By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a 32-year-old guy, and I want a real relationship. I am good-looking and charming and can get girls into bed pretty early on, but I’m beginning to wonder whether that’s hurting me. I think I end up starting relationships based on sex instead of common interests, personality, etc. Does it pay to hold off on sex, and if so, how long?—Wanting It Real
A: There are some wonderful committed relationships that started off with, “I want to spend the rest of my boner with you!”
The reality is, those lovebirds probably got lucky (in getting it on with someone they happened to be compatible with). When you have sex right away, you’re prone to getting into a hormone haze—a sort of sex fog—that ends up blurring just about everything but the bed (and maybe the kitchen table, three or four times).
Though people are increasingly getting into relationships through hookups (“sex first/date later”), relationship researcher Dean Busby and his colleagues find that waiting to have sex seems to keep “feels so right!” from killing your ability to see whether it actually is. In their research, dating for at least a month before having sex was associated with higher relationship stability and satisfaction, better sex and better communication.
Again, this isn’t to say that people who have sex on—or even before—the first date won’t have satisfying relationships. But as the researchers put it, “the rewards of sexual involvement early on may undermine other aspects of relationship development and evaluation”—for example, keeping partners from putting as much energy into “crucial couple processes” like hammering out communication. It can also prolong relationships that ultimately don’t work when both people are dressed and standing up.
You don’t have to set your sex clock according to the research: “Oh, look at the time—week four and a half; better get it on!” The point is to wait until you see whether you really like a person and click with them in all the essential ways. Six months into a relationship, if you grab your partner and kiss them as if the world were ending, it should be because you love them that deeply, not because it’s the best way to get them to shut up that doesn’t involve jail time.
Q: I’m a man in my 50s. I recently started seeing this fantastic lady. She’s my ideal woman except for one small thing: There is no sexual chemistry. However, I don’t plan on having more kids. Also, my body’s slowing down, and sex just isn’t at the top of my list anymore. I’m looking for my true best friend and partner. Still, without any real chemistry, is this relationship doomed?—Seeking
A: OK, so you feel sex isn’t all that important to you now. Good to know … but not quite the same as donating a treasured artifact to the natural history museum—with a plaque: “Harpoon for display purposes only.”
Your best friend whom you aren’t attracted to and don’t have sex with is—wait for it—your best friend. Sure, a relationship is a best friendship, but it’s more. The sexual part of it—sharing your body—makes for a deeper level of intimacy than, say, “Want a bite of my Reuben?”
Unlike checkers or “Words with Friends,” sex isn’t just an activity. It’s an activity that causes biochemical reactions—like a surge of the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. Though the research on these is in its infancy in humans, they seem to act as a form of emotional glue in some mammals that have been studied—in the wake of sex, causing little rodent-y things called prairie voles to velcro themselves to that special someone.
As for this woman you’ve been seeing, think about how it must feel, right from the start, to have you about as sexually interested in her as you are in one of her end tables. Also consider that being in what sociologist Denise Donnelly calls an “involuntarily celibate relationship”—wanting to have “shared erotic pleasure” (of some kind) but having a partner who refuses—is extremely corrosive. Beyond leading to affairs in 26 percent of those surveyed, it led (predictably!) to sexual frustration (79 percent), feelings of rejection (23 percent) and depression (34 percent). But, whatever, right? I mean, BFFs forever!
The thing is (assuming she isn’t madly in love with you), if you two admit that the spark simply isn’t there, you can still spend your lives together—just not in the same bed. Better to celebrate your best-friendiversary than mourn on your anniversary—that you still want your partner just as much as you used to, which is to say not in the slightest.