Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: 'I keep having sex with almost every man I go out with'

Dear Virginia, I'm 25 and my problem is that I keep having sex with almost every man I go out with, often on the first date. I don't really enjoy it, but I keep thinking each one might come to something and then I'm so unhappy when the man doesn't contact me. Sometimes the affair lasts longer, but the moment a man falls for me, I turn on him and can't bear to see him. I don't know how I'll ever have a proper relationship. What's wrong with me? Best wishes, Viola

There is a prayer that runs: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."

Now, I don't think you can change the way you feel about men when they fall for you in a big way – at least not overnight – but you can change your pattern of behaviour when you agree to sex every time a man asks you on a date. If it comes to sex on the first night, simply say: "I'd love to see you again but I'd rather not get too involved this early." Or, "Wait a minute – we hardly know each other", or any other phrase that you feel would be suitable. To be honest, it's not tremendously complimentary for anyone to have someone fall into their arms within five minutes of meeting, as it were. It doesn't look as if you think they're the bees knees; it just looks as if you're a desperate case.

It'll be an effort to start with, but I suspect that once you try out this behaviour and see the reaction it has – most men won't run a mile but, rather, become more interested – your own feelings will change inside. You will feel more powerful, more in charge of yourself and, possibly as a result, less horrified if a man does fall in love with you.

To use an old and hackneyed term, you will have set up boundaries – boundaries that can protect you from too much involvement too soon and also boundaries that can stop you feeling overwhelmed by a man's love when he does start sending you romantic poetry and flowers.

In the long term, however, I really do think you'd benefit from some kind of counselling. (Be very choosy who you pick, though. Make sure it's someone clever, kind and sympathetic). It sounds as if you're longing for love – which is why you have sex so quickly with a kind of desperation, it sounds – and yet you're also terrified of getting overwhelmed by it. It's like having one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake all at the same time. The result is that you're going nowhere.

It could be that the sort of love you experienced as a child from your mother or father had hidden dangers attached to it – because most people find love from another person something wonderful, something to be longed for, not repulsed and horror-struck by. Perhaps you experienced love as a kind of suffocation of your very self.

Or perhaps you felt that in some emotional way you were being used when you were loved. Or perhaps you associate extreme closeness with someone as simply emptiness, the disappointment of unfilled yearning, something too painful to bear to experience again.

Whatever, you've made a great start. You've spotted a pattern in yourself. And once you observe a destructive pattern in yourself, it's amazing how difficult it is to continue to follow it.

Respect yourself

At the risk of sounding rather old-fashioned, your desire to put out in order to catch the man who will stay with you is the one strategy that will put off the person who is truly interested in you.

The tradition of not going to bed on the first date is a sound one. In fact, I wouldn't go to bed with the person for quite a while. It separates the truly interested from the temporarily randy and means that the person who does then get close to you has some respect for you, or at worst is tenacious in achieving his goal (which at least means that he thinks that you are worth it). Your having some real self-respect will engender respect for you in others.

Cole Davis, London SE4

Take it slowly

I think what you need is time alone without all these men to try and see if you can get to the root of your problem and why you feel the need to sleep with these men so quickly.

Has something happened in your past that's making you do this? If so then I would recommend seeing a counsellor to try and help you figure out why you do this. If nothing has happened in your past then you need to look at it like this. If a man gets a woman into bed on a first date he is not really after anything other than sex. It can turn men off if they think the woman is that easy.

You need to get to know a man for a while first, find out if he's really interested in you or just after sex. You'll soon work out which ones really like you and which ones don't.

Then take things slowly, don't live in each other's pockets early on. Just get to know each other, go on dates etc, but still have time for a social life with your friends. I think once you've found that special someone you'll know and stop pushing them away.

Sharon Gregoy, Blackpool, Lancashire

It's time to get help

Your self-esteem is so low, and you trust people so little you "don't want to belong to a group that would have you as a member". Having casual encounters with people, whose subsequent negligence reinforces your sense of worthlessness, allows you to keep true intimacy at bay.

I don't know what your childhood was like, but it is likely to be the source of your troubles. You may wish to speak to your GP and be referred for therapy to help you understand your behaviour and break the cycle of desperation, abandonment and isolation.

Christina Burton, Eastbourne, East Sussex

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia, Two months ago, over Sunday lunch, my son-in-law suddenly blurted out all a whole lot of home truths about me and my husband, which he said he'd been storing up for ages. We were so upset and my husband's been barely able to sleep, particularly considering that we've lent money to him and our daughter and always been helpful to them. My husband is adamant that until our son-in-law apologises he's not going to speak to him again. But although I know my son-in-law now regrets what he said – or, rather, the way he said it – he won't apologise. What can we do?

Yours sincerely, Barbie

What would you advise Barbie to do? Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas@independent.co.uk, or go to independent.co.uk/dilemmas. Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a Belgian Chocolate Selection by Amelie Chocolat (www.ameliechocolat.co.uk)

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