Will an "Almost Boyfriend" Ever Become a Real Relationship?

Research indicates some modern relationships may take a longer time to form.

Posted Mar 16, 2018

Roman Kosolapov/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Kosolapov/Shutterstock

Smart, successful, single women in their 20s, 30s and 40s 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 a 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 relationship 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 adds 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 just as a woman 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 boyfriend. 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 a lot of fun, 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, Ph.D.,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 it. (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 you may not care that he’s not totally figured out his life, but it may still take him a while to convince himself that you’re into him. This is true of all humans: We all carry around some self-doubt.

Get to know someone 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 (aka You)

You might not need much of an explanation for this phenomenon 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 devised by a guy who admitted he kept “back burners” himself back in grad school.6

The study defined 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 possibility 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 an individual doesn’t value you. 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 choice on the menu — but it’ll take the longest to cook, and he’s whisking and tasting other pots of stew in the meantime.

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 partner. This person resides in that weird corner of the friend zone where the electrical current runs high, and sparks keep flying. Which is why you should 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, relax for a while; he wants to know you as a person. The friend zone is a perfectly respectable place to be — as long as it’s not driving you mad.

New York City-based entrepreneur Nathan, 30, is one such example of a man who keeps back burners — and one of my more insightful male interviewees. He has been in all kinds of relationships, 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 he’d consider long-term relationships with them. Each relationship is different and has varying levels of significance.

Nathan has an “ecosystem” of relationships at different stages; he’s getting to know women. He is in no rush to settle down, or even to find one specific relationship or partner. He seeks to be transparent if something changes with one of these women, 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 the potentially right person at the potentially 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 reason to compromise on them,” Nathan says, "but there are hundreds of ways to get there.”

Learn to breathe in ambiguity and let potential partners categorize themselves — but also learn to relax a little and understand 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 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. 


Robert B. Zajonc, “The Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure,”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Monograph Supplement, 2nd ser., 9, no. 2 ( June 1968): 1–27, http:// www.morilab.net/gakushuin/Zajonc_1968.pdf.

Susan Walsh, “How to Use Familiarity to Create Attraction,” Hooking Up Smart, Sept. 22, 2012, http://www.hookingupsmart.com/2011/03/15/relationshipstrategies/how-to-use-familiarity-to-create-attraction/.

Lucy Hunt, Paul Eastwick, and Eli Finkel, “Leveling the Playing Field: Longer Acquaintance Predicts Reduced Assortative Mating on Attractiveness,” Psychological Science 26, no. 7 (July 2015), https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615579273.

Dylan Selterman, “Who’s Hot, Who’s Not? Time Will Tell,” Science of Relation- ships, July 27, 2015, http://www.scienceofrelationships.com/home/2015/7/27/whos-hot-whos-not-time-will-tell.html

Jayson L. Dibble and Michelle Drouin, “Using Modern Technology to Keep in Touch with Back Burners: An Investment Model Analysis,” Computers in Human Behavior 34 (2014): 96 –100, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.01.042.

Julie Beck, “The Psychology of ‘Backburner’ Relationships,” Atlantic, Oct. 24, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/the-psychology-of-backburner-relation ships/381848/.

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