The Psychology of the Backup Boyfriend or Girlfriend
The psychology of keeping someone on the back-burner.
Posted January 4, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
This guest post was primarily written by Nicole Wedberg, M.A.
Imagine this scenario: Pam is engaged to Roy. Pam also has a close friend at work — his name is Jim. Pam and Jim enjoy each other’s company, buy each other the occasional vending machine snack, listen to each other’s complaints about work, etc. If you’ve seen The Office, you know exactly how this story ends. At first, we try to accept that Jim is in the friend zone, but this just isn’t so. It’s impossible to deny that they have chemistry — Jim is not merely a friend. As the story unfolds (sorry for the spoiler!), Pam and Roy’s relationship ends, a new relationship begins with Pam and Jim, and the two of them go on to live happily ever after. You could argue here that Jim started out as Pam’s “backup” boyfriend — he was waiting in the bull pen and ready to step up to the plate the moment Roy was benched. Whether Pam was consciously aware of the fact that she had a backup boyfriend is another matter, but objectively that’s exactly what Jim was.
I think this is a familiar scenario to a lot of people in the real world, and that’s what makes it so relatable in the show. Even women who are already with Mr. Right (Jim, in our example) sometimes still have a Mr. Plan B ... just in case. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me when I was in graduate school. I bartended nights and weekends, and I couldn’t help but notice this phenomenon going on around me.
Romantic Partner Insurance As a Mating Strategy
Humans employ a wide array of mating strategies (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). The research here focused on some of the mating strategies of heterosexual women. Prior research has shown that women will actually modify their behavior depending on what type of relationship they’re looking for (Cashdan, 1993). Those looking to settle down with Mr. Right will dress with more elegance and emphasize behaviors that indicate loyalty and an interest in fidelity. Those looking for more of a Mr. Right Now will flaunt their sexuality a bit more. Even among other women on the prowl, female mating strategies morph into something more competitive. Those who are generally more narcissistic in nature tend to display intrasexual competition more frequently than others (Carter, Montanaro, Linney, & Campbell, 2015). An example of this might be one woman giving another a false compliment — telling a woman at the bar that you love her shoes, when actually you think your crush will find them hideous, is one way to try and eliminate some competition for your desired mate. It’s not a very kind approach, but it happens.
So how does this relate to Pam? I looked into existing research to see if this “backup” boyfriend idea had ever been studied. As it turns out, Dibble et al. (2015) found that college women, on average, have 3.78 Mr. Plan B's. In fact, roughly two-thirds of all college students who are in a committed relationship openly admit to having at least one Mr./Ms. Plan B (Dibble et al., 2015). I decided to narrow my sample to only heterosexual women and study this a bit more in-depth.
First, I had to define what it was that I was actually studying. With the help of Glenn (who was my thesis advisor), and other members of the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab, I coined the term "partner insurance." Just as you might have homeowner’s insurance in the unfortunate event that your house burns down, maybe women have partner insurance — a backup boyfriend, ready and waiting in case your current relationship burns down. If this is indeed a discernible phenomenon, A) how do we measure it, and B) what predicts it?
Measuring the Tendency to Have a Backup Boyfriend
To answer the first question, we created a new scale, called the Plan B Proclivity Scale (PBP). It measures the degree to which women consider their closest platonic male friend a romantic “backup plan.” It includes items that participants rated with a close male friend in mind from "Strongly Disagree" to "Strongly Agree." A couple examples of these items are: “I’m fairly sure that, if given the chance, this person would want to date me,” and “I discuss personal things with this person.” At the end of the scale, we offered a dichotomous "yes or no" question to participants: “Separate from anything else, would you say that, in your life, you have a heterosexual male friend that you consider to be a 'Plan B'?” The answer to this question lumped participants into a category of either having partner insurance or not having partner insurance. (Note: In Part II, we will present that scale in full and will provide a scoring key — so stay tuned.)
Predictors of Having a Backup Boyfriend
To answer the second question (What predicts this phenomenon?), we have to examine heterosexual female mating strategies through a Darwinian lens. We already know that humans have evolved to utilize a variety of mating strategies, so perhaps partner insurance is just another one. From an evolutionary perspective, considering that fitness is measured strictly by the number of offspring one produces into future generations; it might actually be adaptive for a woman to have a Mr. Plan B lined up. If anything were to happen with the current relationship that caused its demise, raising children alone would be awfully tough. Having an insurance plan for your love life would increase the probably of genetic success. If partner insurance is indeed another one of these female mating strategies, we need to figure out what predicts it.
