We all know that dating can be a distinctly complicated challenge. Optimism is key, of course, so we splurge on the outfit, choose the right location, and hope for the best. But we also try to stay realistic, too, so we remind ourselves that there's a chance of stilted conversation and crossed signals as well as the dreaded potential for ghosting or even heartbreak down the line. It's tough to keep it all straight. And that's why it isn't exactly easy for us to mention another way dating can be hard: benching.
"Benching is when a person expresses interest in a potential dating partner, but the relationship doesn't progress at a normal pace because that person places the prospective partner 'on the bench,'" says Kelly Campbell, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and human development at California State University, San Bernardino. "It's a sports metaphor indicating that the prospective partner is not a top priority because the other person has better options or the timing might be off."
Ahead, we asked Campbell to give us an outline of what benching entails so that you can spot this emotional manipulation (either within yourself or your partner) and work to create a healthier scenario. Since dating is already a complicated challenge, there's no need to make it more difficult.
The Red Flags
You're confused about how they feel.
"The benchee never knows the bencher's true intent," Kelly says. "The bencher strings the benchee along, all while expressing interest, so the benchee gets confused."
You're noticing that plans fall through easily, or don't happen at all.
"One question the benchee may ask him or herself is, 'If this person is interested in me, why aren't they initiating or following through with plans?'" Kelly observes.
If plans do happen, they happen on one person's terms.
"Benching keeps people on the sidelines so that when the timing is right, a relationship can potentially be initiated by one person," she notes.
You're wondering if your partner may be a narcissist.
"Some benchers are really just narcissists that don't have the intention of ever dating the person, so they will string them along indefinitely because they like the attention," she continues. "Narcissists have a manipulative, game-playing style of love—their self esteem is boosted by retaining the attention of multiple prospective partners."
"The benchee never knows which one they are dealing with: A potential partner who might turn out great once the timing is right or a narcissist who is just stringing them along without the intention of ever initiating a relationship," Kelly notes.
Benching is another one of those dating terms—similar to gaslighting and breadcrumbing—that may seem modern because of the amount of potential partners available online. Kelly says that benching may be more common because of that, but it's not necessarily anything new.
"I think benching is not exclusively a modern concept. Even when people did not have online dating available, they still benched; there just wasn't a known term for it," she says.
"Now that we have a term for this concept, people are more consciously aware they are doing it, which might make them even more prone to do it."
The Next Steps
If you're the benchee:
"If someone is not prioritizing you, you have to match their interest level," she recommends. "You have to pull back from the person and invest in other things—yourself, a different partner, and so on."
Kelly says that you could be up-front and ask your partner what is going on. "But because the reason for benching is usually another relationship, the benchee might not get a straightforward response. If it feels right to ask, it's worth a try," she continues.
No matter what you choose to do, remember Kelly's advice: "The bottom line is, don't invest in someone who is not investing in you."
If you're the bencher:
"You should be considerate of others, and realize that benching can hurt people," Kelly says.
"Be upfront and honest with people—if you are a good person and you genuinely care about others' feelings, it is likely that the people you are attracting match you on those traits," she observes. "They'll understand that the timing is not right and appreciate your honesty."
Kelly does note that benching may not be the biggest deal to some daters. If both partners see benching as part of the dating game, and their feelings are not hurt by it, then a future is not entirely out of the question.
"If things change and you find yourself available in the future, then reach back out to the person," she says. "Hopefully the timing is right for both of you."
What to remember
Since dating is difficult to navigate for anyone, we asked Kelly to give us her tips on what to remember as you put yourself out there.
Take care of and love yourself first.
"This means you respect yourself and won't tolerate poor treatment from others," she says. "Remember that you are the first example for how others should treat you."
Pay attention to warning signs.
"If someone is being inconsistent or canceling plans, take it as a sign that you should spend your time elsewhere," she advises.
Keep balance in your life.
"Make sure each day has alone time, work, fun, exercise, healthy eating, and something with friends and family," she notes. "When you lack balance, there is a risk you could become fixated on a prospective partner and that can destroy a potentially good relationship."