This is all well and fine when you’re talking about shoes, but not so much when you’re treating people like movable pieces in your closet—or on your metaphorical team, as the latest dating trend would have it. Benching in dating, or moving someone to the sidelines for a bit while you pursue other more desirable prospects (or just in case someone better comes around) might seem like a way to maximize your chances of finding the right partner amid a plethora of choices. But in reality, it can be confusing and hurtful for everyone involved—including the person doing the benching.
What is benching in dating, and why do people do it?
Named for the sports practice of pulling a player out of a game and relegating them to the sidelines for a period of time, benching in dating involves similarly sidelining a person or people whom you’re dating in favor of others. “In a dating context, people who get benched tend to fall in the ‘B’ team of someone’s dating roster—they’re the backups,” says clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD.
Rather than break up with a person whom they feel isn’t quite their person, the bencher chooses to keep them in the mix by just “benching” them, or deprioritizing them for the time being. That typically looks like slowing down communication and just reaching out periodically to keep the connection alive and the person at least minimally interested. Their position on the bencher’s dating roster then becomes tenuous relative to others.
“Usually, the person doing the benching still likes the person they are putting aside and would be interested in having a relationship with them,” says Dr. Romanoff. After all, they’re not fully ending things. But at the same time, their feelings for this person aren’t strong enough to outweigh the sense that there are other fish in the sea, or that another current or potential partner might be a better choice for them, adds Dr. Romanoff.
This is a common sentiment prompted by the overwhelming amount of perceived choice on dating apps, says Dr. Romanoff. For instance, if you’re trying to juggle multiple prospective partners (and the idea of more just waiting in the wings), you might be tempted to bench one or two while you figure things out.
“A lot of people use dating to manage their fears of being alone, for validation, or as a distraction, and they’re not always honest with themselves and others.” —Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, clinical psychologist
There’s also a contingent of people for whom dating isn’t really about finding a match so much as it is about fulfilling some other internal need, adds Dr. Romanoff. “A lot of people use dating to manage their fears of being alone, for validation, or as a distraction, and they’re not always honest with themselves and others about the fact that they’re not really looking for a partner,” she says. As a result, they might bench people every now and then just to keep them in the mix as options for satisfying the above needs.
It’s also possible that some benchers may not have a clear idea of exactly whom they’re looking to date—and are keeping various people benched while they figure it out—or may have unrealistically high expectations of a partner that no person seems fully capable of meeting. Cue: an endless cycle of benching people and waiting for a better person to come along.
3 signs that the person you’re dating is benching you
1. They reach out very infrequently
Radio silence punctured by random texts, calls, and invites is one key indicator you’re being sidelined, says relationship expert Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist at Tinder and Bumble. This isn’t to say you have to be in touch 24/7 with someone you’re dating, but any person who is genuinely interested in you will make an effort to connect, says Dr. Carbino.
And to be clear, that doesn’t just mean responding to your inquiries. If someone is fully interested in dating you, they will meet you at least halfway in reaching out to make plans, adds Dr. Carbino.
2. You consistently feel rejected
If this person doesn’t reciprocate your attention in a way that’s fulfilling to you, therapist Claudia de Llano, LMFT, says that’s a sign you might be dealing with a bencher. This could look like short, lackluster replies to texts; dodging your attempts to make plans; or just a lack of consistent attention and affection. “If you’re having this inner feeling of being rejected, that’s a red flag, and you want to question that,” she says.
3. Your interactions aren’t thoughtful or respectful
When you’re someone’s priority in dating, they’ll be considerate of your time and feelings, says Dr. Carbino. “Whether and to what degree the individual is invested in you can be a strong signal, and if you’re feeling that there is limited investment or that the relationship is tenuous, that is a problem,” she says.
Why is benching a hurtful, manipulative behavior?
Benching in dating involves a certain level of dishonesty that distinguishes it from regular ol’ benching in a sports dynamic. Think about it: If you’re a second-string player on a sports team, you’re well aware of your status, and when you’re benched, both you and the team are on the same page about it. Whereas, when you’re being benched by a partner (or would-be partner), you likely don’t know that they’re prioritizing other people over you—and if you did, chances are, you wouldn’t be totally fine with it.
Healthy dating requires us to be honest and open, and benching is not honest and open, says de Llano. “There is a subversive quality that is manipulative even if you don’t mean to manipulate.”
“There is a subversive quality [to benching] that is manipulative even if you don’t mean to manipulate.” —Claudia de Llano, LMFT, therapist
A person being benched might hold out hope and stick around for a while without being aware that they’re being strung along. “If you’re really into the other person, you’re more likely to join them on this merry-go-round because of the hope for potential in the relationship and them as a partner,” says Dr. Romanoff. Meanwhile, that hope may be entirely unfounded as the bencher secretly pursues other options.
In that dynamic, the lack of information given to the bencher creates room for mismatched feelings, says Dr. Carbino. “There is a non-mutual understanding where one person often has a stronger degree of feelings toward the other person,” she says, “making the benching itself unethical.”
To keep someone on the bench requires periodic overtures of interest, and these sporadic signals can be confusing and misleading to their recipients. A person on the bench might start to think that they’re only worthy of small or intermittent bits of affection. “[Being benched] can really affect someone’s sense of security, trust, and self-esteem,” says de Llano, “and [it can trigger issues] around not feeling wanted, desirable, and confident.”
The bencher themselves isn’t immune to the negative fallout, either. Not only is it potentially a stressful and time-consuming process to manage the intricacies of multiple relationships at once, but also, Dr. Romanoff points out that benching can obscure your own dating goals by extending certain pairings past their expiration date while keeping you from finding someone to whom you’re willing to give your full attention. “People are not place cards, and ultimately, treating others this way creates more drama and hurt than accepting you might not be dating anyone you’re interested in at the moment,” she says.
How to date around without benching people
Naturally, part of discovering what you want in terms of romance involves dating different people and experiencing different relationships. But both Dr. Romanoff and de Llano say that to date around without entering into the deceptive dynamic of benching requires full honesty—both with yourself and others—about what you really want.
You don’t have to call each prospective S.O. on your list every week to offer a status update like you’re on Love Island, but the experts say being clear about your feelings and expectations is key to avoiding hurt and disappointment on both ends.
“Get into the practice of ending relationships you don’t see going anywhere instead of keeping people around as backups.”—Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, clinical psychologist
Instead of collecting hearts on a shelf (or a bench), learn to be upfront and explicit about how you see any relationship progressing. If you can’t see a future with someone (or you don’t want one with them), tell them, suggests Dr. Romanoff, and let them go their own way. “Get into the practice of ending relationships you don’t see going anywhere instead of keeping people around as backups just so you don’t end up alone,” she says.
What to do if you think you’re being benched
If you notice a pattern of behavior in a relationship that doesn’t align with your expectations for how you want to be treated, or you find yourself confused and hurt, it’s important to address those feelings. “We tend to ignore the messages of [bad] behavior in order to protect ourselves when we’re invested and interested in someone, but it’s really important to trust ourselves,” says de Llano.
If you’re curious about a current or would-be partner’s actions or intentions and suspect they may be benching you, there’s only one way to find out for certain—ask them whether they envision the same future with you that you do with them.
This way, you’re claiming your power in the relationship and getting the information you need to decide what exactly it is you want and to act accordingly. “If you decide to stay in a relationship that’s ambiguous or in which there’s less investment than you want, that’s your prerogative,” says Dr. Carbino, “but at least you have the tools and the information necessary to make an informed decision for yourself.”