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5 Facts About Back-Burner Relationships

More common than you may think, but no way to know when they'll get the call.

Back burners—the relationship prospects you keep simmering on your back burner—have always existed in some form or another. You turn them on low and fan the flames at your whim, all the while keeping them separate from your main relationship flame. Computers, cell phones, and social media make it easier than ever to keep in touch with these appetizing relationship alternatives.

You know who they are: They are the people who you keep waiting in the wings in case your current relationship stalls or fails. You might even keep them waiting in the wings in case singlehood fails. You text them. You email them. You send them pictures of your coffee. Keeping them just close enough that if you decide you want them, all you have to do is turn the dial a little higher.

Sounds like a great plan, right?

Perhaps not for the guy or gal on the back burner.

Some of you may already be aware that you're someone else's side dish simmering on low. And maybe you’re fine with it. Maybe you don't really want to be that person's main course.

Or you may be wondering whether someone is communicating with you with aims of a future relationship. Maybe it started with an email, followed by a Facebook message. A quick text here, a DM there, and suddenly you find yourself in a computer-mediated quasi-relationship. You know their work schedule, their plans for the weekend, and the book that’s on their nightstand. It’s a friendship, but it’s also kind of a relationship—just not an official relationship.

You might start to wonder: What is really going on here?

According to our recent research (Dibble and Drouin, 2014; Dibble, Drouin, Aune and Boller, 2015), there might be some ways to figure this out. In our studies, we defined the term “back burner” for 376 young adults:

“Back burners are people we are romantically and/or sexually interested in, who we’re not currently involved with, and with whom we keep in contact in the possibility that we might someday connect romantically and/or sexually. People can have back burners even if they’re already in a romantic relationship with someone else. Also, a former romantic and/or sexual partner can still count as a back burner so long as we still desire a romantic and/or sexual connection with them.” (Dibble et al., 2015, p. 226)

We then asked participants to report on the nature of their own potential back burner relationships as well as the characteristics of their current romantic relationship, if applicable. Our findings revealed five interesting trends:

1. You’re probably not the only one.

Among young adults who have back burners, it is not uncommon for them to have more than one: In our sample, participants reported an average of 5.6 back burners (men reported an average of 8.3, and women an average of 3.8). And although single people reported having more back burners than those in committed relationships (6.7 vs. 4.5), this difference was not significant.

2. You keep in touch about once a week, on average, but probably not every day.

Of those in our sample who had at least one back burner, 49% reported communicating with at least one of their back burners at least once per week, but only 7% communicated with a back burner every day.

3. Your communication is most likely platonic.

People were almost twice as likely to report that they communicated with their back burner in a platonic way, rather than in a romantic or sexual way. Among those in our entire sample, young adults reported an average of 3.6 platonic back burners and two romantic or sexual back burners. And although men reported more back burners in each category than did women—5.4 and 2.9, respectively, vs. 2.4 and 1.4—both men and women reported significantly more platonic communication than romantic communication with their back burner.

4. Their current partner probably doesn’t know that they are communicating with you.

About a third of our sample (32%) reported that their current partner didn’t know that they were communicating with any back burners; 41% did know about some of them. However, it was very rare (16%) for relationship partners to know about all of their partner's back burners.

5. They might still be committed to their current partner.

Surprisingly, the number of back burners a person had, and even the number they communicated with in a romantic or sexual way, was not related to their level of commitment with their current partner. In other words, just because they have back burners does not mean they have plans to leave their current relationship.

Still not sure if you’re someone’s back burner? This is not surprising, because as you may have figured out, it is only the admirer who can affirm your back burner status. Only they know whether they are communicating with you out of simple friendship or whether they are keeping up with you because they think that there might be some future romantic connection. The only way to know for sure is to ask them.

Meanwhile, savor those pictures of their coffee.

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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.

Dibble, J. L., & Drouin, M. (2014). Using modern technology to keep in touch with back burners: An investment model analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 34, 96–100.

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