The Enduring Reality of Back-Burner Relationships

Surprising research reveals the number of partners most of us have on reserve.

Posted Jul 21, 2014

Today, Philips might be described as Harding's “back burner," a term defined by psychologists Jason Dibble and Michelle Drouin as follows:

"...a person with 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."

One huge difference between being a back burner today and in Harding's days is the paper trail the early 20th-century couple left behind. Back then, the written word was virtually the only way to maintain a degree of communication—and in their case, that degree was intense and fairly explicit.

Alive and Well

Dibble and Drouin set out to investigate how the back burner phenomenon plays out in relationships today by recruiting young men and women for a study on if and how they use social media, texting, and other media to maintain such connections (Computers in Human Behavior, 2014, vol. 34, pp. 96-100).

The study involved 374 young men and women with an average age of 21. Some in the sample reported being in an exclusive romantic relationship; some said they were not. The entire sample completed questionnaires about their use of cell phones and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Those who were in committed relationships answered questions about how committed they felt—and about how many back burners, as defined above, they might have in their personal network, along with the overall quality of each back-burner relationship. “High-quality” back burners were defined as follows: “The people other than my partner with whom I might become involved are very appealing.” In other words, a high-quality back burner is a relationship that is at least lukewarm.

Dibble and Drouin found, first, that this group of young people used text messages, Facebook, and sometimes cell phones to maintain contact with their back burners. As a group they reported having an average of five-and-a-half back burners, more of whom they communicated with in a platonic rather than romantic way.

The researchers hypothesized at the outset that individuals in an exclusive romantic relationship would report having fewer back burner relationships than those who were not. It didn’t turn out that way: The average number of back burner relationships for the two cohorts was about the same. Further, the total number of back burners remained consistent regardless of how committed these men and women felt to their primary relationships. Finally, high-quality back burner relationships seemed to correlate with having more such relationships.

What Does It All Mean?

What are we to make of these findings? First and foremost, it’s obvious that the kind of relationship that Harding and Philips had is hardly a thing of the past. The back burner phenomenon appears to be thriving—at least among young people. It does not indicate, however, that individuals in exclusive romantic relationships will necessarily cheat on their partners. That said, they do engage in ongoing “relationships” with desirable others—and they can do this without leaving a “paper trail” (at least, not an easily detectable one), as Harding and Philips necessarily had to. 

In explaining their findings, Dibble and Drouin point out that “modern technologies allow for covert communication, including communication with back burners. For example, potential romantic alternatives can exist under different names on a mobile phone, Facebook friends lists can be hidden," etc.

One conclusion I reach is that not only has the back burner phenomenon endured as a social reality, it may have proliferated thanks to the presence of social media. But I do not necessarily agree with the researchers' hypothesis that secrecy primarily explains their findings. Maintaining back burner relationships—potential replacements, to be clear, for your existing one—may in fact be considered almost normal today, assuming that the young men and women in this study were aware that their peers were in fact maintaining them. Unfortunately, that is a question that was not asked.

And so we are left to wonder: Is the back burner phenomenon a consequence of secrecy, or a reflection of a new reality that everyone does (and everyone else knows it)?

@2014 by Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., author of Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder, and Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Drinking a Problem?