You match with someone on Tinder, exchange a few texts, and you meet up for your first date. The vibe is right — you talk about your childhood, favorite music, and even share embarrassing stories by date number three. Suddenly, the dates become less frequent and the texts go unanswered, but just when you think it's all over, you get the classic message: "Hey, how's it going?"

You've been benched.

Benching has joined the list of ghosting, breadcrumbing, and other Millennial dating trends that have gained popularity in the smartphone era. This refers to keeping someone as backup or a "plan b" because the interest either wanes or is withdrawn temporarily, leading to a sporadic and undefined expression of desire, according to Chelsea Leigh Trescott, an advice columnist and breakup coach.

"Benching is to be consistently inconsistent when it comes to expressing your desire to date someone," she told Medical Daily. The relationship fails to launch.

People have a lot of options when it comes to dating; websites and apps abound, and if one person fails to live up to expectations, another date is a swipe away. Similar to sports, a potential player, or partner, who is seen as mediocre can end up on the "starting line-up" if the regular starter (or more desirable potential partner) can't play. The person ends up on the roster, but not in play, until the bencher decides they need them.

David Bennett, a speaker and relationship expert, believes the act of choosing to bench a date has been a thing throughout history, but technology has made it easier to bench with little to no face-to-face interaction.

"[M]odern technology has made benching worse only because it has given men and women both the ability to expand their dating options significantly," he told Medical Daily.

The privacy of Facebook makes it easier to keep in minimal contact with potential partners. A small comment here and there can be enough to keep someone around, like a quick comment on a Facebook status.

So, what really drives people to lead someone on?

“Backburner” Relationships

The popular phrase, “I can’t be with you...right now,” is used to hook someone; it's a euphemism for sparking someone’s interest until someone better is available. The “right now” component leaves the door open to the vague possibility the relationship could evolve someday into something real. Trescott explains that with benching, there is a sense of hope.

Television shows like How I Met Your Mother have touched upon the cultural phenomenon of what it means to have someone hooked. On the show, Ted Mosby is being strung along by a girl named Tiffany, who says she's really into him, but can't be with him "right now." Tiffany invites Ted to a wedding, which gives him hope that it’s a sign of commitment. To his dismay, he shows up in her room with champagne, and then she comes in with the best man, who has her hooked as she starts to pamper him in front of Ted.

Hooking someone is also known as a “backburner” relationship. A 2014 study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior defined a backburner as “a person to whom one is not presently committed, and with whom one maintains some degree of communication, in order to keep or establish the possibility of future romantic and/or sexual involvement.” People become backburners if you actually reach out to them.

The study found this is typically done through an electronic channel, with men reporting they had more backburners than women. The number of backburners in someone’s life is greater when they have more quality dating alternatives. In other words, people are using computers to keep romantic prospects in waiting, and weighing out their options. The Internet makes communication with these backburners easier than ever.

“In the past, someone may have had a couple of people in their friend group they could reasonably date,” said Bennett. But, he adds, “With online dating, they could potentially have hundreds, and could be keeping quite a few 'on the bench.'"

The difference between a “what-if” and a backburner is communication. A what-if is someone who can casually wander into your thoughts every so often, but there’s no contact. Meanwhile, a backburner is someone you keep within arm’s reach that you string along via phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, or Skype. In the 2014 study, the most frequent ways people kept in touch with their backburners was through texts and Facebook; 45 percent reported texting backburners, while 37 percent reported talking to them on Facebook.

The Allure Of The Text

An unsolicited text, message, comment, or “like” from a bencher can be construed as perceived niceness, because they ask, “How are you?” or, “How’s your day?” which spurs the production of dopamine — a “happy” chemical  in the brain — and makes you become biochemically addicted to this person’s text. Previous research suggests that dopamine also causes you to seek, want and desire, which controls your motivation, level of arousal, and your goal-oriented behavior. It makes you seek ideas, connection, and information, which is why you feel instantly connected to someone when you send a text.

The "benchee" becomes addicted to the "bencher's" text and sees receiving a text from this person as a reward. Photo courtesy of Pexels, Public Domain

Therefore, the reward becomes receiving a response from that person, in this case, the bencher. This makes you want to seek more reward, so you become entangled in this texting loop. Moreover, the unpredictability of a bencher, such as sending an unsolicited text, will increase the benchee’s dopamine levels, leading them to become more “addicted” to communication with this person.

A bencher who stays in contact with someone they actively stopped dating also gets a high from reaching out to different people to “get their fix.”

April Masini, relationship expert and author, believes it’s just part of playing the field.

“If you’re not head over heels with someone, but there’s something there, benching them is just a natural way to keep them in the game without making an unwarranted commitment,” she told Medical Daily.

The overall benefit of benching someone is to maximize your potential romantic options, which could be an inherited evolutionary trait.

The Evolution Of Benching

The idea of playing the field by benching potential romantic prospects is theorized to be a human mating strategy. A study published in the journal Psychological Review suggests both men and women have pursued short-term and long-term matings under certain conditions where the reproductive benefits have outweighed the costs.

For example, the reproductive benefits that would lead men to successfully pursue a short-term sexual strategy is to increase their number of offspring produced. In other words, men can achieve increases in reproductive success primarily through increasing their number of sexual partners. Now, when it comes to long-term sexual strategy, it’s hypothesized men can monopolize a woman’s lifetime reproductive resources and increase the genetic quality of children.

