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The Real Reason People Keep 'Backups' While Dating

Clara Artschwager
June 20, 2019
Clara Artschwager
Written by
Clara Artschwager
Clara Artschwager is a New York-based dating and relationship coach. She has a degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, and her work has been featured in The Cut, Well Good, SHAPE, Man Repeller, and more.
Image by Guille Faingold / Stocksy
June 20, 2019

I was flying high on the heels of our second date. We'd met for drinks at a rooftop bar overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. A few drinks in, we got hungry and walked to a nearby Mexican restaurant for dinner. We shared platters of tacos and enchiladas. From there we ventured to the Williamsburg waterfront to watch the fireworks—did I mention it was the Fourth of July? Our bodies inched closer and closer as the fireworks proceeded. By the end, our mouths were locked, the hook of his arm wrapped around my waist. We blissfully sauntered to the subway, stopping every few steps to make out more.

We made plans for our next date and parted ways at the train. The subway ride home was a blur. I barely noticed the raucous riders, all a little more intoxicated than usual due to the holiday.

I woke the next morning to a sweet text from him. He'd had a great time, and he couldn't wait to see me again. My body started to buzz as my mind replayed scenes of kissing and laughing and riding high on oxytocin the previous night.

But then, panic. My anxiety started to rise as I realized how much I liked this person. It was a lot. Perhaps too much. And as good as it was, who knew whether it would work out? I didn't want to fall too hard or get too obsessed. That put me in far too vulnerable a position. And then, that internal voice of "You should probably start dating someone else…" bubbled to the top.

The back-burner burden.

In the words of Brené Brown, I was trying to "beat vulnerability to the punch," my rationale being that if I didn't become so attached or develop such high expectations, I wouldn't be as blindsided by hurt. The fact that I might not even get hurt didn't even register.

In her brilliant work, Daring Greatly, she writes:

When we spend our lives (knowingly or unknowingly) pushing away vulnerability, we can't hold space open for the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure of joy. For many of us, there's even a physiological response—a 'coming out of our skin' feeling. We're desperate for more joy, but at the same time, we can't tolerate the vulnerability.

That's exactly what was showing up for me with fireworks guy (pun intended). I didn't actually want to be dating someone else. I'd never liked dating two people at once. It didn't feel true to me. But I felt obligated to do so, thinking keeping my options open rather than following my intuition would protect me from future hurt.

I've dubbed this experience the "back-burner burden." It's the idea that we have to distract ourselves—always have someone on the back burner—when we've met someone we genuinely like, even though deep down, we only want to be getting to know this one person. We fear that because we really like this person, we'll come on too strong. And if we come on too strong, we'll inevitably drive our love interest away.

The majority of dating advice encourages us to do this, to keep our options open, to not fall too hard or too quickly. And we do it because we think if we have someone else, if/when it doesn't work out with our main love interest, it won't hurt as much. And we want to avoid getting hurt as much as possible in dating.

But here's the problem with that thought pattern:

When we do fake it—when we swipe mindlessly or force ourselves to go out and meet new people when we'd rather focus on getting to know one person—it only serves to deplete our dating energy and drive us further from our real desires, our authentic selves, and the people we want to attract.

At the same time, by constantly attempting to avoid the ups and downs of dating, we not only fool ourselves into thinking we can somehow hack our love lives, but we also rob ourselves of the crucial lessons and experiences needed to strengthen our ability to be vulnerable, the absolute lifeblood of successful relationships.

In the end, forcing ourselves to attract another is a convenient way of not dealing with the root issue of our discomfort. We're terrified to like someone so much—it feels dangerous. We're paralyzed by fear when it comes to communicating those feelings, leaning on Instagram likes to convince ourselves they like (or don't like) us, too. Anticipating future rejection feels a whole lot easier than being vulnerable.

Breaking your "backup" habit.

If you're falling for someone and feeling the pull of dating other people, get quiet and ask yourself, "Do I really want to be meeting other people right now, or am I just feeling pulled to that because I'm scared of getting hurt?"

If it's the latter, celebrate that clarity! Awareness of how we actually feel about something and someone is the first step toward being vulnerable versus burying our feelings.

Here's how to strengthen your vulnerability muscle even further:

1. Allow yourself to get excited about someone.

As a culture we've managed to wrap the feeling of liking someone with yards of yellow caution tape. It reeks of danger and doom. But meeting someone new that you feel so connected to is one of life's greatest joys! You can relish in the beauty of it while also not letting the key components of your own life—your workout routine, your sleep schedule, your friendships—fall to the wayside. Those are much more beneficial of a safeguard than securing another person you want to hook up with.

2. Don't mute your fears.

If you're so paralyzed by the idea of rejection—to the point where you'll spend precious time and energy finding someone else to date, energy that could be better spent finally getting that side project off the ground or starting that meditation practice that's been on your to-do list forever—you owe it to yourself to pause and ask: What's really behind my fear? Our fears hold wisdom. They point us directly to where we need to grow and develop strength. Muting them only provides short-term comfort. Dealing with them directly will inevitably lead to a much more fulfilling dating life.

3. See everyone as your teacher.

I'm a firm believer that everyone who enters our lives, from the barista who makes our oat milk cappuccino to our latest match on Bumble, comes into our lives for a reason. If we're seeking a long-term relationship, it's thrilling to think our latest match might be that person, but there's also a chance they…aren't. That is the struggle of dating. But they also might be a wonderful person to have weekend getaways with upstate or do yoga in Central Park all summer long. If you can start to experience the people you're dating in this way, it'll make being vulnerable with them as you're getting to know each other much less intimidating.

I never ended up dating someone else, and things with fireworks guy, as fiery as they were (too much?), didn't pan out. But it had nothing to do with the fact that I was only seeing him. I was actually the one to end it. I realized after a few more dates we weren't seeking the same type of relationship. As attracted as I was to him, our values didn't align. I doubt I would have walked away with such clarity if I'd had someone else in the mix.

Clara Artschwager author page.
Clara Artschwager

Clara Artschwager is a New York-based coach and writer who specializes in modern dating and relationships. She has a degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, and her work has been featured in The Cut, Well Good, SHAPE, Man Repeller, and more. When she isn't helping career-driven women take an empowered and nourishing approach to partnership, you can find her either in the kitchen or on her yoga mat.