In a culture where face-to-face interaction is fleeting, young people have developed a whole new system of finding and labeling romantic relationships. Ghosting, in which one person cuts off contact with another without explanation, is often viewed as the “least ideal” form of breakup. But now, a new strain of romantic avoidance called “benching”, may prove to be a fate worse than ghosting.
One expert said the trend even releases the same neurotransmitters in your brain as when you’re in physical pain.
Unlike people who ghost, benchers sporadically pop back into their romantic interest’s lives through random text messages or social media notifications. The purpose; to keep someone’s interest in hopes of having them as a “plan b” if other romantic prospects don’t pan out.
Though benching may seem superficially less harsh and abrupt than ghosting, social media psychologist Dr. Sophie Janicke says it can actually do more emotional damage.
“(Benching) is even worse psychologically because there’s intermittent contact… There is hope built up, but then they drop the ball again,” Janicke said. “It’s really torture not knowing what’s going on.”
Despite the rising popularity of apps like Instagram and Snapchat that make brief, sometimes superficial contact available at the tap of a screen, Janicke believes benching has less to do with social media and more to do with personal fears.
“It takes courage to be honest with each other and say either ‘I don’t want meet with you’ or ‘I want to meet with you’ so there’s a lot of anxiety… (benching) allows you to not deal with your own emotions,” Janicke said.
It’s really torture not knowing what’s going on. It releases the same neurotransmitters in your brain as when you’re in physical pain.” — Sophie Janicke
Michelle Vera, a sophomore computer science major, benched Alex, a man she met on Tinder, after meeting her current boyfriend at a party because she was unsure who was the “better” option.
“I was trying to make a choice between (two guys), but my boyfriend was more convenient, and I liked him more,” Vera said.
While deciding if her current boyfriend was the right choice, Vera continued texting Alex just in case things didn’t work out. Though they would talk frequently, Vera would avoid concrete plans with Alex by saying she was trying to focus on school when she really had no intention of seeing him in real life. She said she was even wary of going to Disneyland, where he worked, for fear that she might run into him.
“You don’t want to hurt their feelings, and it’s easier to lie to them than to say anything to their face,” Vera said.
Marie Tobias, a sophomore strategic and corporate communication and public relations and advertising double major benched Justin, a man almost ten years older than her. After one date, Tobias said texting Justin “freaked her out”, but she kept in contact regardless.
“I would wait like two days to text (Justin) back, and when I did I would just respond with one word or a sentence, and then leave it at that,” Tobias said
Eventually, Justin confronted Tobias for being distant. After owning up to benching him, they went on another date. Then she stopped talking to him. Though Tobias thought that meant she had cut things off for good, Justin didn’t get the hint. He still reaches out to her occasionally, but she doesn’t respond.
Unlike ghosting, benching can leave people without a sense of closure, Janicke said. Since the bencher’s messages come so spread out, there’s always hope that they may reinitiate contact regardless of how much time has gone by.
In cases like Tobias and Justin’s, Janicke advises the person being benched to squash all means of false hope and block the other person’s number. Unfollowing their social media accounts can also help create a sense of finality. Above all, it’s important to remember that avoidant behavior says more about the person benching than the person being benched, Janicke said .
“(Don’t) take it personally,” Janicke said. “People think that it’s their fault, and when you have low self-esteem that’s even worse for you. Tell yourself, ‘This is not about me, it’s about the other person.”
Though Tobias said she was unaware of what she was doing to Justin at the time, she regrets not being upfront with her emotions from the start.
“I think (benching) was just an easy solution for a bigger problem. My New Year’s resolution is to be more assertive, so I would hope the future me would learn from my mistakes, because it’s just so much extra time and energy wasted,” Tobias said.
Janicke agrees that being honest is the best way to deal with indecision.
“Sometimes we have to step into the hard stuff to grow,” Janicke said. “It’s like exposure therapy. There’s no other way around it but to go through it.”