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Why Keeping an Ex on the Back Burner Could Be a Bad Idea

Contact with exes can be a real threat to commitment.

Key points

  • Staying in touch with an ex-partner can be a way of maintaining a “back-burner” relationship.
  • Some people use back-burners as insurance policies for their current relationships.
  • More than 60 percent of married adults reported having a back-burner relationship.

Many people stay in touch with their exes, whether via texting, social media, or otherwise, in a way previous generations never could have. Such communication, predictably, has the potential to reignite feelings. And these feelings can lead to the phenomenon of “back burners,” potential romantic partners kept, metaphorically, “simmering on the back burner” while one maintains a primary relationship or remains single. A back-burner doesn’t have to be an ex; it can be anyone in one’s life, although exes are quite commonly back-burners.

Research among college students suggests that back-burner communication is not much of a threat to one’s primary relationship. We set out to see if the same was true for married adults, and if there’s a difference between having an ex as a back burner compared to someone with whom you’ve never had a relationship.

Why Ex-Partners Are Different From Other Back Burners

Back burners who are also exes may spell trouble for a relationship because a common reason for communicating with an ex is unresolved romantic desire. Indeed, ex-partners often feel intense sexual desire even though the relationship has ended, feelings which may, in fact, be stronger after the breakup than when the relationship was intact. Research shows that people who communicated with an ex-partner reported increased romantic feelings for the ex and decreased commitment to their current partner (Dibble, Punyanunt-Carter, & Drouin, 2018).

Our study, by the research team of Jayson Dibble, Elena Bessarabova, Michelle Drouin, and myself, and published recently in Cyberpsychology, Social Networking, and Human Behavior explored the consequences of having an ex-partner (compared to a non-ex) as a back burner. We surveyed 246 married adults and examined the frequency of digital communication, the emotional consequences for the admirer, and sexual activity among the admirer and the back burner.

Most Married People Are Keeping a Back Burner

It turns out that back-burner relationships are common among married people. In fact, back-burner communication in our sample was as prevalent among married people as it was among college students in previous studies. In our study, 62 percent of participants reported digital communication with at least one back burner. Interestingly, this number is similar to previous studies of back burners among college students, which find that about 60-70 percent of college students engage in back-burner communication.

The results of the study strongly supported the idea that back-burner relationships with exes have a higher frequency of digital communication than those with non-exes, and that increased digital communication frequency corresponded with greater sexual activity. The associations between the frequency of digital communication and sexual activity held even after controlling for attitudes toward casual sex, age, and relationship longevity.

A Back Burner Can Come Back to Bite You

The results of the study also revealed the negative emotional consequences of keeping a back-burner even if communication did not become romantic or sexual. We found that people reported feeling worse the more they communicated digitally with their back burner. The romantic/sexual desire as a motive driving back-burner communication clearly weighed on people.

For ex-partner back burners, digital communication may trigger past romantic feelings, but they may also bring past problems into the present. Ex-partner back burners may invite rumination about the former relationship, including negative memories. For example, exes may remind people of the reasons the relationship ended in the first place (“I had forgotten how mean Karen is when she argues”). Even if this communication isn’t making a person feel guilty, it may make them feel bad.

There are two practical implications of this study. First, maintaining a back-burner relationship with an ex may, clearly, be a very real threat to a committed relationship. Although having sex with a back-burner is not very common overall, in our sample, ex-partners were communicated with much more than non-ex back burners, and the frequency of communication did positively correlate with sex. It is important to note that simply keeping in contact with an ex-partner is different from contacting them because you want to keep the coals warm, but in our study, people who were looking actively looking for romance occasionally found it.

Second, the act of simply maintaining a back-burner relationship with an ex-partner led to negative emotions the more one did it, even if that communication did not lead to cheating behavior. This may reflect the stress of having to hide behavior from a partner, or perhaps they had a guilty conscience due to the intentions behind their communication. Given the negative feelings generated by back-burner communication with an ex, why do people continue to do it? Although there may be several possible answers, humans are poor predictors of what will make us happy. Although back-burner communication can be exciting and novel compared to our routine interactions, we end up feeling bad about it in a similar way that eating a slice of chocolate cake might seem wonderful at midnight, but we regret it afterward.

Is It Bad to Contact an Ex?

Although we cannot speak to the potential subconscious reasons why people may contact an ex, our study is about the conscious act of digitally communicating with an ex in the hopes of rekindling romantic and/or sexual feelings. A person may contact their ex about a Yiddish word that escapes them in the moment, but that does not necessarily mean that they secretly desire to rekindle the relationship. However, if you start from a place of desire and keep finding ways to keep in contact with your ex, those “innocent” interactions could turn into something romantic, and if you are already in another relationship, that is likely to make you feel guilty and stressed.

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Banas, J. A., Dibble, J. L., Bessarabova, E., & Drouin, M. (2021). Simmering on the Back Burner or Playing with Fire? Examining the Consequences of Back-Burner Digital Communication Among Ex-Partners. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 24, 473-479.

Dibble, J. L., Punyanunt-Carter, N. M., & Drouin, M. (2018). Maintaining relationship alternatives electronically: Positive relationship maintenance in back burner relationships. Communication Research Reports, 35, 200–209.