When I re-entered the single scene in 2017, I thought I was going to have people dying to date me in every corner of town. After being in a relationship for three-and-a-half years, I didn’t even consider the possibility that someone wouldn’t be into me. I was doing well in my career, was in good shape, and am pretty damn funny (if I do say so myself).
Oh, but how wrong I was. After one hookup, I found myself staring at my phone, waiting for her to text. Days passed, weeks passed, until I realized that I had been ghosted. I’d been a back burner before, and I sure have had a few myself, but I’d never been straight-up ditched.
That was two years ago, and since then, people’s love of ending things without actually ending things seems only to have increased.
Along with ghosting has come benching, a new term for the age-old concept of putting someone on the backburner. It refers to keeping someone around, giving just enough attention to make sure they stay interested in you. Meanwhile, you’re busy dating around and seeing what else is out there.
We have to wonder, in a dating landscape where keeping someone on the bench is normal and disappearing without a trace is commonplace, which is worse?
Ghosting has essentially become the new breakup. Instead of telling someone we aren’t interested after all, we fall off the face of the earth. Is it kind? No. But, according to certified dating coach and clinical sexologist Lucy Rowett, at least there’s some finality to it. “By ghosting you, they have shown you that they do not want you in their lives, which means you need to cut your losses and move on,” she says.
Cristina, 30, agrees, saying she’d “100% rather be ghosted” than benched, because it lets you know that they aren’t into you in a fairly clear way. “It’s a silent no,” she says.
“Look, I’ve been ghosted and I’ve been benched. Being benched is so much worse,” says 25-year-old Zach. “When you’re benched, you hold onto hope. You think they’ll come around and give you what you want if you just wait it out. Spoiler alert: You’ll be waiting forever. The emotional exhaustion is hell.”
Julia, 23, agrees. “I’d rather have someone disappear without a trace than leave me hanging. If they ghost, you can move on, even if it hurts. When you’re benched, you’re stuck in this waiting game of suckiness.”
Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., a certified psychotherapist and clinical sexologist, echoes these sentiments, suggesting most people would rather know where they stand than be “held by a string.”
Then again, being blown off does not feel great, and some would argue that ghosting, because it involves a total loss of control, is even worse than being on the back burner.
“I was on the bench with this guy for [what felt like] ever. I was convinced he was going to be my boyfriend,” says 24-year-old Maria. “I eventually got so fed up that I deleted his number and blocked him everywhere. It felt better than being ghosted, because I had control in ending it.”
“When you get benched, you can catch on to the person’s behavior relatively quickly and have more agency over how you want to act in the situation,” says Pam Shaffer, MFT. “At least you have the opportunity to challenge your idea of self-worth and cut off communication with the person if you’ve been benched.”
Being a benchwarmer might also be OK with you, as long as you know you’re on the bench. “I don’t mind being benched, because I’m busy and don’t have time for a relationship right now,” says Justin, 24. “I have a couple of guys who give me a call here and there, and I’m happy [to hang out]. Why not? It’s so low-commitment.”
Besides, being benched may just mean the other person is still exploring their options — and if you’re looking to do the same, that could work out just fine.
“Being benched creates an opportunity to look for something real,” says 25-year-old Molly, adding that it also allows for getting some action and emotional intimacy here and there in the meantime. “It’s kind of like a buffer.”
Anne Hodder, ACS, a certified sex educator, validates Justin and Molly’s statements. “If being someone’s backup or standby works for your current dating schedule, then there’s no shame in sticking around,” she says. “But the instant you feel disrespected by the other person, absolutely move on.”
A benching situation also doesn’t preclude the possibility of something more serious developing when and if both people feel ready for a commitment. A person who just started dating or recently got out of a long-term relationship may not understand what they want yet without doing a little comparison shopping first — benching you in the process.
Neither ghosting nor benching is a great way to convey a lack of interest — both stem from a lack of good communication skills. And in an ideal world, we wouldn’t stand for behaviors that make us feel lesser than.
“Tune into yourself and ask if you feel like you really deserve this kind of treatment in your life,” says Shaffer. “When people show you who they are, take note.”
To stop normalizing ghosting and benching, both as perpetrators and victims, we have to make room for growth and personal responsibility.
“I’m in a relationship now so to keep me from benching anyone, I deleted all of my backup girls’ numbers,” says Katie, 22. “I recognized that if I got drunk or got into a fight with my girlfriend, I’d probably call someone from the bench. And I don’t want to be that person.”
Getting rejected sucks, and rejecting someone sucks. That’s not going to change. But if we can improve communication and behave with a little more grace, we’ll all be better off.