Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be any more cringeworthy modern dating trends, yet another one has sprung up to prove you wrong. Benching (or bench-warming, as it’s sometimes called) is the delightful — and increasingly common — practice of keeping a sexual or romantic partner on the hook as a perpetual Plan B until someone better comes along. It’s essentially leading someone on, but for the express purpose of trading them in.
Benching is not a particularly new or novel practice, but it has become particularly easy to do in digital spaces where people can send off quick texts or comments without committing to an actual conversation or date. That’s actually one of the hallmarks of benching — benchers show interest with engaging text conversations and social media attention, but you never really see them in person.
To the person getting benched, it kind of feels like an extreme case of scheduling conflict — plans are made and re-made, but they never go anywhere. Benchers always cancel, rain check, or ghost just before a date.
Benchers are really good soothing over any sore feelings their flakiness might have caused, though. When they sense you’re getting fed up, they’ll spring back into your inbox like nothing ever happened with a disarming “Miss you” or “When are we gonna hang out?” They’ll reference an inside joke, like a photo of yours from 2012, and sending you funny photos and memes they know you’ll like.
It’s weird — you text too much to not be dating, but you see each other way too infrequently to be an actual “thing.” You’re never quite sure where you stand.
Being on the receiving end of so much uncertainty can be frustrating, confusing, and even downright depressing. If they didn’t like you so much, why would they text you all the time? If they didn’t want to see you, why would they make plans?
According to psychologist and sex therapist Jamila Dawson LMFT, benchers usually do it because they can’t commit, are scared to be alone, or both. Some benchers may also assume (but never inquire to confirm) that the other person isn’t that interested in them, which leads to a sort of “no harm, no foul” mentality. Another type of bencher enjoys the power exchange of being desired by multiple people without following through. From their perspective, it’s nice to have back-up plan — if their other dates or plans fall through, they can defer to you. If they’re lonely, bored, need a plus-one, or just a ride from the airport, you’re on speed dial. If they need validation or someone to laugh at their jokes, they know who to call. It’s not that they’re not into you, they’re just only into you in a painful, limited, and patently unfair way.
“Whatever a person’s intention in benching someone is, it’s confusing, unkind, and hurtful to the benchee,” Dawson says. “If you care about and respect yourself and the other person, you will allow them, and you, the emotional freedom to find someone else that fits.”
However, since most benchers aren’t typically equipped with the emotional intelligence or empathy required for that kind of kindness, it’s often the benchee who has to break things off.
To do so, Dawson recommends benchees get really clear on what they want to both get from and give to relationships.
“Do you want someone who keeps their word?” she asks. “Someone who can communicate with empathy and transparency? Do you want to be in a relationship in which you see the person on a regular basis? If so, trying to engage with someone who doesn’t follow through, isn’t clear about their boundaries, motivations, and lets days or weeks go by without responding to your texts/calls or invitations to go out is not the one for you. If someone is careless, flaky, and uncommunicative at the beginning of a possible relationship they are not going to suddenly ‘get it’ and change.”
Asking yourself these questions can lead to some painful results, but, as Dawson explains, the sooner you walk away, the sooner you will heal and be able to experience new possibilities.
“People who want to be in your life will make time to be in your life,” she says. “However, when you trust enough in our own value, trust your gut, and teach people how to treat you, you will find wonderful people to share your life with in all kinds of ways.”
Isabelle Kohn is a sex and relationships journalist, educator and consultant who lives in Los Angeles. Follow her at isabellekohn.com.