while it’s possible that you will fall in love with your girlfriend in the future, I believe it’s extremely unlikely. It sounds like she may have some sense of this already, but if not you owe it to her to tell her the truth about your feelings. If she’s also approaching her mid-20s, she deserves to make an informed choice about dating a man she will almost certainly not marry. I also believe you owe it to yourself to see who else is out there. You have little incentive to maintain a committed relationship to a woman you’re not head over heels for.
Second, while I can find nothing that suggests you are less likely to fall in love because of your history, it sounds to me like you could benefit from an emotional detox. The last couple of years sound like an emotional roller coaster with some high moments of drama. I would recommend getting back to a state of emotional equilibrium. That means no emotional prudery, i.e., casual sex, and no emotional promiscuity, i.e., jumping into a relationship when you’re not totally feeling it. There’s a significant opportunity cost to pursuing a short-term mating strategy when your goal is long-term mating.
Third, I don’t know if the long-term sexual satisfaction issue can be addressed or remedied, but I do have one idea. I know that when young men develop erectile dysfunction from watching porn, it’s because their brains have linked arousal to specific images, and they lose the ability to become aroused without the presence of that stimuli. The “cure” is to swear off porn completely to rid the brain of the association, and this is generally successful.
Perhaps it can work this way with sexual variety as well. If you can break the habit of casual sex, you may be able to rid yourself of the preoccupation with previous sexual experiences. This may also mitigate any dropoff in attraction you feel toward a woman you do have feelings for. I think this would amount to hitting the reset button on the dopamine reward system, which would be helpful if it’s possible.
Of course, there are no guarantees, and none of this applies if you want to get back to the chase and the novelty of new partners. You’ve got a choice to make – at least now it will be an informed one.
In closing, I will share a quote from Helen Fisher’s TED talk:
I don’t think we’re an animal that was built to be happy. We’re an animal that was built to reproduce. I think the happiness we find, we make, and I believe we can make good relationships with each other.
Readers, what do you think?