Back Burner Relationships



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By Laura Yates



Backburner relationships are something many of us have probably experienced on some level.

The scientific description of this is “a person to whom one is not presently committed, and with whom one maintains some degree of communication, in order to keep or establish the possibility of future romantic and/or sexual involvement.”

So those situations where our heart isn’t 100% all in, but it makes us feel good or safe in the moment knowing that relationship or fling is a potential option.

Backburners have fascinated many people who have delved deeper into how it works and the motivations behind it. A study was carried out on backburner relationships by author, Jayson Dibble, an assistant professor of communication at Hope College. He said that a backburner isn’t just someone who you think about every now and then. It’s someone who you actually communicate with. So if there’s a technical way to look at it, the “what-if” people only become backburners if you actually reach out to them.

The study also revealed that social media played the biggest part in backburner relationships, with Facebook being the most popular way to make some sort of contact, at 37%.

When it comes to keeping people on the backburner, there is cause to say that from a primal perspective, exploring all the potential people who could be available to you is natural. But then, having one long-term partner helps with offspring survival and represents unity between two people. The commitment offers benefits, in exchange for letting go of other possibilities. It’s a trade-off of sorts.

However this study proved the evolutionary theory to not quite align with what was going on today. The study had 374 undergrads self-report how many backburners they had, how they spoke to them (flirty or platonic) and how they kept in touch. Those who were currently in relationships also completed assessments of their investment in and commitment to their relationships and rated how appealing they thought their alternatives were.

Surprisingly, there was no significant difference between the number of backburners kept by people in relationships, and the number kept by single people. Dibble’s theory on this is that it’s easy to like someone’s picture or post a comment. It comes with little risk but it still fulfils a need of keeping you in their mind and sparking conversation. Plus, it can seem harmless talking to someone on Facebook when you’re in a relationship. Going to meet them for coffee or dinner is a different story.

So it’s really about maximizing the benefits and minimizing costs, something that Austin, Adam Redd West proposed in his 2013 University of Texas dissertation.

This isn’t a completely new concept either though so we can’t totally blame social media. The old phrase that you’ve probably heard was to ‘keep someone in the wings’ or in your ‘little black book’. The world of online and social media his now just made it easier than ever and with what might seem like far less risk to actually reach out.

Dibble is keen to do further research into backburner relationships to see exactly what people say to keep potential people on the backburner and what happens if you only make contact less often like once a year - would that still be classed as a backburner?

We feel that as social media evolves even more this backburner trend will definitely continue to grow too. The question is, what’s the boundary?

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Laura Yates

Laura is a coach, writer and speaker specialising in helping people to bounce back, relieve stress in their lives, heal and transform their everyday. Laura has been featured in VICE, Glamour, Match.com, Eharmony and the Daily Mail plus others.

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