Back burner relationships: the psychology behind “what if” and why we can’t let go of past relationships
Relationships

Back-burner relationships: the psychology behind “what if” and why we can’t let go of past relationships

Can’t seem to let go of past dates or wondering “what if” about exes? Psychologists explain the rise of “back-burner relationships”. 

Whether it’s an ex that checks in every few months “just to see how you are” or a past date that you can’t help but think there could’ve been more to, many of us, whether we’re conscious of it or not, have casual, fleeting relationships with people from our past that we can’t just fully detach from.

Are there still feelings there? Could the opportunity still exist? What would be the harm in trying again?

It was a 2014 psychological study that gave these sporadic interactions a name: back-burner relationships. A back-burner, as defined by the study, 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.”

However, a back-burner isn’t just someone who crosses your mind every once in a while – these “what-ifs” only become backburners if you actually reach out to them.

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What are back-burner relationships?

“There is a fundamental difference between remaining friends with, or occasionally connecting with, your ex and a back-burner relationship,” Dr Jaime Zuckerman, a psychologist, tells Stylist. “Maintaining a back-burner relationship with an ex, when used as a means to avoid a deeper level of emotional commitment, can have a negative impact on your primary relationship.”

“With back-burner relationships, you keep the door open to the possibility of a liaison with someone from your past,” agrees dating coach Hayley Quinn. “If you’re single, you may want to keep the possibility of reconnecting with someone open as it feels nicer to have an option than no one at all. If you’re in a relationship, keeping contact with a past partner or crush could also be a way of not placing all your eggs in one basket.”

The researchers behind the back-burner study found that 73% of respondents in their study stated that they had more than one back-burner, regardless of whether they were single, casually dating or in a committed relationship.

In fact, the majority of those surveyed (56%) admitted to having back-burners while in a relationship.

Back burner dating: the psychology behind this fascinating relationship trend
Back burner dating: the psychology behind this fascinating relationship trend

Why do we maintain back-burner relationships?

According to Dr Zuckerman, we often keep back-burner relationships for one of two reasons, and sometimes both.

“Back-burner relationships can be thought of as someone’s relationship insurance,” she explains. “In other words, should their existing relationship break up, they have access to others who fill the role of their next potential relationship or romantic interest.”

However, another reason people may keep back-burner relationships is that they use them as a means to avoid real commitment in their current relationship. “As long as they maintain these external connections, in their mind they are not fully emotionally invested in their relationship,” says Zuckerman, suggesting it’s an indication of emotional attachment issues.

Back-burner relationships are maintained because they require less attention and daily maintenance, Zuckerman continues. “They exist without an expectation that the relationship must go somewhere or it falls apart.

“It is very much based on an unspecified future – “what ifs” and “maybe one days” so there is little pressure on both parties to make it “work” in the present.”

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Back-burner relationships are usually maintained via social media, so it’s also never been easier to engage in this sort of entanglement. “Social media can be a tool to keep in touch with people over long expanses of time where you may not invest in the relationship IRL,” says Quinn.

From old flames to staying in contact with previous dates, when there’s a sudden spike of interest from a person we’ve met in the past – they begin liking our photos again or watching Instagram stories – it can boost our confidence enough to slide them a DM. However, Quinn suggests, it’s more often a better bet to focus on people who consistently give you their time and attention in the real world.

Social media helps us facilitate back burner relationships
Social media helps us facilitate back burner relationships

Are there any healthy ways to have a back-burner relationship?

“If you’re in a relationship, whilst also maintaining a connection from the past, be self aware as to what your reasons are for doing so,” Quinn advises. “Be mindful if you’ve had a fight with your current partner and immediately turn to a previous one for a quick ego boost or some intimacy. If you do want to keep in touch with someone on a friendly basis, be transparent about that fact with your current partner: and be honest with yourself about what your intentions are for doing so.”

Indeed, Dr Zuckerman stresses that there is a significant difference between back-burner relationships and affairs. “The idea is that back-burner relationships are not active ongoing intimate relationships. They are formed based on the basis of “maybe one day, you never know”, whereas an affair or going outside the relationship is an active intimate relationship, typically because one person is unhappy and/or wants to leave the relationship.”

“Back-burners are often kept secret from the other partner, and are frequently minimised and described as a benign and insignificant relationship,” says Zuckerman.

However, while back-burner relationships may not officially qualify as “cheating”, they do involve deceit, which can lead to trust issues within the primary relationship if one partner becomes aware.

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