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Why We Put Relationships On Hold

It's natural to want to explore your options, but it puts you at risk.

"Now you’ve found a new star to orbit, it could be love
I think you’re too soon to call us old,
When and where did we go cold?
I thought I had you on hold."
The XX

Romantic decisions, especially concerning long-term relationships, are difficult. An abundance of enticing options makes people cautious before committing themselves to a relationship. Not pursuing an alluring romantic opportunity is often seen as a romantic compromise. However, it is impossible to examine all the possible attractive options. Further, the romantic search in itself has its own attractions—and costs.

Putting Someone on Hold

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

We cannot travel every possible romantic road, so we must prioritize and bypass certain paths: Some roads are abandoned for good, while others are put on hold for a rainy day or just for a change. To put someone "on hold" in the romantic realm is to decide to postpone a decision about what your future relationship might look like. Nevertheless, the decision not to decide does not mean terminating a romantic connection altogether. Rather, it temporarily blocks such a relationship from either ending or from developing to its fullest extent.

Underlying this seemingly plausible behavior of putting someone on hold is the assumption that time is of no significance, and that the somewhat neglected beloved will patiently maintain the same loving attitude. Although such a romantic freeze is possible in certain circumstances, lovers cannot always ignore the passing of time. Given that love needs time to develop and become deeper, time used badly, or not at all, can ruin a relationship. Time passed without progress is not merely wasted time; it is often damaging.

The song “On Hold” is about a man who gave up a romantic relationship, probably for another relationship, while thinking that he would still have the option of resuming the relationship he believed was on hold. The woman, however, moved on without him, and now he seems to feel that she has betrayed him by not waiting indefinitely for his decision.

Putting someone on hold is a popular tactic on dating sites. The sites provide access to so many potential partners that people make a prioritized list of who they would like to meet. As one man said, “If something goes wrong with my current relationship, I will go back to my list of 20 other women.”

Putting on hold those you have met just briefly is understandable. Doing so to a person with whom you are having an ongoing relationship is more problematic, because it considerably reduces the chances that the relationship will develop into a profound one. When you put someone on hold, you reduce the resources you invest in the relationship, and your attitude toward the partner becomes less positive. Your partner is bound to sense this.

Types of Waiting

"You can't hurry love, no you'll just have to wait;
She said love don't come easy, well it's a game of give and take;
You can't hurry love, no you'll just have to wait;
Just trust in the good times, no matter how long it takes."
—The Supremes

Waiting for a lover is typically regarded as a sign of profound love. Many stories and songs testify to the virtue of waiting. The Bible, for example, recounts the classical romantic story of Jacob, who waited for 14 years for Rachel.

We can discern two major types of waiting related to choosing a romantic partner—waiting while trying to overcome external obstacles to the loving relation, and waiting while trying to optimize the choice of the partner.

The first type of waiting concerns a relatively straightforward issue: Both lovers are certain about their love for each other, and they share the desire to overcome the external obstacles that prevent them from establishing a full-fledged, loving relationship. This often requires time, which the lovers are happy to invest to secure a future together.

The second type of waiting is more complex. The process of choosing a romantic partner is multifaceted and must take into account various short- and long-term considerations. Such a process can be done for two major ways or reasons—to examine the long-term qualities of a prospective partner in order to better understand the person’s essential positive and negative qualities, as well as his or her suitability as your partner, and to explore the comparative value of your partner by dating other people.

The first way or reason is associated with an attempt to ensure that there is a chance of developing profound long-term love; the second is associated with putting your decision on hold while you check out how your partner ranks with others. Whereas the first way or reason results in a concrete process that can end in a reasonable period of time, the process resulting from the second has no temporal limits. The first, in which the loving relationship is gradually established, is part of the process of courtship, in which two lovers get to know each other and deepen their positive attitudes toward each other. The second manifests as a constant comparative search for the best available product in town—and this search has no end, because there is a constant supply of fresh merchandise.

Putting someone on hold does not signal a stage on the road to romantic profundity, but a stage on the highway to dismantling a given relationship. In the first way or reason for choosing a partner, the lovers' meaningful joint activities are required for developing profound love. In putting the beloved on hold, the failure of the lover’s other activities is needed to enable the flourishing of the lovers’ togetherness. It is a kind of default second-best option.

Both ways of choosing a partner are valuable in different circumstances, but when dealing with long-term, profound love, the first is the one we should favor.

Leaving Romantic Doors Open

"Life consists not in holding good cards but in playing those you hold well." —Josh Billings

The phenomenon of putting a beloved on hold is related to the fundamental human wish not to leave any possible romantic door unexplored. But to have many romantic doors open, we must put some lovers on hold—letting them wait their turn.

Our imagination plays a crucial role in our life (and love), and we have an innate tendency to desire what is beyond our present circumstances. However, opening every romantic door that beckons can have costly ramifications. Leaving all options open is unrealistic; our resources are limited. Love requires investment, and leaving all romantic options alive can spread love too thin. On the other hand, closing romantic doors is incompatible with the significant role that change, curiosity, and improvement play in our lives.

In his book Predictably Irrational (2008), Dan Ariely argues that people have an irrational tendency to keep options open for too long, and so end up chasing impractical options. Given the greater freedom in modern society, people “are beset not by a lack of opportunity, but by a dizzying abundance of it," he writes—we want to taste and experience every aspect of life, regardless of price, thereby spreading ourselves too thin.

Another risk of such behavior, Ariely notes, is that some options disappear if we do not invest enough resources in keeping them alive. This disappearance can occur “too slowly for us to see them vanishing.” He contends that we need to close some of our options; otherwise, the best might not survive. The price of keeping so many options alive can be higher than the possible gain that we might derive.

Profound love shuts many open doors as we focus on the beloved. When someone has many lovers, we do not consider that person to be profoundly in love with any of them. A major criticism of promiscuity is indeed its indiscriminate nature. It is hard not to enter, and harder to close, seductive doors that remain open. As Paul Newman famously asked, “Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?” (Nevertheless, he cheated on his wife with journalist Nancy Bacon, leading some in Hollywood to quip, "Paul may not go out for hamburger, but he sure goes out for Bacon.")

Concluding Comments

"Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years." —Simone Signoret

The human tendency to put something on hold and to enter many open doors is natural and even necessary in many circumstances—doing so involves exploring other forms of relationships or life in general in order to broaden or improve our current situation. In contemporary society, however, these tendencies tend to be excessive in the romantic realm, posing formidable obstacles to establishing long-term, profound love.

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