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Plate spinning is defined as “a circus manipulation art where a person spins plates, bowls and other flat objects on poles, without them falling off.”
In intimate relationships, a plate spinner is a guy (or woman) who never actually commits to being in a relationship with you, but once he senses you’re ready to move on, he swoops back into your life full of charm and empty promises just keep you around—or at least, on the backburner.
In other words, he gives you a little push just so your emotions keep on spinning and your relationship doesn't come crashing to the ground (like a proverbial plate). Sound familiar?
The Plate Spinner’s M.O.
Many of us have dated a plate spinner or know someone who has. They are the magicians of dating: They show up, blow your mind and then pull a disappearing act (nod if this sounds familiar).
“If you go out on a couple of dates and it seems like it went well and then you get a text from him 10 days later that says, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ that’s a huge red flag,” says Rachel Sussman, a marriage and family therapist in New York City and author of “The Breakup Bible: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Healing from Breakup or Divorce.” “Really nice guys don’t play games. They will reach out and say, ‘I hope we can do it again.’”
Plate spinners, on the other hand, are the guys who never want you more than when you have one foot out the door. “They can be very charming and want to wine and dine you, but they really have no interest in moving it further,” says Sussman.
That could be for several different reasons: They’re "avoidant," a type of relationship attachment style that makes them reluctant to get close to romantic partners and feel suffocated by intimacy, or they may have recently gotten out of a relationship or a divorce and are looking for a welcome distraction. Or they may be pursuing another girl who isn’t giving them the time of day—and you’re the first (or third) backup option. Ouch.
Dating plate spinners is equivalent to permanently being on a rollercoaster ride with its dramatic ups (“He wants to take me to Paris for New Year’s!”) and downs (“What happened to Paris?”).
When you do get together it’s fun, sexy and stimulating—it feels like you won something when you finally nab a date with this guy. “The problem is you go out and every once in a while it’s totally spectacular,” says David Sbarra, Ph.D., YouBeauty Relationship Expert. “This is the reason people play slot machines—every once in a while it pays off.” But then he disappears for two weeks or more and you’re left wondering what you said or did wrong, repeatedly checking your cell phone in case you missed a call or text from him and moping over his painfully noticeable absence.
By allowing this bad behavior to continue (and passively praying it will change), you’re actually encouraging it. Here’s how a plate spinner thinks, according to Sbarra: “‘If I can come over every Friday night, have drinks, watch TV and fool around, I’m going to do it because you let me and because you seem to like it.’ People will get away with whatever suits them in the pursuit of feeling good. They will get away with it until someone stops them.”
Why Women Pursue Plate Spinners
Plate spinners exude unavailability (aka they’re a challenge) so it’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit and excitement of trying to hook someone like this. “It’s a competition with yourself to see if you can turn an emotionally unavailable person into an available one,” says Sbarra. “It’s also a way to escape real living. If you chase after someone you can never really get, you ultimately avoid finding someone you can get.”
The truth is, if you really wanted to be in a solid, healthy relationship, you would choose someone who was actually available and—here’s a concept—there for you. But after riding this exciting, heart-thumping rollercoaster, a nice, available guy that has "relationship" woven into his DNA can seem boring by comparison—even if he’s far from it.
“It’s like Carrie, Aiden and Mr. Big,” explains Sbarra. “Aiden was a regular, good guy who was there for her. To most people Aiden looks great—he’s not a dud. But for Carrie, there’s something about her personality that made him seem ‘boring’ and that boring is the signal of death. And with Mr. Big there’s a chance of explosive happiness. That’s a fairly big mistake people fall into.”
Also, despite the fact that you spend the majority of the time feeling crummy when you’re in the clutches of a plate spinner, starting over doesn’t always look so appetizing. “Many times the woman desperately wants to be with this particular guy and the other alternatives in her life aren’t so good,” explains Sbarra. “You think, ‘at least I can have some physical contact and be intimate with him because if I kick this guy to the curb, I have to start all over again with someone else.’”
How to Stop the Spin Cycle
It’s not easy to quit cold turkey when you’re hot and heavy for a guy who oozes charm and sex appeal and is more electrifying than anyone you’ve ever met before. “I know these guys can be really exciting and the feeling you get when you receive that text, you meet up and have great sex, but how are you going to feel the next day when you have no idea if or when you’re going to hear from him ever again?” says Sussman. “The glory of that conquest is not worth the pain you’ll feel the next day. It’s a steep price to pay.”
If he’s not giving you what you need—and if he’s a plate spinner, he’s not by definition—it’s up to you to do something about it.
Sbarra suggests being straightforward with him (and honest with yourself) and telling the guy what you want, whether it’s seeing each other more often or a genuine commitment. “It has to be a specific request, yes or no,” says Sbarra. In other words, “this is what I’m looking for—are you on the same page?” Yes, it’s a gamble and chances are he’ll tell you that he’s just looking to have fun, or else his false charm will kick in and he’ll agree that you should see each other more often, but then he’ll never step up to the plate. In either case, it’s time to say buh-bye.
If you’re having a hard time breaking things off, then it’s time to dig deep: “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I attracted to this person who is clearly giving out signals that they don’t want to be in a relationship?’” suggests Sussman. “’What is wrong with me that I’m willing to put up with behavior that, if a friend was going through it, would you say, ‘Don’t ever go out with a guy like that’?”
Allowing a plate spinner to have such sway and focus in your life is a sign of low self-esteem and a low sense of self-worth. “Maybe they don’t feel they’re worthy to have a good stable partner,” adds Sbarra. The plate spinner’s hot-and-cold conduct only serves as constant “proof” of a lack of worth. If you know you're the bomb (which you are), you would never put up with this crap.
Whether through some serious soul searching, or, better yet, with the help of a professional therapist, it’s important to get to the root of why you’d sell your wonderful self so short. Otherwise, you could get stuck in this damaging plate-spinning pattern rather than find the genuine, loving—and yes, sexy—partner you deserve.
Adds Sussman, “you’ve got to pull yourself back and stop making excuses for him and yourself—and move forward.” In other words, it’s time to leave this clown at the circus, and get on with your life.
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