Catherine Townsend: Sleeping Around

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I was on a fantastic second date with Paul, the doctor with the gorgeous hands, when his phone beeped during dinner - and I saw him become instantly tense. Then it happened again. By the end of dessert he showed me 12 vulgar and rather alarming messages - all from his ex-girlfriend.

"We had a fling for a couple of weeks, and since I ended things she's been, well, stalking me a bit," he admitted. Then he gave me the details: he'd been "dating" a 19-year-old wannabe glamour model, and loaned her money after she got stuck in Eastern Europe.

I was sympathetic, but also bit suspicious. I'll never forget my encounter with a serial cheater who told me that his ex-girlfriend was "a total bunny-boiler". One night we were naked on the couch at his flat, and the intercom kept buzzing. Finally, I answered - only to discover that she lived there with him! He had double-locked the front door, turned out the lights and was pretending not to be home. And besides, I'm immediately suspicious of any man who describes all his exes as "psychos" - chances are, the exes are not the ones with the problem.

But let's face it: on the road to The One, we've all stopped off at a few dodgy exits. If all my ex-boyfriends came back and started following me around at once, I would have a Night of the Living Dead situation on my hands.

Still, when dealing with the end of the affair there's a fine line between seducer and stalker. I have never understood the logic of someone who thinks, "She didn't pick up the first 17 times I called, but number 18 will convince her to come back!" In the age of caller ID, it's excruciating to watch.

In my experience, the only possible way to get someone back after a break-up is to ignore them and start dating again - jealousy can be powerful motivation. I want boys to experience regret not relief.

I recently went on two very platonic dates with a guy who described himself as "a bit of a control freak", and when I gently suggested that we would be better off as friends, he took my hand and stared into my eyes. "I know that you are scared of getting close to anyone," he said, "but you have to stop running from this relationship!" Actually, I was running from him. I still am.

Part of the problem is that, in our desire to spare other people's feelings, we can be a bit vague about our reasoning when dropping the break-up bomb. After a mere few dates, "the chemistry just isn't right" sounds a hell of a lot better than "I met a guy at a bar last night whose body I want to use as a trampoline!"

Even though Paul seemed sincere, part of me could feel the ghost of his ex-girlfriends lurking in the flat. Entering the pitch-black living room, I half-expected to see a brick-wielding Amazon woman crash through the garden door. I don't judge him, though, because every relationship, however brief or inappropriate, teaches us more about what we want and takes us one step closer to a potential partner.

Paul and I were both a bit nervous that night. But after he carried me upstairs, stripped me down to my knickers and pulled me on top of him, I felt like we had finally exorcised the demons of our exes.

c.townsend@independent.co.uk

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