Neanderthink: Love's Plan B

We all seek a roster of backup romantic possibilities, says Nando Pelusi, Ph.D. Consider it nature's form of love insurance.

By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published July 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

It took my client a good two years of loaded e-mail exchanges and furtive after-work drinks with Jacob* to realize what was obvious to her exasperated friends and family: This guy was never going to leave his girlfriend. "But he tells me he really likes me and I don't doubt it," she asserted."He just needs to break up with his girlfriend—gently."

What would motivate a suitor to keep someone on the hook—perhaps honestly professing love—all the while involved in another, long-term relationship? Perhaps Jacob was looking for love insurance. My client did her best to extract herself from the triad, once she accepted her status within it.

The premiums we pay for love insurance are just as real as those we pay for health insurance. Both involve an estimate of our probabilities of losing something.

Although we may love our exclusive partner, we can still think about other romantic possibilities—people we keep in a mental box that might as well be labeled "Open in case of current relationship's demise." No matter how content we are, we still seek a sense of security by creating a web of potential future romantic alliances. That's why people are hardly shocked to hear that a sizable percentage of men trawling online dating sites are married.

This propensity to survey our mating options even when exclusively coupled can give rise to all sorts of quandaries and misunderstandings: Some people assume that if they have a roving eye, ipso facto there must be something wrong with their primary relationship. Others assume that the problem is being in an exclusive relationship itself. In fact, neither is true. The quest for an alternate partner is a natural, widely used strategy, no matter how loath we are to admit it.

Joshua Duntley, an assistant professor of psychology at Stockton College in New Jersey, uses the term "backup mates" to describe the Plan B partners. Duntley has surveyed college students on their tendency to keenly monitor the availability and social circumstances of other potential paramours. In a presentation at the Human Behavior and Evolutionary Psychology Conference, Duntley argued that backup partners are not merely short-term mates—someone with whom to have a fling. The backup mate is in a separate category: a man or woman who is viable as a serious partner in his or her own right. Men reported getting more upset when a desirable backup mate found another partner than when a short-term mate did so.

We aren't necessarily conscious of the evolutionary logic itself (although some people are candid with themselves and, more rarely, with others, about their backup plans). Instead, we experience anxiety about being left without any partner whatsoever—the ultimate bummer from a reproductive point of view.

Duntley contends that people in relationships who lack backup mates are more prone to depression, and this is especially the case with women. It may be because women bear greater reproductive burdens, from child-rearing to the threat of sexual attack—making a backup mate particularly useful to them. Granted, women today do not face the same levels of risk as their ancestors, and women do just fine without a male or a spare in the wings. But that doesn't mean they can easily kick the unconscious tendency to look for love insurance—and to despair when it's not to be found.

The Plan B partner, or backup mate, highlights a problem that both sexes struggle with throughout their reproductive lives, regardless of whether one is single or coupled. People need to accurately gauge their own romantic market value at all times, in order to find a suitable partner or maintain an optimal relationship.

Our quest for love insurance takes many forms. When in a relationship, we may casually flirt with someone to whom we're only mildly attracted, just to assess whether we've still got the stuff. But more often, the goal of a flirtation is to determine whether the other person is a viable partner, should the primary train go offtrack.

If our mate neglects us or mistreats us too regularly, the impulse to catalog alternative options rears its head all the more forcefully. This doesn't mean we're going to stray; we're just more serious about testing the waters. The costs of staying in a nonviable relationship are high—but so are the costs of breaking it up. If and when ardor finally flags, the heart wanders, not for a fling but for a potential mate. My clients rarely want a good fling—what they really desire is a good relationship.

For many in search of a runner-up partner, there's a woman or man who knows they're "it." And while some might shrug it off, others—like my client—are desperate for the relationship to pan out. But waiting around for someone who is married or entangled reinforces a person's self-concept as "undesirable." Still, the vice-partner convinces him- or herself that it's worth waiting. The potential payoff is high, if you finally get your turn on the dance floor. But the probability is low.

In my experience, women are more often the ones waiting in the wings. This is in part a reflection of women's generally high standards for mates. Many women gamble on the possibility of a (perceived) stellar mate, as opposed to the certainty of a man who is subpar.

Whether you're a man or woman, the problem with being a backup is that once your inamorata labels you second tier, your chances of becoming the primary love interest diminish. Labels, once created, tend to stick. Plus, once you accept the role of runner-up, you risk seeing yourself as a perennial backup in many walks of life. You can find someone for whom you are Plan A—but not if you're inertly functioning as someone else's Plan B. —Nando Pelusi, Ph.D.

* name has been changed

What to Do with a Plan-B Relationship

  • Throw yourself into your primary relationship.
  • Cast a vote of confidence in your relationship by publicly proclaiming it. You don't have to jump on Oprah's couch like Tom Cruise, but public pronouncements carry social power.
  • Desire for a perfect mate may keep you assessing prospects—but don't confuse this inclination with a lack of basic satisfaction with your extant mate.
  • Smile, relax, and actively love your mate as he or she is. Those who act lovingly start feeling more love.

If You're Left Waiting in the Wings

  • If you're the mate-in-a-box, limit the amount of time you're willing to wait—and stick to your deadline for a resolution. Enlist a friend to monitor your progress.
  • Accept the short-term hassles of moving on, and embrace the options you have been forgoing.
  • Throw down an ultimatum: Only a showdown will get things moving.
  • If within your time period, say, three months—the person does not make you their primary mate, focus on new opportunities.