If you’re in a committed romantic relationship, your partner should be your first priority—but not your only priority. Maintaining healthy, mutually supportive friendships with people you aren’t having sex with is great for your mental and emotional health, not to mention your relationship.
Some people take that and run with it a little too far, though. If you feel like your partner is texting an old friend so much that they barely notice you anymore, they may have someone on the back burner.
What is a back burner relationship?
“Back-burnering” or “putting someone on the back burner” is exactly what it sounds like: You stay in touch with a friend or ex to keep them interested in a hypothetical future relationship, just in case things don’t work out with whoever you’re currently seeing. (It’s also called cushioning or benching.)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing this during the early stages of a relationship, when you haven’t yet had The Talk with someone you like (or are just trying to play the field a little bit). But in the context of a committed, exclusive relationship, back-burnering is incredibly hurtful—even when it never develops into a full-blown affair.
It’s not hard to see why. In a Cosmopolitan article on “cushioning,” Justine Carino, a licensed mental health counselor in White Plains, NY, explains that keeping people around “just in case” indicates serious insecurity: “You are already predicting the demise of your relationship, which should be a red flag for you.” This is a huge bummer for everyone involved. The back-burner’s partner feels betrayed, the person on the back-burner feels like a backup, and it’s all because the person at the center is deeply insecure and unable—or unwilling—to deal with it.
How to navigate a back-burner situation
The tricky thing about back-burnering is that it can be innocuous. Maintaining friendships outside your romantic relationship is healthy, and from the outside, that’s usually all it looks like. In other words, back-burnering offers more plausible deniability than a physical or emotional affair, which makes it hard to confirm any suspicions that it’s happening.
If you suspect that your partner is back-burnering someone, your only option is to talk about it. Be direct and specific: Relationship and sex expert Esther Perel recommends avoiding “detective” questions, which focus on the “hurtful, gory details” of the affair rather than underlying emotional issues. Demanding to read your partner’s conversations with your backup—and then actually reading them—is a great way to hurt yourself on purpose. Asking them to explain why they did it (or why they think they did it) and what they got out of it could actually help you two identify the parts of your relationship that need work.
Don’t expect miracles. No matter how calmly you broach the subject or how careful you are to avoid accusations, your partner is likely to get defensive and upset. (In their mind, they did nothing wrong—it’s not like they cheated, right?) If talking it out doesn’t work, you may have little choice but to end the relationship.
Learn from the experience
Whether or not your relationship survives a back-burner situation, getting over the experience won’t be easy. In both cases, you owe it to yourself to sit down with your partner (or alone) and hash out your own definition of “cheating.” Where’s the line—and what happens if someone crosses it? Knowing your boundaries and communicating them clearly are the first step towards a healthy, loving relationship.