Q: I’ve been flirting with two guys all year. I feel a connection and chemistry with both, but neither has asked me out yet. This weekend, I’m attending a going-away party for a grad student we all know, and I’m nervous that they’ll both show up and ask me out. (There’s also a third guy who seems interested.) What should I do? I wouldn’t want to be one of somebody’s many options.—Feeling Unfair
A: The first few dates are the free trial period of romantic relationships. Think of it as accepting a sample of lox spread at Costco: you’re seeing how you like it; you aren’t committing to buy a salmon hatchery.
It sounds like you instead see a date as a Wile E. Coyote–style trapdoor dropping you into a relationship. You and the guy have sex for the first time, and assuming he doesn’t fake his death afterward or ditch a burner phone he’s been texting you from, you two become a thing—right on track to sign up for those cute side-by-side burial plots. The problem is, this is like getting into a relationship with the first stranger who sits down on the bus next to you. You’re skipping an essential step—the “see who the guy is and decide” part. Even if the guy isn’t just some Tinder rando—and even when you’ve known him for a while—you need to see who he is as a boyfriend and how you work as a couple.
Also, making matters worse, if you’re like many women, sex can act as a sort of snuff film for your objectivity, leading you to feel emotionally attached to the man you’ve just slept with. Psychologists Cindy Meston and David Buss speculate that this may come out of the orgasm-driven release of oxytocin, a hormone that has been associated with emotional bonding. (In men, testosterone goes all nightclub bouncer, blocking oxytocin so it can’t get to its receptor.)
To keep sex from drugging away your objectivity, try something: unsexy broad-daylight dates with various guys for just a few hours each. Yes, various guys. It’s not only OK to date more than one guy initially, it’s ideal. (A man with rivals is a man who has to try harder.) Meanwhile, your having options should curb any tendency you might have to go all needypants on a guy who, say, doesn’t text you right back—even if his competition’s texts are more preventive distraction than romantic ideal: “What are u wearing? Also, are u good w/Excel?” Or “I know u like fashion. Here’s my penis in a beret.”
Q: I’m a 35-year-old guy who’s been texting with this girl. She got out of a seven-month relationship two months ago and is still kind of emotional about it. We’ll make plans to go out, but she always cancels at the last minute, claiming that she’s “still a mess” and adding, “Hope you understand!” Should I just keep texting with her and see where things lead?—Limbo
A: Think about the guys women get stuck on—those they can’t get to text them back, not those who put out lighted signs visible from space: “iPhone’s always on! Call 24/7! Pick me! Yaaay! Over here!” Consider FOMO—the “fear of missing out”—or, in scientist-speak, the “scarcity principle.” That’s psychologist Robert Cialdini’s term for how the less available something is the more valuable (and desirable) we perceive it to be. This is not because it actually becomes more valuable but because scarcity triggers a motivational state—a state of “grab it or lose it!” Contrast that with how available you are — to a woman who doesn’t seem ready for a relationship but is up for the emotional perks that come with it. So she sucks up the consoling texted attention she gets from you but ducks out of any in-person get-together that could eventually lead to your trying to, well, console her with your penis.
Consider shutting off the therapy spigot and making yourself scarce until she’s ready to date. Tell her you want to take a timeout from texting and give her a little time to heal ’n’ deal and then go on a date. Pick a night—about a month from now—and ask her to put it on her calendar, explaining that it’s fine if she needs to reschedule if she still doesn’t feel ready. Putting it on the calendar makes it tangible—but putting it in the future, with an option to push it forward, takes the pressure off. And your disappearing for a while is probably your best shot at shifting your, um, zoological category—to potential “animal in bed” from emotional support animal in the Hello Kitty diaper for the plane.