Years ago, writer Sara C. felt palpable chemistry with a coworker. She had been married for 14 years at the time, but her friendship with the man was flirtatious and she started to fixate on it. They communicated regularly and had coffee dates. Then they slept together.
But a line was crossed even before the physical relationship began: Sara had invested in a figment of a relationship until it became a real one, to the detriment of her marriage.
“My affair definitely started out as an emotional affair,” said Sara, whose last name has been withheld to protect her privacy. “I think many people in steady relationships sometimes stagnate or get into tiffs that remain unresolved.”
“Whether it’s boredom or complacency or unresolved frustration, I’m not sure,” she added. “But it makes them see other people in a different light and can elevate the human connection.”
Those lingering connections are sometimes called backburner relationships. A “backburner” is “a person to whom one is not presently committed, and with whom one maintains some degree of communication, in order to keep or establish the possibility of future romantic and/or sexual involvement,” according to a 2014 study in Computers in Human Behavior.
The concept has also been called “cushioning” ― as in, “I have a Plan B ready to cushion the blow if Meg and I don’t work out.”
It’s more than just a “what-if” situation, though. Backburner relationships require relatively frequent communication, Jayson Dibble, the 2014 study’s lead author and an assistant professor of communication at Hope College, told The Atlantic at the time.
These affairs of the heart ― and of the imagination ― make sense from an evolutionary standpoint: If the goal is to have as many options as possible for reproduction, the occasional Instagram “like” and “wanna get coffee?” text is easy enough to maintain. At the same time, you ensure your future offspring will have someone to care for them by staying with your partner.
Marriage and family therapist Elisabeth LaMotte likens cushioning to a “pre-meditated version of rebounding.”
Cushioning typically indicates an inability to exist without a relationship, she said. And more often than not, our backburner fulfills (or seems to fulfill) something that’s missing in our primary relationship.
“With cushioning, you’re usually cultivating a secret flirtation with someone who represents an exaggerated rebellion against challenges in one’s current relationship. For example, someone who is dating a successful but anxious partner might cushion with a relaxed partner who is unable to keep a job,” she said. “But cushioning denies both parties a chance to see if the anxiousness (or any other challenges) might be lessened through communication and effort with our primary partners.”
We imagine the grass is greener on the other side ― and in the process, we short-shrift what very well may be a solid relationship. Once pursued, backburner relationships are subject to the same frustrating, everyday complications any other couple experiences.
Sometimes, the relationship peters out quickly or forces you to grapple with your own unresolved issues. This was the case for comedian and writer Xaxier Toby. Six years ago, Toby pursued a relationship with a friend of a friend he’d always had “If only I were single...” thoughts about.
“They provide a little jolt of validation that you might be missing in your relationship due to turmoil, but that’s all they’ll ever be. They’re like sugar. Instantly gratifying, addictive, but without any nutritional value.”
“I’d just been dumped and instead of dealing with that, I leaped straight to the backburner,” said Toby, who has written a number of comedy books including Mining My Own Business.
“It didn’t go anywhere, of course, and just delayed me dealing with the pain of a breakup, with the bonus of unfairly messing with someone and involving them in the emotional mess that was me at that time,” he added.
Toby said he now understands why backburner relationships are so common.
“They provide a little jolt of validation that you might be missing in your relationship due to turmoil, but that’s all they’ll ever be,” he said. “They’re like sugar. Instantly gratifying, addictive, but without any nutritional value.”
Cushioning is unfair to both your current partner and the person acting as your cushion, said Samantha Burns, a dating coach and the author of Breaking Up & Bouncing Back. They’re also unhealthy for you.
“Cushioning stems from a place of insecurity, or underlying feelings of dissatisfaction in your current relationship,” she said. “If you’re cushioning, ask yourself why you need the outside attention and validation. Is it making up for some needs that are not being met in your relationship? Is it distracting you from acknowledging that you’re unhappy or disconnected from your partner?”
Take your time if you need it. But if you realize you want to refocus on your primary relationship, do so with intentionality.
“When you’re more insightful and mindful about your thoughts and feelings, you can figure out if you want to remain in your relationship and communicate with your partner instead of going outside the boundaries of your relationship,” Burns said. “Successful couples turn inwards, not outwards.”