John P., 26, of Aspen, CO, does very well with women — if by “well,” you mean: he is very, very good at becoming their friend
. Which is nice (and so is he, of course)… except that what he really wants is to be their boyfriend
. It’s a problem; John either falls in love with his female friends, or he becomes friends with women he’s already in love with. Either way, these friendships seem virtually impossible to upgrade. “If you do or say anything, the whole friendship becomes delicate and uncomfortable, if it survives at all,” says John.
Defining the “backup boyfriend”
Yes, John is that
guy. The nice guy some women treat as a pretend boyfriend, the boyfriend substitute (“I Can’t Believe It’s Not Boyfriend!”)… he’s the backup boyfriend
. The genuinely, terrifically nice guy who’s always surrounded by women: women complaining to him about their boyfriends, women who call him on Valentine’s Day when other options vanish, women who want to date someone just like him
— except they won’t date him specifically, for whatever reason.
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But that’s not how things have to be. Here’s the good news for all you backup boyfriends (BBs): It’s not you.
It’s your playbook
. Being the BB is just a pattern, and it’s one that you can break. “It’s a choice. You are the one who consents to being the ‘safe’ backup guy,” says Los Angeles-based dating coach Evan Marc Katz
, author of Why He Disappeared
. “You’re the one who needs to say, ‘I’m going to stop putting myself in the friend zone. I might as well be her girlfriend.’”
How does the BB pattern start? For many men, it goes back — at least — to high school or junior high: “the age when you begin to really notice girls,” says Robert Glover
, a family and marital therapist in Bellevue, WA and author of No More Mr. Nice Guy!
. “You may not have had the best social skills, or you weren’t great-looking, rich, or the quarterback. You concluded that you needed some kind of plan to stand out from the crowd of pimply, awkward boys who all had the same goal as you — getting girls’ attention — but who all also didn’t have a clue.” It’s at this time, theorizes Glover, that nice guys become Nice Guys, when their identity becomes a strategy, when their character becomes a campaign. “Your 14-year-old mind told you that this — being different from the other guys, the ‘jerks’ that girls complain about — was probably your best approach for winning girls’ affection.”
How being nice can backfire
The only problem is, it didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. Why? Is it because women prefer jerks? No!
“We tend to think in black and white, ‘nice’ vs. ‘jerk,’” says Glover, adding that BBs tend to associate “hitting on” women — i.e., wanting (at least eventually) to have an intimate relationship with them — with being a “jerk.” Result: in that context, even flirting seems jerky, so they switch their behaviors to a more passive, “harmless” mode… which gets BBs nowhere but the friend zone. “Men ask, ‘How can I talk to a woman without letting her know I’m hitting on her?’” says Glover. “She knows
why you’re talking to her. Why shouldn’t she? Why do you think that’s bad? It’s called flirting.”
Why do women keep backup boyfriends around?
Wouldn’t women prefer to be in a “real” relationship? Why do women keep backup boyfriends around, even when they usually know the man wants more than just friendship? Are they just playing games — having their cake and a nice guy who’ll do the dishes afterward? It’s actually not that callous, says Doree Lewak
, author of The Panic Years: A Guide to Surviving Smug Married Friends, Bad Taffeta, and Life on the Wrong Side of 25 Without a Ring
. “It’s a function of loneliness, plus laziness. Backups provide some security and allow you to get a little complacent; if Plan A doesn’t work out, maybe your backup will
. But a backup holds you back from really searching for the best possible match, and from seeing your backup as the best possible match.” (See? It’s just like in the movies!)
How to break the cycle
1. Limit — for this “practice” period, at least — your friendships with women.
“They tend to make strictly platonic relationships feel normal,” says Glover.
2. Stop putting women on pedestals.
“Once you put a woman on a pedestal, she’s looking down at you,” says Katz. They’re just women. Interesting, smart, pretty women, no doubt, but they’re still just people
. (Since you already know how to relate to women as “pals” and therefore already consider them your quasi-equals, you have a head start over men who lack female friends and think of women only as quarry.)
3. Ask a woman out.
(Specifically, make sure she knows it’s a date by using words like “movie,” “dinner,” and “Wednesday,” not “something” or “sometime.”) I guarantee you that a specific, take-charge invitation is 100% more attractive and exciting for her than your usual tactic of hanging around, always trying to win her approval. But what if she says no, you ask? She might.
And in the big picture, that is not a bad thing. “Most backup boyfriends are not willing to get to rejection. They hang onto women who won’t get all the way into them for years, living in a fantasy world where, if they just wait long enough, she’ll eventually choose them,” says Glover. This protects backup boyfriends from rejection, true, but it also keeps them in a constant state of suffering. (As John E. says, “I’m a little shy, so being the backup feels safe: I can get involved without
getting involved.”) “Quit ‘hoping,’ let go of the attachment, and recognize that there are a lot of great women out there,” admonishes Glover — specifically, a woman who will
want to date you. It’s also important to note that, for every backup boyfriend who thinks women want only jerks, there’s also a woman wondering where all the nice guys are.
4. Count on chemistry.
“I wasted years pining for women who told me I was the greatest guy and that any girl would be lucky to have me — except them,” says Ben S., 41, of Flagstaff, AZ. “I wish I had some magical secret to how I got out of that loop, but ultimately, it came down to meeting the right woman. Coming off yet another broken heart, I asked a woman out to lunch one day and something clicked.” They’ve been married for six months now. Ben adds: “As soon as I got engaged, the previous object of my affection decided she did
want me after all. Too late! Now I only like her as a friend.”
For the other side of this story, read Why “fixing” a man won’t make him love you
Lynn Harris (www.lynnharris.net) is co-creator, with Chris Kalb (www.chriskalb.com), of the award-winning website BreakupGirl.net. A longtime journalist, Lynn has written about dating, gender, and culture high and low for
Glamour, Marie Claire, The New York Times, Salon.com, Nerve.com, and many others. She is currently the communications strategist for Breakthrough, a transnational organization that creates pop culture to promote human rights. Submit your dating questions for Ask Lynn via firstname.lastname@example.org
Article courtesy of Match.com