Chances are, even if the words have never left your mouth, at some point in your life you’ve probably found yourself thinking about a relationship, “Well, it’s better than nothing.” And if these words have crossed your mind about your current relationship, it’s time to listen up and make a change.
Dating coach Mary Gorham Malia refers to this concept as “Better-Than-Nothing” (BTN) relationships. These BTNs are exactly what they sound like—situations where collegiettes fall into dull, incompatible or second-rate matches just because they feel that any relationship is better than no relationship at all.
Sound familiar? Read our nine signs your relationship might be a BTN to figure out if it’s time to move onto a match you really deserve.
Sign #1: You Have to Remind Yourself Why You’re Still in the Relationship
In a BTN relationship, you might find yourself coming up with reasons to stay with your partner that have to do with everything but your partner themself.
“In your head it’s, ‘It’s better than being alone,’” Malia says. “‘It’s better than being lonely. It’s better than having no one to hang out with on the weekends. It’s better than going to dance by myself.’ But it’s not a relationship where you go, ‘This is just so great. This person is so amazing. I am so lucky to have them in my life.’ They’re really different kinds of relationships.”
The perks that you consider don’t have to be emotional. Your partner could have a nice car, provide regular physical gratification or even be a great study partner. Or, in the case of Iris*, a Northwestern University senior, he could simply be conveniently located.
“I lived in a dorm that was three-fourths of a mile away from anything useful on campus. He lived in a dorm that was a lot more centralized,” she says of her freshman year BTN boyfriend. “Ergo, a convenient place to sleep.”
Sign #2: You Don’t Imagine Your Breakup as Hard… But You Don’t Embrace Being Single
A lot of the time with BTNs, there might be a sense of ambivalence that you find yourself ignoring. Sure, you can like your partner well enough, but take the time to imagine the two of you breaking up. Is the thought hard to swallow… or can you easily picture yourself moving on? If it’s the latter, it might be time to do just that.
Kelsey Mulvey, a Boston University senior and HC’s How She Got There editor, says her high school boyfriend was textbook BTN.
“We were good friends, but he simply wasn't the type of guy for me. Since we were good friends and I never had a boyfriend before, I decided to give it a chance,” she says. “Since we were such good friends and I was comfortable in the relationship, I was afraid that the alternative was being alone.”
If you often find yourself gravitating toward relationships and are uncomfortable with being alone, it might be telling of why you’re in your current relationship in the first place. And what might that reason be? You guessed it––because it feels like it’s better than nothing.
Sign #3: You Ignore Things That Would Normally Bother You
We’re not saying that every little issue should be cause for a breakup, but do you find yourself ignoring the big stuff? Are you completely bored when you’re together? Do you have nothing in common? Do you fight too much? Silencing your thoughts about why you should ditch your relationship might help you deny its BTN status, but it won’t make the relationship any better.
Kate*, a 24-year-old professional, struggled for more than two years with her BTN boyfriend in college, whose family often interfered with their relationship.
“We fought at least once a week about his demanding, crazy sister and his mom, who was even worse,” she says. “[I thought], ‘I can impress his mom eventually. She’ll see.’ I was in total denial.”
Only you can determine good reasons to ditch a deadbeat relationship, but “putting up with it is better than being alone” should never be one of them.
Sign #4: Time Away From Each Other is too Easy
We don’t advocate co-dependent relationships where every moment apart is unbearable, but never missing your partner isn’t a good sign! If you find your time away comes with no great emotional strain––or worse, you find it refreshing and preferable––you’re lacking a sense of attachment that you’d feel if you really cared about your partner.
More than that, time away from your partner can be telling of which path you should pursue, both in ending things and what you do after your relationship.
“I went home for the summer and rediscovered how great it was to be myself outside of the context of relationship,” says Iris. “That provided me with the clarity I needed and sort of set the ball rolling for our breakup at the end of the summer.”
Sign #5: You Worry About Losing His Friends More Than Losing Him
If you’ve built a relationship with a person, it’s completely natural to worry about the things that would change if you broke up. Whether you share a group of friends, an extracurricular activity or just a nice routine together, it can be hard to imagine how things would be disrupted after a breakup.
“We had the same friend group, which as a freshman [was] invaluable,” says Iris. “Breaking up with him [meant] putting my entire social foundation in jeopardy.”
Pay attention to these worries. If these outside circumstances are the only things tying you to your relationship, it’s time to cut loose. Those reasons alone aren’t enough to keep you in a relationship you’re otherwise not invested in.
Sign #6: You Can’t Remember How or Why Your Relationship Began
Ever found yourself in a relationship before you made the actual decision to do so? On a college campus where relationships often grow out of hook-ups or other uncertain circumstances, stumbling into a relationship like this can lead to BTN territory.
This happened to Iris, who found herself in a relationship around Christmas her freshman year after about a month of hooking up.
“Because college time is weird, it didn't feel like we were moving too fast,” she says. “But in retrospect, if we had known each other even a little bit longer, it probably wouldn't have happened.”
The same might be the case for you: if you let yourself be swept into a relationship without much enthusiasm, it might be time to enthusiastically get yourself out of it instead.
Sign #7: You Always Feel Guilty
So far we’ve been talking about you, but what about him? Remember: You both deserve more than a BTN. If you have a sense of guilt or discomfort you can’t place about your relationship, ask yourself if you might be feeling bad for leading him on. Is it obvious that there’s an imbalance of feelings and that you’re a lot less invested than he is? Everyone deserves to be with someone who cares for them and values them, so don’t let your BTN be a placeholder until something better comes along. The earlier you end it, the better. It will save him the heartache and you the trouble of a nasty breakup.
“He cried; I didn’t,” says Iris of her breakup with her BTN. “He said I was the person that he saw himself being with through all of college, maybe even beyond. And it wasn't until then that I fully realized how much more he was invested in things between us. I felt bad for hurting his feelings, but worse that I hadn't ended things earlier, because I think it would have saved him a lot of heartbreak. Clearly he was under the impression that things were more serious than I ever intended them to be.”
Sign #8: Talking About the Future Makes You Uncomfortable
Do you cringe every time your partner tries to make future plans with you? Whether it’s discussing meeting the parents, post-grad arrangements or something as simple as going to your sorority formal a month from now, finding yourself constantly wanting to change the subject is a red flag.
You might have thought that you were just a commitment-phobe, but if talking about the future makes you uneasy, it might just be the thought of the future with him. If you don’t want to talk about it, it might be time to ask yourself: is it because you don’t see this particular relationship having much of a place in your future?
If the answer is yes, make sure you speak up. Not being ready to talk about the future isn’t necessarily a huge problem, but not being upfront about it is, especially if your partner is on a different page.
“Feel free to keep it casual, but make sure you’re communicating with each other and that you’re really setting those expectations,” says Malia.
Sign #9: Before Reading This List, You Suspected it Would Apply to You
Chances are, if you’re in a BTN, you already know it and just haven’t done anything about it yet. Malia doesn’t call them BTNs for nothing––many collegiettes stay in them because they’ve successfully convinced themselves that the relationships are better than nothing. But women who keep themselves tied down in BTNs are denying themselves the satisfaction of finding someone who is not only better than nothing, but better than plenty of other things as well.
The bottom line? You’re better than a Better-Than-Nothing relationship, so don’t be afraid to make the leap toward experiencing something actually worthwhile, whether that means a relationship you're genuinely invested in or just having fun being single.
“If you stay with a BTN, that makes you unavailable when the right person shows up, and that’s one of the lessons that I’m trying to teach women,” says Malia. “Yeah, okay, date. Have fun. But don’t think that means having to settle.”
*Names have been changed.