When I counsel women and give workshops and talks about women and love, one of the top questions is, “When should I have sex in a new relationship?” I usually ask the women in the group to give their advice, and their suggestions range from “whenever you feel like it” to “when he says ‘I love you’—and acts like it!” So, how do you know which end of the continuum of answers is wisest?
Your mind is probably jammed with too many of the “should” and “should not” cultural messages for women about sex. The issue is not small or insignificant. I’ve counseled thousands of women who have struggled with regrets and confusion about sex so powerful that they became depressed, anxious, confused, and susceptible to making serious love mistakes.
In my research about the love issues of today’s women, I learned a lot about what kinds of relationship patterns and love decisions cause the most and least emotional pain, disappointment, and uncertanty. I don’t have one simple answer, but I can give you tips and success stories from the more than 1,000 women in my study for my book about their missteps in love. I write about things that upset and concern me. And I am very concerned about the relationship behaviors of today’s women. Here are some suggestions that came directly from the women brave enough to tell me their stories.
1. Don’t use sex to “seal the deal.” The emotional glue from sex too soon is usually not strong enough to hold your man. For example, some of the women in my study were so thrilled that they had attracted the triple crown of dating—handsome, rich, and available—that they rushed sex and made sure the man had, well, let’s call it a memorable experience. Be wary of your own level of enthusiasm. Do you want to use one of the oldest ploys in the world and have sex in the hope that it will land you the man? Or, are you one of life’s devil-may-care rebels who do now and think later?
During sexual activities, dopamine levels in your brain increase. And so do your feelings of attachment to the man. You might think, “This is the right one for me.” You might be right. But your brain has also released oxytocin, the hormone that boosts the attachment of mothers to newborns. A hurried choice to have sex could leave you feeling close to someone you don’t know, like or respect. Do you really want to yearn for a man whom you were unable to assess when you were in your right mind?
Don’t volunteer to set yourself up for emotional hurts. Instead, take your time to get to know the man first. And that means making sure you don’t go back to one of your places under the spell that you are in charge of the situation. Just this act of tempting fate is proof enough of your high levels of loneliness, desperation, and hope.
2. Protect you by maintaining your values, and taking charge of the union of both your thoughts and feelings. As you can see, I am an advocate of postponing sex. But why? Wasn’t the women’s movement supposed to free you to do what you want with your body and feelings? You probably have developed some personal values that guide your behavior. Over the years, it’s likely that some of your values have changed—which is normal since you learn from the trial and errors of your experiences, both happy and sad, and from your family, mentors, religion, and views about love and you.
Some of topics you’ve likely had to address are about you, your body, sex, and your feelings. You’ve had to grapple with questions such as: Should I have sex before marriage?
(Yes, people still do struggle with this question.) Is it okay to have sex on the first date—or even before? If I feel sexual, what’s wrong or right about acting on those feelings? These are the kind of questions you should be asking you. Don’t play games with yourself by falling for the belief that “if you feel it, do it.” Oh the other hand, feelings are not necessarily a truer test than thinking of wise decisions. You need to develop an internal dialogue between your head and your heart. It’s too easy to justify your sexual behavior and convince yourself that you are doing the right thing or that the man is a good match for you. Sex creates blind-spots, and you could overlook signs that allow you to minimize his insensitivity or immaturity.
The more you let tangled thoughts and powerful feelings overwhelm your actions regarding when to have sex, the less respect and trust you will have in you! Don’t put your self-esteem in jeopardy. Sex too soon will not fill “hole in the soul” feeling of being unlovable. You are especially vulnerable to allowing the neuro-chemical highs of sexual pleasure and attachment to carry you away if you have been lonely, just broken up, or have a history of childhood abuse, parental arguments and divorce.
In my workshops, I talk a lot about practicing regret management ahead of time. Ask yourself these questions: How much will I kick myself in the morning—if there even is a morning? How much do I want my needs for love to run my decisions and life?
Slow down so you can take care of you.
3. Exercise smart dating practices. Save romantic dates until there is romance. You can’t manufacture it with candlelight and wine. The women in my study discovered that hanging out with his or your friends and making dates casual taught them about the man. The women were able to observe how their dates interacted with friends and managed the flow of conversation.
His emotional comfort with his friends, and the possible discomfort of being with your friends might reveal a side of him that would take longer to know. Ask yourself: How much does he talk about himself? Does he listen? Is he kind to the wait staff? What do his friends teach you about him? What are you learning about him from his interactions with your friends?
In your private dates with him, learn about his values, life style, likes and dislikes, and what he’s learned from his family and previous love relationships.
Staying mindful of your dates and decisions may not guarantee that you will make a smart choice in men, but it will help you increase your trust in your judgment and build self-esteem by maintaining your values and taking charge of the mix of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. I hope these tips are helpful. And, please don’t waste your time or your self-esteem beating yourself up emotionally if you mess up. We all make love mistakes. A better strategy is learn why it happened.