The texts would arrive every few weeks and rarely deviated from a pattern: a link to an Onion story, a Housewives GIF, or a simple “Hey, how are you?” T. and I had gone on maybe three dates, but we were still exchanging the occasional text months after the last time we saw each other. “What is this even about?” I’d complain to my friends. It’d be one thing if we were occasionally hanging out (or even becoming fuck buddies), but that never happened. Instead, we were engaged in this bizarre textual limbo. He’d suggest dates, but plans would magically fall through. I’d invite him over, but his phone always “died omg so sorry.” Every time I was ready to dismiss him, though, he’d find some way to make his presence known. He’d double-tap weeks-old Instagram posts or ask me to have lunch in Greenpoint in half an hour (which is the grossest nonstarter of an invitation if I’ve ever heard one). The texts themselves would invariably be punctuated by baffling kissy-face and see-no-evil monkey emoji — the universal language of flirtation.
It wasn’t until I started seeing someone I was on the fence about that I understood what was going on. After two dates, I couldn’t quite decide what I was feeling for this person — whether we would never see each other again or become friends or maybe date down the line — but I didn’t want to end the conversation either. So I would ping him occasionally, just enough to pique his interest and dangle the carrot of a possible relationship without ever actually following through with plans. To use a sports metaphor (my first ever), he would be on the roster but not in play; I’d decided to bench him. It’s despicable, manipulative, selfish behavior — and something we’re all doing.
“You just want to keep your options open,” says Billy, a 28-year-old lawyer in New York. “I’m currently dating three different guys, and maybe one or two of them I don’t really want to pursue, but I haven’t formally broken up with them because why close that door if you don’t have to?” Billy will take too long to respond to texts, always with an apology about how crazy work has been, then send two or three photos he’s taken just to make the exchange seem substantive. Or he’ll agree to a date knowing that a day or two before he’ll find some way to cancel. I wonder aloud if Billy and his dates are benching each other, having reached a mutual understanding that the planned meetings will never take place (e.g., the polite veneer of making drink plans with former co-workers we run into on Bleecker Street). No, he corrects me, there is always someone doing the benching and someone being benched. It’s partly a power play. “In a romantic scenario, you’re not going to go along with this unless you want to actually date the bencher. If I were to pull this on someone who’s over the idea, he just wouldn’t respond. The benchee is complicit because he wants it.”
Jean, a 31-year-old writer living in New York, thinks women are falling for the bencher’s perceived niceness. “The guys who’ve benched me are always doing the ‘How are you?’ or ‘How’s your day?’” she says, “which feels special. It’s like, ‘See, he’s not an asshole. He’s asking me questions!’ But that’s literally sales 101: Ask questions so the buyer thinks you think they’re interesting.” Some might call it gaslighting, but benchers suffering from nice-guy syndrome may not even be trying to exploit the situation. Conor, a 28-year-old law student in New York, says he’s often ignored advances from females in his life — but will continue to text and “spend time” with them while at school or in the workplace. “I won’t actually hang out one-on-one because I want to avoid any confusion for her about my interests,” he says, “but I’ll still text with her, often a few days after those botched plans. She’ll say something like, ‘You’re too busy for me,’ and I’ll laugh and change the subject. Maybe it seems like I just don’t want to be an asshole, but to me it’s just polite.”
The irony, of course, is that benching, while superficially polite, is far more insidious than simply ghosting or — if you’re old-school — offering an icy brush-off. “He wants to feel good about himself, so he won’t ghost or break up with you,” Jean says, “but it’s worse than being the asshole. If you’re ghosted, you get to go through all the stages of grief. But when someone disappears and then continues to text you, you don’t even get that. It’s like they’ve died but keep coming back to life.” I ask Jean if she thinks women can be benchers, and she pauses briefly before responding. “I think women do play games with men in their lives who have been around for a while, just waiting in the wings,” she says. “Maybe they’ll text them to get a quick ego stroke. But I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who does this to a new guy she’s ambivalent about seeing.” Conor agrees: “Women, for the most part, still subscribe to the traditional dating idea that if the guy doesn’t reach out, it won’t happen. I can’t remember many instances where I’ve been benched by a girl, but it’s been pretty easy to bench them.”
Part of what makes benching so attractive is its plausible deniability. In a city where you can run into the guy who Gchat-dumped you or the jerk who ghosted after two months of dating, benching passes the sidewalk-run-in test exquisitely. “If I were ever to bump into somebody that I’ve benched,” says Billy, “I’d have nothing to feel bad about. I would put on a smiling face and say hello and ask how he was doing, and he’d have no reason to do anything but the same.” The bencher can walk around feeling like his karmic balance is fully in equilibrium — what’s the worst thing someone can say about him? “He’s the fucking worst texter”?
Really, benching is just the modern incarnation of what we used to call leading someone on. But, as with so many formerly minor nuisances, it’s become comically frictionless in the smartphone era. You no longer have to take someone to lunch or buy them a martini or even have a face-to-face conversation. “There’s this great line in The Broken Hearts Club that we’re all a bunch of 10s looking for 11s. ‘Sure, you’re great, but maybe someone’s better,’” says Billy. “If I’m not forced to make that decision, then I won’t. If I know that I’m in a position of status because you want me more than I want you, I’ll just keep you dangling. It’s barely any cost to me. All I have to do is text, ‘How’s work?’”
Benchers will tell you that their behavior is a way to put a relationship on hold, to hit pause before deciding how they really want to play it. But if we’re to be honest, benching is just the slow kiss-off. Know that if it’s happening to you, you’re getting dumped, even if the bencher doesn’t know it yet. No successful relationship was ever born from a situation in which one person strung the other along until — in a moment of epiphany — he realized everything glorious and noble and luminescent was in front of him all along. When benching happens, the old maxim is true. He’s just not that into you.