Moreover, the theory of “survival of the fittest” supports the belief thay it’s a natural human tendency to desire multiple partners, especially if you’re a man. Previous research has shown men have a significantly greater desire for “sexual variety” over the course of their lives than women. The evolutionary advantage of variety is that it ensures that their genes are carried on to future generations.

Bennett suggests people who are attractive enough to have a lot of people to choose from to date have the ability to bench, and it comes naturally.

“... it’s a way to deal with the risk that comes with having a lot of dating choices,” he said.

In dating, you are forced to commit to one option, which eliminates every other option. If the first option doesn’t work out, you have to start from scratch. So, Bennett believes, “keeping the second best person ‘on the bench’ as a backup isn’t necessarily illogical, even if it is ultimately unfair to the person being ‘benched.’”

The Profile Of A Bencher And A ‘Benchee’

The Bencher

Benching can seem superficially polite to the bencher, although it’s more insidious than ghosting. It helps benchers avoid feeling guilty about rejecting someone and let’s them feel good about themselves. It’s a common dating style of an avoidant personality, according to Trescott.

“People with avoidant personalities are extremely sensitive to what others think of them,” she said.

This sensitivity makes them worried about how others perceive them. That’s why this personality type has a tendency to make promises while dating and then not follow through on these promises, Trescott explains. They want to seem like a nice guy, but don't want to commit. 

For example, a bencher will reach out to a romantic prospect because they believe they have something to offer, but they will quickly withdraw, fearing that who they are doesn’t actually live up to the image others have about them, which is often an imaginary image the bencher has created.

People with avoidant personalities are extremely sensitive to what others think of them, which makes them more likely to "bench." Photo courtesy of Loic Djim, Public Domain

At the same time, a bencher may be driven to reach out because they want attention and validation, which can come from a place of heightened insecurity.

Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a psychologist in Boulder, Colorado, suggests this type of person longs for control and to be desired. They begin “relationships with others only to later ‘bench’ them so they feel in control and wanted,” he told Medical Daily. Moreover, Fisher believes men are more likely to bench because they tend to be more prone to “playing the field” to begin with and avoiding long-term commitments with women.

Benching, ghosting, and other Millennial dating terms stem from the college and post-college hookup scene which are influenced by an uneven gender ratio on campus. In the book, DATE-ONOMICS: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game, author Jon Birger believes today’s dating scene favors men because there are more women attending colleges than there are men; the dating pool for straight, Millennial college grads is four women for every three men. This gender ratio has an influential role on dating and marriage patterns.

A 2010 study published in the Sociological Quarterly found women on campuses with more female than male students reported going on fewer conventional dates; were less likely to say they have had a college boyfriend; and were more likely to say they were sexually active than women who attended a male-dominated college. This unbalanced ratio means men are in high demand and don’t feel pressure to settle down because they don’t have to compete for the attention of women. Marcia Guttentag, a social psychologist and author of Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, believes this imbalance can lead to women being more sexually objectified, while men “play the field.”

The ‘Benchee’

Benchees are kept on the sidelines while the benchers call the shots. Fisher explains these are likely people who are needy for love and attention, even at the expense of getting benched. “To them, they believe the lie that the person will one day really engage and commit to the relationship,” he said.

These people never know if the other person actually likes them, especially if the bencher shows a lot of engagement at first, such as texts, calls, dates and flirty talk. The attention wanes, but it’s enough to keep the person around and slightly interested. A person can get the gist of when they’re being benched if the bencher suddenly takes an interest in them whenever they’re single or lonely. When it comes to which gender is the bencher and the benchee, Bennett believes it’s equal.

“It is usually done by attractive people of both genders, i.e., those who can get away with it because of having plenty of dating options,” he said.

A 2014 survey of 1,000 British women found half of all women have a fallback partner if their current relationship failed. Married women are more likely to have backburner guys than women in dating relationships, with 7 out of 10 women confessing they are currently in contact with their backburner. Researchers believe with sites like Facebook and Twitter, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with an old flame or a backburner.

Technology is making it easier to bench and be benched because of the accessibility to connect with someone from wherever we’re located.

Benching: Is It Wrong?

Benching can seem morally wrong, especially if you’re the one being benched, but it may be more human nature than you think. The consistent inconsistencies, such as the “I miss you” texts and the Instagram “likes” that string you along could be annoying, but they may not be as catastrophic as they’re made out to be. The weeks of silence should be enough for benchees to realize this is not a “relationship” of substance, but one you’ve entertained for far too long.

Masini believes benching is a great antidote to serial monogamists, who get into big trouble and lots of drama by creating commitments before they know someone well enough to do so.

“Serial monogamy creates serial break ups,” she said.

However, benching doesn’t cause these breakups, because no one is committing. Rather than getting upset, benchees should realize the bencher is someone who doesn’t know how to be the absolute right person for a committed relationship. This isn’t a personal thing — the bencher likely doesn’t know how to be this person for anyone just yet. They are missing part of their identity, and are not sure when they will have it.

“The benching behavior mimics their own seesawing feelings about themselves,” said Trescott.

If you’ve been benched, realize it’s not about you; the bencher has some work to do on his or her identity. You’re still in control; benchers only get what they want if you meet them halfway and let them keep you on the sidelines.