If there were a dictionary of all the nuanced forms of shitty dating behavior, I’d light it on fire. Seriously.
Nowadays, I can’t vent about my single-and-dating woes to my happily coupled pals without someone explaining with diagnostic glee that there’s a term for that.
That girl I’d been phone-sexing stopped the steamy chat but keeps watching my IG stories? I’m being orbited! The hottie from Stonewall has only an 80 percent response rate? Apparently, I’m being slowfaded.
Like, thanks Nancy*, but relax.
But then there was a new choice move that my pals had no words for: chatting me up (and up and up) online but nixing the possibility of meeting due to “work obligations” that apparently last until further notice.
And I learned that a sigh followed by an “I’m so sorry, Gab. That must be hard for you” is a 10 times more irritating response than “OMG! I was just reading about this trend.”
So, because I’m apt at using my job as a sex and relationships writer for personal gain, I’m inventing a term for this behavior: shelving.
It’s the non-letdown letdown. It’s keeping someone on the back burner but disguising it as career-mindedness or ambition. It’s breadcrumbing but with the addition of the under-the-radar manipulative BRBASAWCD (BRB as soon as work calms down).
Back in January, on an uncharacteristically unbooked Friday (yeah, that’s a flex), I started chatting up an old Tinder match. Let’s call her Rebecca*. She was a stellar conversationalist and great at providing words of affirmation.
While she wasn’t what I typically go for, we continued to exchange texts for a month until she suggested meeting up for coffee.
That’s when I pulled the calendar card.
“You know, I’d really love to hang out, but I’m honestly just too busy and overwhelmed by work to commit to a time and place.” Or, blah de blah blah, “but I’d love to link back up when work calms down.”
Translation: It’s not you, it’s my schedule.
At first we kept in touch with slightly less frequency, but within a few days our exchanges fizzled into nothingness.
Francis checks me, saying, ‘Just because someone is bored doesn’t mean that they’re ready for the relationship escalation of meeting in person.’
I’m tempted to defend myself because work was busy AF and she lives two states away, so meeting actually would have been a time commitment. But in all transparency, I also have zero interest in “linking up” with Rebecca offline — ever. (To be honest, I really just liked being emotionally fed by her “good morning” texts and vague interest in the articles I was writing.)
I know what you’re thinking: That’s shitty behavior. And hey, I agree.
Flash forward to my next dating ventures: This hot human who is definitely my type (read: has “could kill me” vibes and is also in therapy) slid into my DMs with some flame emojis.
I said something thirsty about their forearm vein, they told me they loved the article I’d written about anal sex (which I’d posted in my Insta story), and, well, one thing led to another and I gave them my number.
What followed was two weeks of an eager back-and-forth of sex-texting and queer memes. The literal dream. But when I suggested meeting face to face, their budding freelance career got contorted into a rejection: “You’re honestly a great girl, but I don’t have time with all the gigs I’ve got coming up. I’d love to let you know when my calendar opens up.”
Because supposedly texting someone constantly for weeks is less time-consuming than a coffee date.
With the expectation of meeting up now removed, we chatted occasionally (mostly about work) for another week, and then it fizzled.
Listen, ambition is one of those personality traits I’m horny for — but, like, that’s not what this was. This was what I’d done to Rebecca. This was shelving.
Dating-fatigued outta my mind, I called up one of my single friends, then another. Then another. And, to my horror, the more I talked to my single friends — especially the ones in cities that bowed to the hustle — the more I realized how damn common this shitty I-can’t-right-now-’cause-work-but-maybe-later excuse is.
I’d even go as far as to call it a nuanced dating trend.
The word “shelving” came to fruition during a conversation with my pal Molly*. After she’d engaged in a week of 24/7 texting and nightly phone sex with a guy she’d met on the internet, he canceled their plans to meet and wrote off the reschedule due to “crazy work obligations.”
Exasperated and slightly tipsy, she said, “I’m sick of these [people] chatting me up constantly, then putting me on a shelf until they feel like making time, if ever, like I’m a human nonperishable.”
When I explained the gist of “shelving” via email to my friend, she responded, “OMG. This is every friend I have. Jill* just texted me this morning and literally the guy said (after they sent essays to each other for days) basically that he can’t give her what she needs because of work and he can’t hang out and ideally they can stay in touch for when he has more ‘emotional space.’”
