Until I met my current boyfriend, I was a huge proponent of always letting someone linger on the back burner — keeping one foot out the door created a safety net of sorts. I didn’t have to worry too much about whether or not things would work out with the person I was seeing, because I always had someone else to fall back on. My own little secret weapon, it emboldened me to be myself in ways that I never would have if I didn’t have the comfort of knowing I wouldn’t be totally alone if whatever I situation-ship I was in didn’t work out.
Like it or not, a 2018 study of 658 college students confirmed that back burners are a legit phenomenon among young people — so much so that more than 70% of those surveyed admitted to having at least one back burner. Social media, especially, makes it easier than ever for us to maintain these relationships.
Take 23-year-old Henry*, for example. Henry says he and the majority of his friends always have a few people on the back burner. “I think it’s so easy with Instagram or Snapchat or whatever to communicate with these people, so I definitely feel like we all keep people around for the attention.” But Henry says that if he winds up more “formally dating” the person he’s currently a little bit interested in, he would cut out all of his back burners.
Matt, 25, recalls meeting a guy who “seemed perfect for him” on Tinder a couple of years ago. But he lived hours away, which was a deal breaker as far as Matt was concerned. So, after a few dates, Matt moved this guy to the back burner. “For the last year and a half, we’ve just sporadically DMed each other in response to Insta Stories,” he says. “I’ve pretty much written him off, so it’s just in case I get the urge to meet him again and see if there is something.” Until then, Matt will keep this guy on his back burner is to leave open the possibility of eventually revisiting the relationship. And, according to an expert, that may be just fine.
From Keeping It Casual To Catching Feelings
Niloo Dardashti, Psy.D, a psychologist and relationship expert in New York City, sees nothing wrong with keeping someone on the back burner, so long as you are doing it for the right reasons. “If you’re doing it because you think there might be something there, and you’re single, dating, and are just not sure about anyone you’re dating,” Dardashti believes it’s OK to have what she refers to as “tiers” of people in your love life. In other words, the person you’re most interested in could be at the top tier while the person you’re still deciding on resides on the back burner. However, this only works if “you’re not giving them the wrong idea, and you’re being as honest as possible.” If you’re clear about where you’re at, and they are in a different spot, then it’s time to let them go.
Another time to cut your back burners loose is when you’re pursuing something more serious. Yes, back burners are totally cool when you’re casually dating, but they can be distracting when you’re trying to develop a real connection with someone you have feelings for. It can be “hard to have space to let someone else in when you’ve got all of these people you’re keeping around just in case [things don’t work out],” says Dardashti.
My own relationship would have never happened if I didn’t find the courage to cut out my back burner when my boyfriend and I began seeing each other. There was now someone I seriously cared about in the picture, and flirting with someone I was lukewarm about for the sake of maintaining this little safety net I had created just didn’t feel worth sacrificing what I might develop with him. So, in one of the top five most awkward conversations I’ve ever had, I told my back burner that I’d met someone I was really interested in and that we should probably stop the years-long cycle of sporadic flirty texts and occasional hookups. I felt guilty for hurting that person and, more importantly, I was terrified. Now, if things didn’t work out, what would I have to fall back on? Suddenly the stakes became 1,000 times higher for me. But in retrospect, I think I have to credit those same high stakes for making my current relationship work. We were both all in.
Not unlike me, Zara, 30, admits she regularly kept people on the back burner throughout her 20s. After lots of therapy and time spent considering what she truly wanted, Zara adopted a new policy: “If it’s not a ‘hell yes,’ it’s a’“fuck no’ for me when it comes to love. And if you’re a ‘hell yes,’ you’re not on the back burner. You’re at the front and center of my life.” It was this shift that Zara credits to leading her to her now-wife, Meghan (who she met on Tinder!).
Having someone on the back burner gets even more complicated when you’re in a monogamous relationship. When she was already about seven months into a new relationship, 27-year-old Riley’s* ex, who she still had real feelings for, made his way back into her life. “He was interacting with my posts and responding to my Stories,” she says. “I was so glad to have him back in my life. That said, I’m not one to step out of bounds when I’m in a relationship, and I wouldn’t do anything that I wouldn’t want my boyfriend to do to me. So I kept my ex on the back burner while I figured out what to do.” She ultimately drew a line when she felt the rapport was starting to get inappropriate (conversations became more flirty and they were considering meeting up in person) but admits she’s not sure she’ll ever remove him from the back burner completely.
Even if your back burner isn’t an ex you’re not over, Dardashti warns keeping someone around while in a relationship with someone else is more of a red flag about your feelings toward your S.O than anything else. “Maybe that relationship isn’t as strong as you thought it was,” she says, adding that, when you truly feel a strong connection with your partner, “you’re so present in the moment that there’s no concept of a back burner.”
Keeping Things Open
Having said that, certain relationships inherently leave room for back burners. “In a way, the back-burner thing fits open relationships to a T, but only if people are being honest about it,” says Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D., a sociologist who has written several books on polyamory. Sheff explains that certain, though not all, open relationships inherently leave room for back-burner partners.
In these cases, there’s no need for the guilt Riley was feeling when things got “inappropriate” between her and her back burner. “If some people had a poly relationship, that wouldn’t be an issue,” says polyamorist sexuality coach Jennifer Doan. “They could actually pursue something with that person and not feel guilty about it.”
Investigating The Why
But regardless of whether your relationship is casual, monogamous, or nonmonogamous Dardashti believes the issue isn’t so much if you have someone on the back burner but why. If you’re simply doing it until someone better comes along, she advises you to question why you need this person in your life. In some cases, she explains, it’s a lack of clarity about what you’re looking for. If that’s the case, consider severing ties with your back burners and working to gain that clarity through therapy, reflective conversations with friends, and/or self-examination.
More commonly, Dardashti says, fear of loneliness is at the root of people’s need for a back burner. Zara realized this was the case for her after working with a therapist. “I did it because I didn’t know myself and I didn’t love myself, so I didn’t know how to be alone with myself,” she says. If this sounds familiar, Dardashti suggests following Zara’s path and spending some time in therapy getting to the root of your phobia.
When it comes to back burners, if you keep one to give someone a fair shot while you casually date other people, then great. But if your reasons err on the darker side, it’s probably time to cut the back burners out and start looking inward.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.