Back when I was single gal, I became tangled in one of those vague and confusing relationships that was terribly undefined. Although we acted like a couple, the terms were never very clear. He wouldn’t commit or even talk about committing, but I felt like I was his girlfriend. We spent tons of time together, talked all the time, and seemed incredibly close. And yet, we weren’t “official.”
One day I talked with a male friend about the situation. I wanted a man’s perspective, and I hoped he could shed some light on the predicament. Once he heard my story, his response was simple and flat: “You’re his girlfriend place-holder.”
I didn’t know what he meant, so he explained that some guys have a female friend who functions as a girlfriend in virtually every way. They talk a lot, spend a lot of one-on-one time together, go on pseudo-dates, act flirtatious, even make out, etc. For all intents and purposes the guy seems like he is interested, yet he never wants to commit. In fact, he never even broaches the topic of dating.
Why? Because the female friend is a “girlfriend place-holder.” The guy is basically biding his time until he meets the girl he really wants to date.
In a lot of ways, this relational dynamic makes sense. We all want companionship in some form or another, so even if we haven’t met Mr. or Mrs. Right just yet, many of us will find someone to meet those desires until the “real thing” comes along. And guys aren’t the only ones guilty of doing this. Women are equal offenders. Ladies, you know what I’m talking about: he pays for meals when you go out and he’s always available if you’re feeling bored, insecure, lonely, whatever…and you have absolutely no intention of dating him.
What is interesting about this form of guy-girl relationship is that it is deceptively intimate. Unlike blatant serial flirting or hooking up, which is intentionally shallow, place-holding relationships can have tremendous depth.
That is what keeps the “place-holders” hanging on so long. They hold out hope that sooner or later he’ll snap out of it: “One of these days he’s going to wake up and realize what a good thing he has right in front of him!” That sort of thing.
However, I tend to think that these relationships can result in far greater emotional damage than more shallow versions of its kind. Place-holders are more apt to open themselves up and be vulnerable since they feel they can trust the other person, or they hope it will move the relationship forward.
This ultimately leaves the “place-holder” feeling confused, hurt, and sometimes devastated. I have a number of girl friends who are in this exact situation. They have a close guy friend with whom they spend a lot of time, but he just won’t commit. In fact, he won’t even acknowledge the quasi-romantic nature of their relationship. Perhaps he’s afraid of commitment, but it’s also likely that he has no intention of dating at all. He is intentionally or unintentionally using my friend as a girlfriend place-holder.
All of this raises an interesting question: As common as it is to have a girlfriend or boyfriend place-holder, is it right? On the one hand, you could argue that both parties are benefiting from the arrangement. Why not let them use one another to fill a void?
On the other hand, there is the distinct sense that one person is taking advantage of another. It’s one thing if the two have talked it over and each person’s intentions are clear, but in the place-holder scenario there is an air of deception. Or at least convenient omission.
Different people will come to different conclusions about the rightness of place-holding, depending on one’s convictions about dating do’s and don’ts. As a person of faith, here’s where I come down:
You may have heard of “The Golden Rule,” which teaches “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It comes from Luke 6:31 and it’s a helpful litmus testing for place-holding because, quite frankly, no one wants to be a place-holder. It’s the worst. As a place-holder, you are strung along for weeks, months, or even years with nothing to show for it but disappointment. I wouldn’t want to be treated that way, so how could I do that to another?
If someone is your place-holder, I think a gut check is in order. If you know they are doomed to your friend zone, then you need to make it clear. And if you yourself are a place-holder, be honest with yourself about. You deserve someone who is going to reciprocate, so don’t settle for less. Bite the bullet, let the relationship go, and open yourself up for something better.
Thanks Alex Promios for the lovely photo!
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, student, wife, and mom to a precious son and a little fur-baby chihuahua. She enjoys writing about faith, culture, gender, marriage, and new motherhood. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's blog for women, Her.meneutics, as well as Ungrind.org, CultivateHer.com, and her own blog, SheWorships.com. She currently lives just outside Chicago, where she is working on a Ph.D. in Educational Studies. Follow her @SHoddeMiller.
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