Will An ‘Almost Boyfriend’ Ever Become a Real Relationship?

Source: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash

Smart, successful, single women in their twenties, thirties and forties still ask me basic questions about a guy’s level of interest. Why isn’t he making a move? Are we just friends, or do I feel something romantic happening? Was that coffee date a real date, or just a casual meet-up? Why does he disappear, and then come back with stronger desire to get together? 

Sometimes, Almost Relationships are ambiguous, slow-moving, gradual and casual. And you know what? Maybe that’s okay.

There’s a psychological phenomenon called “the mere exposure effect,” where people tend to develop a preference for things as they become more familiar with them.1 So if that guy who’s your Almost Boyfriend isn’t as confident as you’d like him to be at first, he may feel better approaching a rela- tionship with you over time. “In studies that deal with interpersonal attraction, the more often a person sees someone, the more pleasing and likeable they tend to rate them,” dating expert Susan Walsh says, something she says has “enormous implications for dating.”

In analyzing research on exposure and attraction, Walsh writes that familiarity breeds tons of positive effects: finding common ground to bond over; repeated responsiveness, including encouragement, support and humor; mutual self-disclosure, which brings you closer; feeling liked, and thus liking the person more in return; less critical views of any one interaction; and feelings of comfort and safety.2 Men must feel this like you must feel this.

The more often you’re around the guys in your Almost Boyfriend pool, the less intimidating you may seem—and, yes, the more you may like them and get to figure out if they could one day be your boy- friend. If you’re unconvinced, look at this multipart 2015 University of Texas research from the journal Psychological Science.3 These scientists rounded up 167 couples and determined how long they’d known each other before making it official. Roughly 40 percent of the couples included in the study were friends before dating.

That’s a lot! So first lesson: Chill out, let him be friends with you, and don’t get passive-aggressive if he goes slow. Just get to know him. Show him you’re not scary—you’re actually superfun, and you love hanging out with him as a person.

Some really decent guys may need extra time to gear themselves up for a relationship with you. Case in point: The researchers in the 2015 Texas study had a bunch of strangers rank each half of the partner pairings on attractiveness to get the most objective measures possible. The results? Couples ranking close together on objective attractiveness tended to make it official much quicker—in under a month; those with a larger gap in objective attractiveness typically took longer to couple up, around nine months. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

The researchers ultimately discovered that getting to know someone changed individuals’ views of a given person. Perhaps some men know this on an innate level. In analyzing how the study might play out IRL, psychologist Dylan Selterman, PhD,4 writes that one implication of this research “might be that the best strategy to date someone ‘out of your league’ is to become friends with them first and be patient. One of my childhood friends calls this ‘playing the long game.’” Selterman notes that we don’t really know how effective a strategy this is, but hey. You might not even know a guy is doing that. (Until now, of course.)

Here’s my biggest takeaway: Everyone is aware of markers of objective attractiveness, like looks, intelligence, status, career, and popularity with the opposite sex. And sometimes, that guy you like might subconsciously grade you “out of his league.” Objective measures might make an Almost Boyfriend wary, but they don’t account for our individual preferences at all. You may think his nerdy side is extremely sexy or his awkwardness is adorable, or may not care that he’s not totally figured out his life, but it may take him a while to convince himself that you’re totally into him regardless. This is true of all humans: We all carry around some self-doubt.

Get to know men at a steady, comfortable pace. Be friendly. Be present. Be enthusiastic about spending time together. Create an encouraging environment. As shown by the UT study, time allows for real connection and individual attraction to grow.

Meet the Back-Burner Prospect, a.k.a. YOU

You might not need much of an explanation for this phenomenon here if you’ve ever chased (or been towed along by) an Almost Boyfriend. To illustrate the Back-Burner Prospect, let me point to a 2014 study from Hope College.5 The research was actually devised by a guy who admitted he kept “back burners” himself back in grad school.6 I know that sounds bad, but stay with me here.

The study defines such a back burner 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 possibil- ity of future romantic and/or sexual involvement.”  Single people have them. Coupled-up people have them. You probably have them, if you’re totally honest with yourself. The point is, people keep the door open for something romantic or sexual later.

Just because you’re on the back burner does not mean a guy doesn’t value you. (Later, I am going to show you an Almost Boyfriend who feels a stronger connection to you, his Back-Burner Prospect, than to his actual dates.) Sometimes, he’s not sure he’s ready for the full-blown commitment that is you, or that he’s evolved far enough from his baser instincts to “settle down.” Sometimes, a guy knows a relationship with you is the absolute best dish on his menu—but it’ll take the longest to cook, and he’s whisking and tasting other pots of stew in the meantime.

However, I want you to be real with yourself when confronting whether “he’s just not that into you.” Most of this centers around three questions:

1. Is there a nonphysical connection and chemistry (mental and emotional)?

2. Do you feel like he respects you?

3. Is the pace slow, and is it building?

An Almost Boyfriend is not a hookup buddy. He resides in that weird corner of the friend zone where the electrical current runs high and sparks keep flying. Which is why I want you to pay attention and ask yourself:

“Is he basically friend-zoning himself, or allowing me to friend-zone him? Does he want to hang out with me doing nonphysical activities, while occasionally showing signs he feels more?”

If the answer is yes, then relax for a while; he wants to know you as a person. The friend zone is a perfectly respectable place for a guy to be—as long as it’s not driving you nuts.

New York City–based entrepreneur Nathan, 30, is one such example of a man who keeps high-quality back burners around—and one of my more insightful male interviewees. He has been in all kinds of rela- tionships, and in his mind, the women who pass through his life have different levels of meaning—some he’s just getting to know, others he knows on a deeper level and there’s some spark, and some he’d consider long-term relationships with (maybe). Each relationship is different and has fluctuating levels of significance.

While technically single, Nathan  has an “ecosystem” of relation- ships at different stages—he’s getting to know women. Nathan is in no rush to settle down, or even find one specific relationship or person. He seeks to be transparent if something changes with one of the women he’s seeing, but he’s aware that the nature of our ever-in-flux lives means that dating today isn’t really about dating.

It’s about getting to know people, forming relationships that matter, and letting life unfold. You have to trust that when you meet a potential right person at a potential right time, you both are going to recognize that and be able to push play on a relationship that mutually suits your long-term goals. “If your goals are very clear, there’s no rea- son to compromise on them,” Nathan says, insightfully.  “But there are hundreds of ways to get there.”

I want you to learn to breathe in ambiguity and let men categorize themselves—but also to relax a little and learn that good things take time. “Successful women want the science to predict how things are going to play out, and the indicators of a potential good partner,” Nathan observes. “But I think one of the most vital skills in life is flexing the muscle of development that is ‘not knowing.’”

Adapted from the book THE LOVE GAP: A Radical Way to Win in Life and Love by Jenna Birch. Copyright © 2018 by Jenna Birch. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved. 

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