Remember back to your first relationships: was one person the pursuer and the other the pursued? Especially when you were experimenting with what it meant to like and then love someone, there can be imbalance in the relationship—one person is more invested in pulling the other close. This imbalance creates the experience of insecurity for the pursuer. And amid this insecurity, instead of participating equally in the creation of a relationship, one person may use the tools at their disposal in the attempt to engage their partner in emotional reciprocity.
Sex can be one of these tools.
Women and gay men: I’m talking mostly to you, although some straight men may do this too. Consciously or unconsciously, you might think, “if I’m the best sex he ever had, then I will be indispensable and the relationship will become secure” or “if sex is so hot, I know he will keep coming back for more, and this will become more serious and he won’t want anyone else.” The intensity of the desire to win over this uncommitted partner is one reason early relationships can be especially hot (in Part 1 of this series, I wrote about how relationship insecurity can add passion to a relationship).
But the thing is, sex as a tool of ensnarement rarely works. The pursued partner gets the perk of incredibly hot sex whenever he or she wants it, without having to do anything to court it. And so rather than needing to invest emotionally in the relationship, he can sit back, enjoy, and remain emotionally aloof—recent research shows that allowing oneself to be seen as an “object” rather than as a “person” eventually leads to lower levels of relationship satisfaction. In other words, when you use sex to court reciprocity, you instead guarantee exactly the outcome you’re hoping to avoid: lack of emotional investment in the partner with whom you hoped to create a deeper connection.
Not only is this strategy damaging to the relationship, it’s hurtful to yourself. This article shows that, “when people are objectified, they are denied personhood,” the authors write. Partners who see their mate as “objects” attribute to them less moral status, competence and even underestimate their mate’s ability to feel emotional pain. The objectified partner may even unintentionally take on mental characteristics that allow further objectification, becoming literally less smart the more she is objectified.
Add to objectification the difficulty of maintaining self-esteem, which is hard enough even without a partner who refuses to reciprocate emotionally. The more you work to engage him, the harder it can be to keep your self-esteem in the face of failure, if it hasn’t already been compromised—and as we’ve seen, ensnaring his emotions through sex has a high failure rate. (We’ll look at self-esteem in more depth in the next post.)
Have you seen this in a friend? You know: the one who falls into the pattern of using his or her body as a tool over and over again without the hard work ever leading to a fulfilling relationship? (Please note this is very different than the healthy experience of men and women simply enjoying sex!) It can be harder to see in yourself. So take a close look. When you were younger, did you use sex as a tool in hopes of pulling your partner emotionally closer? Do you now?
Most successful relationships are built and maintained by hard work on both parts. You and your partner invest emotionally in building the relationship and the more you both invest, the more you build. Without this emotional investment on both sides, the relationship becomes imbalanced—insecure. And unfortunately, sex as a tool to bring this relationship into balance is most often counterproductive and personally hurtful. That’s not the tool you need to get the relationship you want, whether it be in your teens, twenties or beyond.