Nowadays, there’s seemingly a new dating term for every nuanced form of behavior. The guy you were talking to on Tinder suddenly stops responding? You just got ghosted. Your kind-of boyfriend is being flaky? You’re probably being benched. Or maybe you're being breadcrumbed or cushioned—it's hard to tell.
Why are the niche terms proliferating? Relationship expert Susan Winter attributes our growing lexicon to the effect technology has on romance. There's an "ease and lack of rules around dating," she says. "There’s less commitment in general. These have become the regular dance steps—if you don’t think it’s going to work out, it’s just easier to ghost them because you don’t want to deal with it. It’s easier to bench them because you’re getting greedy.”
If that sounds cavalier, it is. "It’s heightened by the distance that we have because of online technology," says Winter, explaining that because there is so often a screen between you and the person you're communicating with, exchanges can feel less personal. "A lot of our interactions and hookups aren’t that meaningful anymore, so when the relationship itself isn’t meaningful, our morals around how we interact with them are a lot more lax."
Dating is hard enough without needing to consult a dictionary. So let’s break down what these terms really mean, shall we?
VIDEO: The Truth About Ghosting
First, ghosting—perhaps the most popular of the bunch—simply means disappearing without a trace. “You cut them off completely, and there’s no forewarning. In another time period, if you want to get rid of somebody, you say, 'It’s over.' They have an idea that it’s ending, and there will not be communication. But with ghosting, you’re not even given the heads up,” says Winter.
Cushioning is equally unkind. “It’s used to describe someone already in a relationship that is overtly flirting with others just to keep them kind of warmed up on the side—just in case. They’re using others as a mental backup plan,” Winter explains, comparing the behavior to emotional cheating. “It’s cruel, because it gives mixed messages. It’s only for ego gratification and a sense of inner security.”
BENCHING AND BREADCRUMBING
Now here’s where it gets tricky: Benching and breadcrumbing have some definite overlap. According to Winter, benching is putting someone in the “maybe” box. “You emotionally reserve them. You’re not moving forward. You’re not moving backwards. You’ve sidelined them to be available for you while you check out other possibilities.”
Breadcrumbing is a bit sneakier, as the person being led on might not know for a fact that their romantic interest is pursuing other options. A breadcrumber may leave texts unanswered for days—but then respond affectionately, only to disappear again.
“Even though you’re sitting there [on a metaphorical bench], they’re constantly giving you hope. They’re throwing you breadcrumbs,” Winter says. “Just when you’re ready to leave, they throw you another crumb. They keep you in the game. Breadcrumbing feels like you’re in it when you’re not. Benching, you’re kind of aware of the fact that they’re seeing others and they’re distancing themselves.”
It's easy to get riled up when you spot someone toying with you—but how can we keep ourselves from doing the same? According to Winter, it’s all about honesty. “It’s like going through your wardrobe. There are shirts you’re never going to wear. Just get rid of them. It’s hard to do. You may have to have a friend come over, the same way they do with your closet, and go, ‘Girl, you are never wearing that.’"
The key, Winter says, is to be upfront about what you want. It's one thing to decide you're not up for exclusivity and to say exactly that to your romantic interest. But if what you want is an exclusive relationship, then be transparent about that too—both with your partner and yourself. “You can’t get to something meaningful by scattering your energy amongst a lot of people. You’re never going to have the focus.”
Sounds like it's time for some fall cleaning...