Relationship satisfaction seemed like an obvious place to start. Folks start looking and interviewing for new jobs when they’re unhappy in their current position. We can easily argue that someone unhappy in her current relationship may start to wander and look for other romantic opportunities. Sure enough, those who rated their current committed relationship with low satisfaction were significantly more likely to indicate that yes, they had partner insurance.
"Sociosexual orientation" is a fun term that essentially describes an individual’s attitude, behavior, and desire for commitment-free sex. Prior research has demonstrated that having an unrestricted sociosexual orientation predicts a desire for preferred mating traits in opposite-sex platonic friends (Lewis, Al-Shawaf, Conroy-Beam, Asao, & Buss, 2012). Simply explained, this means that if you score relatively high on the scale measuring sociosexual orientation (SOI-R), you’re more likely to have non-romantic opposite-sex friends who are very much like what you are attracted to in terms of romantic partners. This was a huge sign to me that something could be going on here. Lo and behold, women with an unrestricted sexual orientation are significantly more likely to report that they also have partner insurance.
An unexpected predictor of partner insurance turned out to be age. After discovering this finding, I had a bit of a “Duh!” moment. In hindsight, it makes so much sense. Younger women in the sample were significantly more likely to report having partner insurance than were older women in the sample. The reason this was retrospectively obvious to me is partly due to the nature of menopause. From a strictly evolutionary and biological perspective, once a female has surpassed the ability to reproduce, she has no reproductive need to have backup mates lined up. It could also be the case that partner insurance is simply a younger woman's game that women tend to grow out of. Who knows!?
Personality, of course, occurred to me as a potential predictor as well — after all, if those who are more narcissistic engage in more competitive mating strategies, maybe they are also more likely have a high Plan-B proclivity. The Dark Triad (Paulhus & Williams, 2002) measures three different, but related personality traits — Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. I predicted that women scoring high in these traits may be more likely to have a Mr. Plan B, and sure enough, that is exactly how the data panned out. Women who report being generally more socially manipulative, emotionally apathetic, and overly concerned with themselves are significantly more likely to have a high Plan-B proclivity than do others, thus supporting the prediction that Dark Triad personality traits serve as a function of increased sexual competition, as well as short-term mating strategies.
So, when all is said and done, what are we looking at? I found that 20 percent of heterosexual women in committed relationships — one in five — will report having a Mr. Plan B. My research here provides support to the idea of partner insurance being a possible mating strategy among heterosexual women. To the extent that women in committed relationships may consider their closest male platonic friend to be a backup romantic partner, we also now have a new scale that measures this phenomenon (to be provided in full, with a scoring key, in Part II of this post!).
As to whether this is a wise or good mating strategy is a whole other matter. Speaking completely anecdotally, I’m guessing Pam and Jim are the exception to the rule, and that Mr. Plan B’s rarely become Mr. Plan A’s. Further research is needed to find out (What are your plans for your master's thesis in psychology?).
This post is based on Nicole Wedberg's Master's thesis, which was successfully defended in the Psychology Department at the State University of New York at New Paltz in 2016.
Carter, G. L., Montanaro, Z., Linney, C., & Campbell, A. C. (2015). Women’s sexual competition and the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 74, 245-279.
Cashdan, E. (1993). Attracting mates: Effects of paternal investment on mate attraction strategies. Ethology and Sociobiology, 14,(1), 1-23.
Dibble, J. L., & Drouin, M. (2014, May). Using modern technology to keep in touch with back burners: an investment model analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 34, 96-100.
Dibble, J. L., Drouin, M., Aune, K. S., & Boller, R. R. (2015, June 11). Simmering on the back burner: communication with and disclosure of relationship alternatives. Communication Quarterly, 63(3), 329-344.
Gangestad, S. W., & Simpson, J. A. (2000). The evolution of human mating: Trade-offs and strategic pluralism. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23(4), 573-587.
Lewis, D. M., Al-Shawaf, L., Conroy-Beam, D., Asao, K., & Buss, D. M. (2012). Friends with benefits II: Mating activation in opposite-sex friendships as a function of sociosexual orientation and relationship status. Personality and Individual Differences, 53, 622-628.
Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556.
Penke, L., & Asendorpt, J. B. (2008). Beyond global sociosexual orientations: a more differentiated look at sociosexuality and its effects on courtship and romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1113.
Wedberg, N. A. (2016). Partner Insurance: Women May Have a Backup Partner as a Mating Strategy. Thesis submitted in partial completion of the MA degree in psycohlogy, State University of New York at New Paltz.