Shelving: the act of chatting someone up in a way that suggests something more is going to happen in real life but then using work obligations to avoid making definitive plans to meet offline. Usually, this is accompanied by a plea to stay in touch and/or a promise to meet up when work settles down. But it rarely results in actually meeting.
She went on gassing up my shelving idea: “This is super fresh. Yes, this is a thing. And yes, this has happened to me SEVERAL times.” (Now I’m just flexing my trend-spotting abilities. But myself, I stan.)
So, why do people feel they have a license to shelve?
Shadeen Francis, LMFT, a relationship and marriage therapist specializing in sex therapy and social justice, says, “There are all sorts of motivations for this shelving behavior.” She helps me break them down below.
It’s pretty clear that the pre-shelving chitchat is an excellent cure for boredom. You’ve got nothing to do, so chatting up a stranger is an easy way to fill the time. This is exactly why I shelved Rebecca (I know, I’m a POS), so when Francis listed “bored” as a hypothesis, I elevated it to official theory territory.
In the case of my hot DM, I asked Francis, “If they’re bored, why don’t they meet me [anyway]?”
Francis checks me, saying, “Just because someone is bored doesn’t mean that they’re ready for the relationship escalation of meeting in person.”
In this case, work is simply being used as a way to soften the rejection, and the person likely doesn’t want to meet offline — ever.
Future Rebeccas, I promise I’ll replace my shelving behavior with a sincere “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in more than an online flirtationship right now” because living the hustle doesn’t give you an excuse to treat people badly. Period.
Shelving may seem at first like an oddball thing to do, but Francis asks me to think about it. “For some folks, the very beginning stages of a relationship are the most exciting. There’s just the passion: excitement, curiosity, interest, maybe even erotic energy, depending on the tone of the conversations.”
She goes on: “Because even if you have fallen into a communication routine, there is no negotiated commitment.”
Francis suspects that the person would likely continue the back-and-forth until there starts to be an inkling of commitment, which the invitation to hang out provides. “This represents a sweet spot for folks who may not be interested in much more than this flirtatious, exploratory dynamic,” she says.
Basically, shelving happens not because of work commitments but because of a disinterest in romantic commitment — for whatever reason that may be.
Francis suggests that some people might think they’re interested in more when the back-and-forth begins but panic when the opportunity arises, which results in shelving.
“Some people are anxious or overwhelmed about the idea of meeting in person and moving forward, and are trying to buy more time to think about what they want or are ready for,” she says.
If they return to said shelf (you) after a week or two and are ready to meet up, it could be that they just needed to sort out their own shit. But if they’re seemingly MIA, chances are you’re being shelved further back. Meaning they’re not just buying time, they’re tossing the blame to their Google cal instead of taking responsibility for not being ready for more right now. Pretty rude, no?
Francis says it’s up to you whether you want to hold out hope and wait to see if they’ll eventually make actual plans. But that doesn’t come without risks (more on this below).
My jaded self may jump to worst-case scenarios, but Francis says it’s possible that a shelver is being genuine!
“They could honestly be very busy with professional, personal, or familial projects, and so they would rather put the relationship on hold, like they say,” she says.
Yep, being shelved doesn’t necessarily mean the person didn’t like you. To suss out whether they’re actually busy or they’re using this as an excuse to peace out, simply ask.
Try this phrase: “Totally understand! Just so I know, do you see work settling down eventually, and are you genuinely interested in meeting up when it does? Or is this just not what you’re looking for?”
“That way you can make an informed decision about whether or not you’re willing to mentally or emotionally wait and will be willing to remain open to reconnection in the future,” says Francis.
“Shelving is a form of relational ambiguity, which can wreak havoc on a person’s wellness,” says Francis. “It can make you feel like you’re waiting, which leaves room for self-doubt and self-consciousness, anxiety about the outcomes, and disappointment from unmet expectations.”
Unfortunately, that checks out.
Her suggestion: Remember that in an ideal relationship, both parties are able to communicate in a timely and honest manner and be direct about what they’re looking for. And shelving, well, it’s at least not that.
I don’t know about you, but next time I’m shelved, I’m gonna let that relationship spoil, rot, and die faster than you can say “I’m the prize.” Because I am.
*Names were changed for privacy, because some people don’t actually want their love lives blasted all over the internet.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.