Sunita was getting a lot of messages on Hinge that she couldn’t keep up with. She would start promising conversations with several people, and then arrange to go on a date with one. She knew most first dates don’t lead to second dates, so she didn’t want to give up the other conversations completely, but didn’t have the capacity to keep messaging the others at the same momentum.

What is the best thing to do in this situation? Should Sunita be honest with the people she wanted to put on hold, make up a story about being busy at work when she came back to them several weeks later, or accept that she’ll lose those opportunities? This is the benching dilemma.

‘Benching’ is seeing or dating several people at once, or putting conversations from a dating app on hold while you figure out whether there is any potential with someone else.

Benching can be good for the bencher but often it can feel disempowering for the benched.

Can keeping your options open work, whether at the messaging stage or while dating several people?

It’s hard to hear that someone you have been messaging with is going on a date with someone else. Many people find they don’t have the resilience not to hear this as rejection or for it to reinforce beliefs such as “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t compete with others”. If you’ve opened up to someone on a dating app or become hopeful about this being a meaningful connection, it can be hard to hear.

However, there are daters who feel good enough about themselves and have experienced enough secure attachments to cope with this. Briony and Susan got back to men months after a conversation, saying “Hi, I enjoyed our conversation a while back and I’m now free to date again – how about you? If you’re free, would you like to meet up?” In both cases, the men said yes and the dates went very well, leading in Susan’s case to a relationship that lasted a year.

When it comes to keeping your options open at the dating stage, it’s important to understand that people may have many different purposes in dating. If you want to have fun, explore a range of dating experiences and learn how to connect with different kinds of people, then keeping your options open could be a sensible policy. If your purpose is to find a long-term relationship, and perhaps someone to have a family with, then it can also be a useful strategy to keep your options open until you know a person better, rather than committing too early. On the other hand, no one is perfect and so you can end up not committing to anyone because you have an unrealistic ideal of a perfect person that doesn’t exist.

To make the keeping-your-options-open policy work, think through and be up-front about your purpose or dating goals from the first date. Keeping things casual can be done in a healthy way or an unhealthy way. Often we want to keep things casual because we are not comfortable with intimacy or commitment. On the other hand, it makes sense if we have recently emerged from a long-term relationship or our lifestyle doesn’t support commitment – perhaps we have caring responsibilities or travel a lot for our work.

Other reasons for wanting to keep things casual are early insecure attachment experiences, trauma, unsafe relationship experiences or painful endings. It’s good to identify why you want to keep things casual. What are you protecting yourself from? What are your fears? What are your beliefs? If you have unresolved emotional experiences, even casual dating could be problematic.

However, most people who have secure attachment experiences and are in a good place for dating, will after a few dates either begin to get emotionally involved or judge the person isn’t right for them. So if you are dating such a person, even if you keep telling them you want to keep it casual, they are likely to start treating your arrangement as a relationship. Once you start arranging to do things together, eat together or spend the night together, it’ll be hard not to – you’ll be behaving as if you are in a relationship. This is why people who want to keep things casual end up having very short-term dating experiences.

And if you are dating several people at once, make sure your dates all know that it’s just at the “getting to know you stage” until, say, date number six – sometimes people assume there is a level of commitment that hasn’t actually been discussed, so avoid that by discussing what dating represents for you. It’s also good dating etiquette to tell them whether you’re dating others before becoming sexually intimate.

And what if you think you’re being benched?

If you are hearing from someone inconsistently – they are interested one day, and not the next, and then interested again – there can be a number of reasons, one of which is benching. Other reasons include an ambivalent attachment style, where people crave intimacy but then push it away when it becomes available; being in another relationship already; having organisational challenges (for example, people with ADHD may have these); or being too busy and not having the capacity to date.

Is it possible to feel good – or at least not bad – about being benched?

You might be joint number one with several other people, and that doesn’t have to feel bad if you are in a healthy place, feeling good about yourself and what you have to offer. When you don’t know much about a person, it’s not really a “rejection” or a de-valuing. It might just be that another online conversation has generated more momentum at that time – perhaps they both wanted to see the same film which happened to be coming out that week – for random reasons. The bencher knows that most first dates don’t work out, so if you can put yourself in their shoes, you shouldn’t have to feel like you’re a second choice, just another choice.

As the benched, you can take charge of the situation. Make sure you have enough going on in your life that one potential date doesn’t meet all your needs. Message more than one person at a time if you can, and if you don’t feel equal to your dates, get some help with coaching or therapy. You need to get to a place where you are resilient to the ups and downs of dating. Then you can have empathy for (i.e., take the perspective of) the other person in the benching dilemma and not see yourself as someone to whom things are “done”.

Resilience is also about feeling empowered rather than at the mercy of others. Think about what you’re looking for in a relationship or in your dating experiences before you start messaging: you will enjoy it more and be less affected by conversations that don’t work out if you do.

Finally, how can you avoid getting into the benching dilemma in the first place?

Sunita tried doing things differently. She messaged someone for a few days, then explained that she already had a date lined up that had been arranged the week before they’d started messaging, and wanted to be honest. She said “I know most first dates don’t lead to second dates, so I’d love to get back in touch if this doesn’t work out.” They had a little jokey conversation about how to make the date go badly on purpose, and resumed messaging a couple of weeks later.

Another way to say it might be “I’m really enjoying this conversation but I’ve already got some dates lined up so if and when they don’t work out, I’d love to come back to you”.

To avoid people feeling like they’re being benched by you, aim to be consistent in your messaging so people don’t feel benched. Don’t message too often so you have enough capacity. And have a rule that you don’t bench people for longer than, say, two weeks. You could also say “I have a lot of social commitments for the next two weeks but I’d love to message you again after that.” Let’s all take responsibility to make dating ethical, kind and healthy!

If you would like to book a consultation to explore ways to enhance your dating experiences, get in touch!

Main picture by Candice Picard on Unsplash.