Is there a secret to keeping things from getting "complicated"?

"Do you think he's ever going to call?" Grace asked her therapist.

“He” was Jeremy, a man with whom Grace had gone out several times before spending the night with him.

Any number of biological, psychological, sociological, brain-based, and evolutionary factors may, and probably do, play a part in why Jeremy isn’t replying to Grace’s texts. Mating behaviors vary widely in the animal kingdom, from lifelong coupling to the single-shot-thanks-a-lot reproductive technique, which some biologists call “hit-and-run” (Dewsbury, 1986), to casual hookups seen in humans and some other species. Therapists often hear the pained complaint from patients that a promising new potential partner suddenly disappeared “just as we were starting to get close.”

Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D. Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D. is a community psychologist and psychoanalyst, founding partner of The Community Consulting Group, and a supervisor of psychotherapy at the William Alanson White Institute. He has written extensively about the intersection of psychoanalysis and community crisis intervention. He is in private practice in New York City. Grant H. Brenner, MD is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice, specializing in treating mood and anxiety disorders and the complex problems which may arise in adulthood from developmental childhood trauma

Editor: Muhammad Talha

"What’s the formula?” Grace continued. "How many dates, going out with friends, meeting family, or just plain having coffee together is the right number of times, so that when we actually sleep together, it doesn’t spoil everything?”

"Ah. You mean what’s the secret to passing the sex test?” her therapist asked.

"I’ve noticed this before,” Grace continued. “Immediately after the first time, I can tell if he’s in or out. After the drama of sex is over, where his head is shows. But when I sleep with somebody, it’s because I’m really getting excited—not just about the sex, but about the guy. And I’m not the only one I know who feels that way. I have girlfriends who say the same. On the other hand, guys so often seem to think they have to play it cool no matter what. So, they don’t often tip their hand like that, a least not around girls.”

For many of us, sex is approached as the most important make-or-break factor in a relationship: If the sex doesn’t work from the beginning, we walk away without examining what attracted us in the first place, and considering that this is part of what goes into building intimacy. Instead, if the sex is a washout the first time, we assume that, no matter what else may be the cause, the relationship is going nowhere.

“I think you’ve nailed a big problem that a lot of people run into,“ Dr. N. told her. "Adding sex to a new relationship is risky and gets complicated fast. In some cases, it’s a natural add-on to the bond already being created. But in others, it’s too much too soon. Of course, some people claim they’re able to enjoy sex without any thought of intimacy. But that doesn’t sound like you.”

“No. I knew where my head was. When Jeremy and I slept together, I was nervous, but I was also excited that he wanted to take this leap with me. Now, of course, all I can think of is that I goofed one way or another: Either he wasn’t really into me, or it was too early to tell.”

What happens when the excitement of sex that actually “works” gets mixed in with the rest of our baggage—especially our “intimacy” baggage? For many of us, the prospect of getting what we think we want—mutual emotional investment and vulnerability—scares the daylights out of us. So we head for the hills, telling ourselves that “he’s too ‘this’” or “she’s too ‘that’"—all in the name of protecting ourselves from the possibility that something real might happen between us.

Dr N. commented, “It looks like your guy failed the sex test, or maybe both of you did. But you might be deliberately choosing guys who you somehow sense aren’t the kind of guys likely to stick around.”

"Oh. That again,” Grace said. "You keep bringing that up one way or another: The idea that I’m not nearly as interested in having a real boyfriend as I tell myself I am. The sex thing is just a way of keeping things the way that, down deep, I really want them.”

Dr N. grinned. “Yeah, that again, but dressed a little differently: Making contact so that afterward you can make sure that you avoid any further contact. Do you think that may be what you’re doing even though part of you doesn’t want to even think about it?”

Grace smiled and reached for her coat. “I think we’re out of time for today.”