What you need to know:
- Women are at a greater risk of being back burners because they can grow to love a man they were not previously attracted to unlike men who mostly pursue women after being attracted to them
- In a way, this is a situation where you are stringing someone along, sort of 'dangling the carrot' but not delivering the goods
What's your relationship status?
Single? Maybe there's someone you've been texting regularly whom you realise you want to ask out on a date.
In a relationship? You might start thinking that your current flame is your one and only.
Complicated? You are keeping your options open, by keeping tabs with a potential mate out there.
No matter what your relationship status is, if you're like the average young adult, chances are you've also been chatting with other potential partners or back burners. These aren't people you're cheating with, but prospects you keep in touch with just in case your number one option falls through.
According to Counselling psychologist and Life Coach, Benjamin Zulu, "Back burners" are people with whom we maintain contact in the hope of someday pursuing a romantic or sexual encounter.
"This is a term derived from the aircraft industry. There is a burner on a jet engine that burns the gases going out to produce more force,"
The concept has also been called "cushioning" ― as in, "I have a Plan B ready to cushion the blow if Charity and I don't work out." It's more than just a "what-if" situation, though because it requires constant communication.
Take 24-year-old Liezer for example. Despite her being in a relationship for the last three years, she has been keeping open communication with two other men. They constantly chat on WhatsApp, though she says she has no intention of taking things further, 'at least for now.'
"It is an emotional tethering, crumbs of attention, a gift here, praise there, date and flirting once in a while," she says. She, however, admits that she may consider either of the men for a liaison if her current relationship breaks.
In a way, this is a situation where you are stringing someone along, sort of 'dangling the carrot' but not delivering the goods.
"This is your 'break the glass, in case of emergency' person who you know will be available whenever you call or say you are ready to be involved."
Some of the partners, Zulu says, may already have a liking or crush on you, so since you know, you maintain them for 'just in case'.
"Many who do it see it as a way to hedge their bets in case their main relationships don't work out," Zulu offers.
"Women are at a greater risk of being back burners because they can grow to love a man they were not previously attracted to unlike men who mostly pursue women after being attracted to them," says Zulu.
According to Psychology Today, today's use of online communication allows people to maintain backburner relations.
This involves three elements. First, positivity (being compassionate to someone and ensuring that interactions with them are fun and enjoyable). Second, openness (disclosing personal information and maybe even sharing secrets). Third, assurances (demonstrating that you wish the relationship to sustain over time and that it has a future).
Back burners with exes on the rise
In findings published in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, there is a rise of people reconnecting with their exes during this period of the Covid-19 pandemic. The researchers from the University of Oklahoma, a public research university in the USA interviewed 397 adults in long-term relationships and discovered that at least 62 per cent are keeping a back burner. Interestingly, 93 percent of people claim that they are in exclusive relationships. The study further reveals that more women are likely to hook up with their exes than men. In fact, more than half of the women interviewed admitted to intimacy with their former partners.
Yvonne Muriuki admits to strolling someone around just in case her relationship does not work out. "I am in an exclusive relationship. In the two years, we have been together, I have also maintained contact with a former neighbour. We haven't met, don't flirt but when on those occasional texts, I am vague about my relationship status. If things don't end up working out with my partner, I wouldn't mind starting something with him—he is my self-deference game plan," Yvonne admits.
One research, by three researchers, titled maintaining relationship alternatives electronically: Positive relationship maintenance in backburner relationships, people in committed relationships do have back burners, just like the singles. Some 56 percent of those in committed relationships reported having a back-burner relationship, in other words, the majority of those in committed relationships had back burners.
Derrick Maingi, a 27-year-old who works as an accountant does not see anything with this.
"My spouse knows that I have two particular women that I wouldn't want to lose. Both of them are my former colleagues. As long as we are together, I am not in any way expressing love or suggesting a romantic relationship to any of them. I even don't know if that will happen in the future but at the moment, I am contented with what I have—being in one another's lives," Derrick says.
To avoid being a hapless victim, you may want to know the signs that you are a backburner, and more so on what to do if you are one.
Signs your partner could have a backburner relationship
There are tell-tale signs that you are someone's backburner and if you look into your interactions and ambivalence towards you, it is possible to notice that they are not forthright," says Zulu.
· They communicate with you often but not every day. While at it, they will send you photos, request yours, praise you or ask you out for a date.
· Sometimes they will introduce or make sexual remarks but step back when you do the same.
· They are already seeing other people but will make you believe that it is you they care most for and are planning to call it quits with their partners.
· They'll keep saying that the timing is not right. "I really want to settle down with you but I am not ready at the moment." The next thing you see is their wedding photos.
· You are confused or sad, wondering why they don't put you first or try to make relationship progress with you.
· There is a reluctance to go exclusive with you.
What to do:
"If you've found yourself on either end of a backburner relationship, don't delay or disorganise your life based on empty promises that you'll get married or date this person one day. Leave," offers Zulu.
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