My dating life followed a very specific pattern in my early 20s. I’d meet a guy, we’d go out, have a good time, go out a second time, a third, and then I’d get the line. “I’m not interested in a serious relationship,” he’d say. “I’m just looking for something casual.”
But that’s not what I’d hear. The personal translator who used to reside in my brain would listen to those words, and then rejigger them to fit what I wanted to hear: I know I’m saying I just want to hook up at the moment, but if you stick around long enough, I’ll realize that you’re perfect for me — and we’ll live happily ever after, just like in all those romantic comedies your mother loves. So, baby Maria would stick around, expecting a deeper connection to form, only to be left crushed a month later when (surprise!) the guy still only wanted to have sex.
It was like I was on a hamster wheel. I’d repeat the same pattern, hear some form of the same line, over and over again. And yet I’d still willingly fall into flings with these guys. After about a half-dozen such romances, I’d finally had enough. “People who just want casual sex are so selfish!” I cried to my friends over cocktails one night. Their heads bobbed in agreement. They, too, had been dealing with paramours on the prowl for no-strings sex. And frankly, we were sick of it. But, ever the optimist, I continued to date, wary of guys who would tell me they just wanted casual sex right off the bat.
One Friday night, I’d double-booked myself on two dates. I was meant to have early drinks with bachelor number one, followed by a casual cocktails-and-appetizers date with bachelor number two. When I got to the bar to meet my first date, I spotted a really attractive, broody guy in the corner, scribbling in a notebook. My date turned out to be a total dud, but writer guy and I kept making eyes. After just one drink, I told the dude I was with that I had to go, put him in a cab, and then sent off a text to my second date, faking a headache. I marched back into the bar, sat down next to writer guy, and ordered myself a drink.
It was my first experience with casual sex like that — and I was surprised by how into it I was.
His name was Will*, and he was a theater actor with a side hustle as a carpenter, and a slight Texan drawl. He was taking notes for a play he was writing. We immediately bonded over our love of cheap beer, theater, and Johnny Cash. For the next five hours, the booze flowed; we moved to another bar, split a plate of nachos, and then drunkenly fell into a cab together back to my apartment. It was my first experience with casual sex like that — and I was surprised by how into it I was.
After my usual pattern had failed to land me a rom-com boyfriend, I’d decided to go in the opposite direction by taking a dating hiatus. I liked Will, but there was a lot about him that I didn’t want in a relationship. We continued to see one another, but we were explicit about keeping things casual. After trying our hand at a “real” date, Will and I realized our sizzle was at its highest within the four walls of my apartment. So we laid down some ground rules: we were allowed to date other people, so long as we were honest about it. And while we’d go out to shows and bars together, we agreed that we'd hang just as friends. Until we got back to my place, of course.
But I still had so much fun with him. He'd come by on a Friday night, and we’d order Chinese food and watch old episodes of The Sopranos. He’d sing me Johnny Cash songs in a thick southern accent. He hung all of the shelves in my apartment, cooked me chicken and dumplings from scratch, and, real talk, was some of the best sex I’ve ever had.
But, all good things come to an end. One day, Will told me that he’d met someone he was interested in pursuing seriously, but that he’d end things with her if I wanted to take our relationship to the next level. As much as I liked Will, I knew that there were a lot of ways in which we’d never work as a couple. The passion that made our sex so good also meant we bickered regularly. We got on each other’s nerves a lot; he drank all of my expensive scotch, and I hated the fact that he was a smoker. So, I encouraged him to go after the other girl. We had one more night together and then we parted ways.
By projecting my own desires onto our situation rather than hearing and respecting what they had told me at the start, I was setting myself up for heartbreak.
I was a little bummed, because I really enjoyed the arrangement that Will and I had set up. But it also opened my eyes to one pretty amazing fact: Casual sex can be a lot of fun if both parties are on board. Will knew that I was never going to change my mind when it came to a relationship with him, so he gracefully exited the situation instead of trying to change it. He didn’t tell me I was a bad person or that I was selfish. He knew casual sex was all that I could give at the moment, and when he started wanting something more, he walked away.
Being on that side of the situation made me realize the tragic mistake I’d been making with men when I was younger. They’d told me exactly what they wanted in a relationship — to not be in one, basically — and they stuck to their guns. By projecting my own desires onto our situation rather than hearing and respecting what they had told me at the start, I was setting myself up for heartbreak. Every time. The problem wasn’t casual sex, or the fact that it’s what they wanted. The problem was me, and denial (and maybe rom-coms).
There will absolutely be people in the game who won’t tell you that’s what they’re looking for, mislead and disappoint you, or who will say they want one thing when they actually want something else. But, like Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” If someone you're interested in says they just want casual sex, believe them.
So, no — Will and I didn’t eventually fall in love. But we did start sleeping together casually again when we're both single, and he’s actually become a great friend. Now I know I can reach out to him when I need something, be it help spackling a hole in the wall or an orgasm. Will showed me who he was from the beginning — a funny guy I felt comfortable with who made delicious chicken and dumplings. And lucky for me, I believed him.
*Name has been changed.
After being raised on a steady diet of Disney movies, I expected to meet someone and fall passionately in love — but wound up collapsing under the pressures of modern dating. Luckily, I eventually realized that there's no "right" way to date, and that I need to find happiness within myself, no partner needed. It’s Not You is where I write to calm the voices in my head — and hear from all of you. Follow me on Twitter, on Instagram, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.