Back Burner Relationships: A Very Modern Dating Phenomenon

14 Oct

“Back burners” are those people we stay in touch with in the hope of someday pursuing a relationship, be that long-term or casual.

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You meet someone great. They’re hot, intelligent, warm, and funny. But they’re lacking one thing, and it’s no one’s fault: They’ve come into your life at the wrong time.

Perhaps you’re seeing someone—and it’s going okay, and not worth breaking off, but it’s not going amazingly, either. Or the two of you are interested in each other, but there are simply too many miles separating you, because of work, college, or family. The idea of dropping all communication seems crazy—so what do you do? Well there’s a term for it now: You maintain a back burner relationship.

“Back burners” are those people we stay in touch with in the hope of someday pursuing a relationship, be that long-term or casual. You could argue that the advent of the internet essentially birthed this relationship dynamic. Especially since social media has enabled us to stay in touch with anyone, anytime, anywhere, it’s never been easier to maintain a back burner relationship.

Keeping the flame burning just enough

Online communication means people can engage in the three so-called relationship maintenance behaviors:

  1. positivity: being compassionate, and ensuring your interactions are fun
  2. openness: disclosing personal information, and perhaps even sharing secrets
  3. assurances: demonstrating your willingness to sustain the relationship, and that you believe it has longevity.

In a piece of 2018 research, a team led by communications expert Jayson Dibble of Michigan State University addressed three questions relating to this relatively novel form of human relationship:

  1. How do people keep in touch with their back burners?
  2. What strategies do they use?
  3. How do people already in relationships stay connected to their back burners?

Participants reported whether they were single, in a casual relationship, or in a committed relationship, and identified their back burners by stating how many people they were in touch with for the purpose of hoping to become romantically or sexually attached. Finally, they named their most important back burner, and were asked whether they employed relationship maintenance behaviors with that person.

More people in committed relationships have back burners than you might expect

In terms of which of the three relationship maintenance behaviors were used with back burners, only half of those in committed relationships employed openness, compared to 80% of singles and 73% of those who were casually dating. Although there was little difference in the use of the three behaviors between singles and casual daters, people in committed relationships employed lower levels of positivity and assurance, why? Because commitment means disregarding potential replacements and having less time to communicate with back burners, as well as entails the risk of discovery and repercussions for clandestine interactions.

But despite the maintenance strategies themselves differing between people in the three types of relationship, the actual number of back burners didn’t vary significantly between singles, casual daters, and those in committed relationships. Results showed 73% of all participants have had more than one back burner—and perhaps surprisingly, 56% of people in committed relationships reported having a back burner. In other words, over half of the participants who were already in long-term relationships were nevertheless in contact with at least one person outside their partnership for the expressed purpose of perhaps striking up a romance or sexual dynamic with them one day.

What do back burner relationships say about the future of dating?

The back burner relationship is an intriguing modern phenomenon, and its prevalence even among those who at least in theory have committed themselves romantically to one person means back burners themselves need not abandon hope of a future liaison with someone who’s currently in a relationship—even if communication is currently sparse and unpredictable. But conversely, Dibble’s study warned that people in relationships should be mindful—not paranoid, but mindful—that back burner relationships are more real than many people realize—and that just because their partner doesn’t appear to be in touch with anyone you might classify as a back burner, it doesn’t always follow that they don’t still have one (or more) in mind. This would be especially true if the relationship has been on the rocks of late. All this being said, the average age of participants in Dibble’s study was 20; it remains to be seen whether the effect holds true for older people.

The rise of back burner relationships since the widespread adoption of social media and electronic communication is a fascinating manifestation of human dating proclivities. It shows an inherent opportunism which arguably lies dormant in the majority of people—if not all of us—ready to be ignited when we have the means and motive. After all, while a long-term committed relationship certainly requires maintenance and effort, it’s not hard to see that the remarkable simplicity of keeping in contact with back burners is an understandable. And whatever your opinion on the morality of maintaining back burner relationships, it seems fair to assert that the internet has greatly complicated the existing and complex dynamics of dating. But while online communication is ubiquitous, and people will presumably adapt to this novel aspect of dating over time, one way of foregoing it at least somewhat is to take things back to basics.

Maclynn International is an elite, multi-award-winning New York-based matchmaking consultancy. We’re experts at bringing together highly compatible singles and even though back burner relationships are a very modern invention, the caliber of romantic relationships forged by members of Maclynn International make back burners a thing of the past. Get in touch today, and let’s help you meet that special someone to whom you’ll happily devote your undivided attention—and vice versa!

by Rachel Vida MacLynn

Founder & CEO

Rachel Vida Maclynn is reputed as being a world-leading matchmaking and dating expert. Registered as a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, Rachel advocates a professional matchmaking approach based on psychological principles and professional consultation.More by this author

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