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Why So Many Partners Keep "Back Burner" Relationships

Who has them, and how they maintain them.

Key points

  • Back burners are people with whom one maintains contact in the hope of someday pursuing a romantic or sexual encounter.
  • The most favoured method for keeping in touch with back burners is texting, followed by various social media channels, research shows.
  • The majority of people in committed relationships have back burners, although they use different strategies than singles and casual daters.
New Africa/Shutterstock
Source: New Africa/Shutterstock

"Back burners" are people with whom we maintain contact in the hope of someday pursuing a romantic or sexual encounter. Online communication now makes such contact much easier and even allows people currently in committed relationships the opportunity to keep in contact with their back burners.

More specifically, online communication allows people to engage in what might be termed relationship maintenance behaviour, which generally involves three elements. First, positivity (being compassionate to someone and ensuring that interactions with them are fun and enjoyable). Second, openness (disclosing personal information and maybe even sharing secrets). Third, assurances (demonstrating that you wish the relationship to sustain over time and that it has a future).

Three questions relating to back-burner interaction were addressed by researchers Jayson Dibble, Narissra Punyanunt-Carter and Michelle Drouin:

  • How exactly do people keep in contact with their back burners?
  • What strategies do they use?
  • How do people in relationships maintain contact with their back burners?

Participants in their study reported being either single, in a causal relationship or in a committed relationship, and then were asked to state which was their most favoured type of electronic communication (text, Facebook, etc). They were then asked to identify back burners by looking through their contact lists and stating with how many people they kept in contact for the purpose of wanting to become romantically or sexually attached to them. Participants were then asked to think about their most important back burner and whether they employed positive maintenance strategies (positivity, openness and assurance) with this person.

Maintenance Strategies Differ According to Relationship Status

For the mode of communication, the researchers found that text messaging was by far the most favoured method for keeping in touch for all relationship types, followed by various social media channels, with emailing and phone being the least favoured method.

In terms of the type of relationship maintenance strategy used with back burners, half of those in committed relationships reported that they employed openness as a strategy when communicating with their back burner, compared to 80 percent for singles, and 73 percent of those who were casually dating.

Furthermore, although there was little difference in the use of these strategies between singles and casual daters, those in committed relationships reported employing lower levels of positivity and assurances. There are three possible reasons for this. Firstly, commitment in a relationship generally means disregarding any possible replacements. Secondly, people in committed relationships have less time to communicate with back burners compared to singles or those casually dating. Finally, the risk of discovery for any clandestine interactions with back burners by those in relationships may deter them from engaging in such interactions.

People in Committed Relationships Have Back Burners

However, despite maintenance strategies differing between different relationship types, the number of back burners reported did not differ between those who were single, casually dating or in a committed relationship. Overall, the researchers found that some 73 percent of respondents in their study stated that they had more than one back burner. Furthermore, there was only a small difference in the number of back-burner relationships reported between singles and those in relationships. Indeed some 56 percent of those in committed relationships reported having a back-burner relationship, in other words, the majority of those in committed relationships had back burners. This is consistent with previous research by Jayson Dibble which also found that people in committed relationships had back burners (Dibble et al, 2015).

Given these findings, the researchers speculate that back burners themselves need not abandon the hope of a possible future liaison with someone currently in a relationship simply because they are not contacted regularly. Similarly, the researchers warn that people should be mindful that although their partners may not appear to engage with their back burners, they may still have them and may nevertheless still be considering them in the event that their current relationship comes to an end.

In terms of gender differences, it is generally the case that in traditional face-to-face relationships women are generally more positive and more open compared to men. However, in the present study, the researchers observed no gender differences for positivity and openness and found that men used assurances more as a maintenance strategy compared to women. This gender difference might to some extent be explained by the fact that interactions in the current study were taking place across an electronic medium, where men are generally less inhibited compared to women allowing them to give more assurances.

Overall, the findings of this study demonstrate that people do maintain communication with others outside of their relationship in the hope of establishing a future sexual or romantic liaison. Furthermore, this study identified the most likely channel of communication for this, who is likely to have back burners and how they are maintained. However, it should be noted that the average age of participants in this study was just over twenty and it remains to be investigated as to whether the findings apply to those of an older age group who may be in more committed long-term relationships. Nevertheless, online communication does afford the possibility for maintaining contact with others, for whatever reason, far more than was previously the case.

Facebook image: New Africa/Shutterstock


Dibble, J. L., Punyanunt-Carter, N. M., & Drouin, M. (2018) Maintaining Relationship Alternatives Electronically: Positive Relationship Maintenance in Back Burner Relationships, Communication Research Reports, DOI: 10.1080/08824096.2018.1425985

Dibble, J. L., Drouin, M., Aune, K. S., & Boller, R. R. (2015) Simmering on the back burner: Communication with and disclosure of relationship alternatives. Communication Quarterly, 63, 329–344.