What Are "Back Burner" Partners?

Photo: Thais Ramos Varela

If you've ever been guilty of keeping a potential partner waiting in the wings while in a relationship with someone else, you're not alone. According to a new study conducted out of Hope College, 72 percent of the college students surveyed keep in touch with people they could imagine dating somewhere down the road—even when they're currently in a relationship.

“Back in my grad school days, I was single and looking to mingle. I’d meet people at the campus social hotspots, trade numbers, and store those numbers in my phone," explains study author Jayson L. Dibble. "Weeks and months later, there’d be the occasional text message from one to the other: 'Hey stranger how r u? It felt like the idea was to show some interest and attraction but not so much for a full-on relationship. Thinking back on those days, I wondered what it might mean and whether I was alone (turns out I’m not)."

Although this specific survey was conducted only on college students, the high percentage of young adults who keep potential partners on hand has larger implications for our society as a whole.

Why "back burner" partners are so appealing to us.

The fear of being alone is more common than many of us think. So when we're keeping potential partners around, it doesn't necessarily mean we're unhappy in our current relationship—it just means we're doing a kind of damage control for our future selves. "Insecurity and fear motivate the need to keep 'back burner' partners around," explains Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. "There is a discomfort and fear of being alone, as we think to ourselves, if this doesn’t work, then what? I need someone to be there for me."

Lombardo adds that we tend to base our self-worth on certain conditions, like whether or not someone has romantic interest in us. "As such, people often try to avoid being out of a relationship because it makes them feel down about themselves," she explains.

How keeping "back burner" partners around could end a happy relationship.

According to Lombardo, when you feel like you have other options lurking right around the corner, it could make you less interested in working through your issues. "It can also result in comparing your current partner to your back-burner partner," she adds. "And, if you are going through a stressful time in your current relationship, that can cause a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side kind of mentality."

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What to do if you suspect your partner is keeping someone on the back burner.

While having a partner on the back burner is natural, it doesn't have to be relationship-ending. Relationship expert Margaret Paul says that instead of being accusatory and aggressive, the most important thing you can do is be open-minded about why your partner feels the need to have someone else waiting in the wings. "Asking your partner about it without anger or blame might lead to deeper learning and growth and might actually bring the two of you closer together," she explains. "Instead of being judgmental, you might want to assume it comes from fear and be interested in understanding the fears. Both people can learn much about themselves if there is openness."

Interested in the science of relationships? Here's why most people break up.

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