Play The Long Game

When it comes to creating a sexual connection with someone, one of the most useful things you can do is play the long game.

That means that rather than only focusing on what can happen tonight or right now, you lay the foundation for the future. Of course, there’s still plenty of possibility for a hook-up or a one-night thing or having sex on the first date, if that’s what you both want. But even in those situations, playing the long game means creating opportunity for a future connection with that person.

Here’s an example from my personal life. A couple of years ago, I met Sarah at a party. It was clear that we had a mutual attraction and we had a lovey time flirting with each other. By the end of the night, we exchanged phone numbers and I figured that we’d get together sometime soon for dinner or a drink and see where things would go.

It turned out that that wasn’t going to work out quite like that. Sarah was in an open relationship and her partner was totally fine with what had happened, but they were going through some stuff and it wasn’t a good time to add any new variables to the mix. So when Sarah explained that to me, I told her that I completely understood, having been in a similar situation with my partner, and that I’d still really enjoy getting together another time.

When we had dinner, we had a lovely evening. Sarah and I had a lot to talk about and we kept things friendly, but not flirtatious or sexual because there was a clear boundary in place. I figured that either things would change at some point and we could revisit the question, or they wouldn’t and I would have made a new friend. Either way, it looked like a win to me. At one point, we took the opportunity to talk about that and we both made it clear that the interest was there. That made it much easier to set it aside and have a really good time.

Over the next couple of years, we got together every so often. We moved through some of the same circles, so we always had plenty to talk about and have a fun get-together. And when things changed and the possibility of having sex opened up, we’d laid the groundwork to be able to have that happen. There wasn’t any awkwardness about it because we’d both been clear in our intentions and the reasons for refraining, and we’d developed a connection that had room to put our cards on the table.

Playing the long game means taking the larger view. We were willing to invest a little time into building a friendship that made room for future possibilities. It’s a shift in perspective that can make things much easier.

When you take the long view, there’s more room for everyone’s boundaries. Rather than pushing to make something happen immediately, you can create some space for whatever each person needs. That demonstrates your commitment to everyone’s well-being, including any other people affected by the situation such as other partners, their kids, etc. Supporting everyone’s well-being is one of the hallmarks of sex-positivity and it demonstrates respect. It also shows your willingness to calibrate your relationships to fit everyone involved.

Playing the long game is a great way to show that you understand the difference between “not right now” and “never.” You might be in a relationship with someone who’s sexually unavailable because of stress, work crises, family difficulties, physical or medical challenges, or anything else. Stepping back and looking at things from a larger perspective can make it easier to remember that unavailability isn’t the same as rejection. It helps you avoid slipping into a shame spiral because you know that things will change.

My partner and I have been together for over twenty years and we’ve had plenty of phases when one or the other of us simply wasn’t available for sex. Knowing that a gap of a few weeks or months was a temporary situation within the context of our relationship makes it much less difficult when those things happen. It used to feel like the end of the world, but we’ve learned that it’s simply temporary.

Of course, some people say “not right now” when they mean “not ever.” Playing the long game only works when there’s enough honesty for both people to make informed choices. And sometimes, people have medical issues or mental health healing that can take a while to resolve. Being committed to doing the healing work that needs to happen is how we demonstrate that we’re aiming to make it a “not right now” situation. If we expect our partners to work with us in good faith, we need to demonstrate a good faith effort.

Here’s another way to play the long game. I was recently flirting with someone who I know from various polyamorous and sex-positive communities. We’ve always had a sweet, flirty friendship, but they recently got into a relationship with someone and they were wanting to focus their attention on that rather than flirting with anyone else. So I thanked them for telling me and said that I would take that as our new baseline. I also asked them to let me know if that ever changed so we could check in and see where we were.

I didn’t say that I would necessarily be available to flirt again because I don’t know for sure that I’d have the room for it. There are plenty of reasons why I might not, and taking care of my future self means remembering that things might change for me. So instead, I simply said that we can see where things are if it ever becomes relevant. There’s a big difference between saying, “if something changes, I’ll be available” and “if something changes, let’s check in and talk about it.”

Playing the long game means thanking people for telling you what their boundaries are. As Monique Darling puts it, when we say no to something, we’re saying yes to something else and it’s usually ourselves. I’d much rather know that someone can tell me where their “no” lies because otherwise, how can I trust their “yes”? I don’t have any reason to question, push, or test their boundaries. It means that I take them at their word because there’s a big difference between playing a long game and not taking no for an answer. And while it’s true that some people say “no” when they don’t really mean it, I’d rather filter those folks out. I’m not willing to try to guess what “no” means.

Of course, this is only relevant when there’s a mutual interest and it really is a “not right now” situation. If the other person isn’t available or declines an invitation, there’s no reason to question that or expect it to change. Granted, some situations do change eventually, but I don’t want to make it seem like I’m advocating for waiting around to see or for disregarding someone’s boundaries. When there’s a clear no, the best bet is to thank them for their clarity and move on.

In those genuine “not right now” moments, one of the most important pieces to playing the long game is being able to express your attraction and your desires without attachment to the outcome. Some dating advice suggests that being the first one to express interest puts the control in the other person’s hands. There’s a small grain truth to that, since there’s a vulnerability that comes from being the first to open up. But don’t overestimate the size of it. This isn’t a question of control, which after all, is a zero-sum “I win or you win” game. Instead, it’s about creating something where everyone wins and sometimes, the most powerful thing you can do is be the first one out on the dance floor. With control, either I have it or you have it. With power, we can both have it and the more you have, the more I have.

There’s an old joke about some people looking for Mr./Ms. Right and others looking for Mr./Ms. Right Now. But you might also find some success presenting yourself as Mr./Ms. Right When It Happens. Of course, not all of your invested time and energy will pay off, but it will often enough that I think it’s worth trying.