The Problem With Having A Back Burner Romance
Chances are, you wouldn't plan an outdoor wedding unless you had a backup rain venue, and you probably wouldn't bank on becoming a Hollywood A-lister without pursuing alternative employment—just in case. Hey, we fully understand and support those strategic backup plans! But there’s one realm where having an extra trick up your sleeve might not be the best course of action, and that's your love life.
A new study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior revealed that people have a staggering number of “back burners”—you know, people you might potentially be romantically interested in if things don’t pan out with your main squeeze. Researchers had 374 university students complete an online questionnaire where they were asked how many back burners they had and how appealing these romantic alternatives were. Participants who were currently in a relationship also weighed in on how committed they were to their current partner.
People reported an average of 5.5 back burner partners, and men had more than women. Interestingly, participants currently in a relationship had about the same number of plan B’s as the single people. “One of the possible explanations for this finding is that modern technologies allow for covert communication, including communication with back burners,” write the study authors. “For example, potential romantic alternatives can exist under different names on a mobile phone, Facebook friend lists can be hidden, and messages exchanged through social networking or a mobile phone can be deleted.” Basically, it's easy to keep other options open without your partner finding out.
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Another unexpected discovery: There was no association between keeping tabs on possible future suitors and one’s commitment to an existing relationship. In other words, people who were in touch with intriguing members of the opposite sex didn’t appear any less invested in their twosome. That might sound encouraging, but that still doesn't mean it should be totally fair game.
These findings are not a green light to go ahead with behind-the-scenes flirting: “I’ve been working with couples for almost four decades, and I’ve seen firsthand how talking to back burners bleeds energy out of your current relationship,” says relationship expert Suzanne Lopez, Ph.D. “People often stay in touch with alternative love interests because they’re afraid they made the wrong commitment, lack the emotional skills to take things to the next level with their partner, or don’t trust their decisions. But having these secondary ties only weakens their bond. Instead of becoming more intimate with your partner, you fill yourself up with someone else and your connection ceases to grow.”
Of course, that also doesn’t mean you should drop every friend of the opposite sex. So what’s the litmus test for when a back burner has crossed the line? First, ask yourself honestly what your motivation for staying in touch with a person is. Is it a natural, innocent friendship, or is there chemistry between you that you’re hoping to maybe/someday/if-the-time-is-right cultivate? “The energy you pour into your relationship is akin to water you pour into your garden,” explains Lopez. “If you give a plant only half a bucket of water, and pour the rest onto other plants, it will only grow half as strong.”
Next, assess the frequency of your correspondence—an occasional birthday or Christmas greeting is much more benign than a daily texting habit.
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Another thing to consider: How open you are about the relationship? “If your partner doesn’t know that you’re in contact with another guy, that’s a betrayal,” says Lopez. Along the same lines, if you feel compelled to delete any texts or e-mails (or change a guy’s name in your phone to “Aunt Gertrude”), hello—humongous red flag.
Finally, how intense are your conversations? “Talking about a family trip or sharing the news that you had a baby is one thing,” says Lopez. “Telling him, ‘Nobody gives me an orgasm like you did’ is entirely another.” Okay, you probably knew that, but even just going to them with exciting news before you even tell your partner could be a tip off that this relationship is more involved than it should be.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, start distancing yourself from the backup plan and focusing on your current relationship instead. If that sounds too difficult, it might be time to talk about this to your partner or a relationship therapist to determine if there's something missing in your current bond that is causing you to keep your eye out for alternatives.
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