Every now and then I envy the man-slut. The boy who keeps handfuls of (potential) lovers on hand. Who convinces himself, true or not, that all these beautiful people want the same damn thing: him. Occasionally I envy the female slut, but less so, because I find her less believable. Because I cannot understand the indecipherable entity that is the male species, it easy for me to idealize the man-slut. The female slut, though, I understand. Casual sex aside, I know what keeping lots of lovers on hand is about. Multiple-orgasm random sex happens-possibly. Women can (and should, I think) have as much or as little sex as they choose. But keeping men or women on the back burner comes down to desire. Need. Want. Needing to feel wanted.
Not that men are in any way excluded from this need. How else to explain the cliched player? Or even the male serial monogamist who gets into relationship after relationship for fear of not feeling wanted? Social psychology often explains the need-to-feel-wanted phenomenon as a side effect of emotional reliance, a dimension of interpersonal dependency. Researchers tend to gauge subjects' emotional reliance by asking them to disagree or agree, on a scale, with statements such as "I think most people do not realize how easily they could hurt me" and "I would feel lost if I did not have someone special." People with high instances of emotional reliance depend more on others' opinions and attitudes in maintaining self-image and self-esteem. Women grow to define themselves through interpersonal and intimate relationships, whereas men learn to define themselves before they are capable of true intimacy.
Read: emotional reliance corresponds to needing to feel wanted. Women frequently, though not always, need to feel wanted more than men.
Feeling wanted is addictive. It distracts us from the things we would rather not notice-others' intimacy issues, our own intimacy issues, those exes who still wield power over our hearts, the guy or girl you met at the bar who took your number but never called back. It stops you from seeing those things that might have prevented you from getting involved with someone in the first place. There is no use telling yourself you should have seen it coming because there is no way you could have known.
My summer met with one of the more painful breakups I ever hope to experience. All things considered, I did fine: my friendships were equally, if not more, strong and intact than when I got into the relationship to begin with; I still had my writing and editorial projects to work on; and I finally had time to go running. But my knee-jerk reaction was to call and e-mail all the boys I'd previously blown off and ask them for drinks. Because even though my life was perfectly intact, I was lonely and miserable and running my mouth off about what an idiot my ex was. Turning into that girl I hate without knowing how or why.
Back in the day, the need to feel wanted was easily met: with marriage. But it has been decades since college, or post-college, satisfaction meant finding a spouse, and years since intimate relationships necessarily preceded sexual ones. The latter especially complicates our love and sex lives. We never know what a relationship-sexual or otherwise-means unless it is explicitly discussed. Even when it is explicitly discussed ("We can use words like boyfriend and girlfriend now, right?" or "We are not monogamous, but we are hooking up-at least until further notice"), intimacy levels are subject to difference and change. One person in a relationship may wish to spend every waking moment together while the other may thrive on some time spent alone. And while both partners may go into a relationship with mutual intentions, there is a good chance one will develop stronger feelings than the other.
A recent study found that individuals with high instances of dependency have more positive feelings about intimacy, but stronger feelings about wanting control. On the one hand, the need to feel wanted makes us gravitate toward intimacy; hence the abundance of twentysomethings who get into relationships simply for the sake of being in one. But on the other hand, needing to feel wanted means needing to feel in control. So we keep multiple lovers on hand and let some, if not all, wonder endlessly about what the hell is actually going on in our heads. We avoid intimate relationships in favor of remaining in control, do whatever it takes to feel wanted.
The flip side though, is that in doing whatever it takes to feel wanted, we get exactly what we want in return. Which is not necessarily what we think is best, or even what we think we wanted in the first place. It is easy to blame that man-slut for fucking you over, or that girl cheating on her boyfriend to be with you. But for whatever reason, that man-slut and that cheating girl met an important need. I could blame my ex-boyfriend for teasing me mercilessly instead of articulating his inhibitions about the relationship to me. But I wanted him to want me, no matter the cost. That does not necessarily mean it was healthy. It means the truth.