Most young adults keep in touch with potential ‘back burner’ partners — even if they’re not single

It is not uncommon for young adults to keep a “back burner” partner waiting in the wings. According to a new study, most young adults maintain communication with people they are romantically or sexually interested in, even when they’re in a steady relationship with someone else.

The study was recently published in the journal Communication Research Reports.

“I’ve always said research is me-search, so many of my research interests started as personal experiences that I wanted to learn more about,” remarked study author Jayson L. Dibble, an associate professor of communication at Hope College.

“Back in my grad school days, I was single and looking to mingle. I’d meet people at the campus social hotspots, trade numbers, and store those numbers in my phone. Weeks and months later, there’d be the occasional text message from one to the other: “Hey stranger how r u?” It felt like the idea was to show some interest and attraction, but not so much for a full-on relationship. Thinking back on those days, I wondered what it might mean and whether I was alone (turns out I’m not). Thus was born the study of back burners.”

The researchers surveyed 658 college students about their technological communication, relationship status and number of back burners.

Most of the students — 72.9% — said they maintained communication with at least one back burner. Even among those in committed relationships, a little more than half — 55.6% — had back burners.

“This particular study showed us that people do spend some effort to maintain back burner relationships using many of the same kinds of strategies they’ll use to keep their committed relationships going, e.g., sending messages of positivity, being open, and sending little notes of assurance. And, as you might expect, people who already have a committed partner do these things to a lesser extent than do singles,” Dibble told PsyPost.

“Relatedly, more singles reported having at least one back burner than did those in committed relationships–but over half of the committeds still had at least one back burner. And perhaps more striking, when it comes to average numbers of back burners, committeds don’t differ from singles. This underscores findings from our earlier research showing that back burners seem to be common whether people are single or in a committed relationship.”

Single students had about six back burners on average, compared to those in committed relationships who had about five on average.

The research does have some limitations, particularly when it comes to the sample used.

“The biggest caveat is that our data so far have come only from college student samples,” Dibble explained. “We might expect back burner activity to be most common among younger people, but it’s possible that people in longer-term relationships might do something similar, even if to a lesser extent. We’ve received anecdotal comments from married people who say they can name somebody else they’d likely end up with in case their spouse died. So we definitely want to explore this issue with older individuals and those in long-term relationships.”

“We also don’t know much yet about what kinds of things people say to their back burners. We know that communication is required for a back burner to be a back burner (that’s what separates back burners from other romantic prospects that we’re just quietly attracted to). That is, we know that people will expend some effort to fan the embers and keep the back burner glowing (and, as you’d guess, single people “fan” harder than those in relationships do). But we don’t know what they say. This is interesting because what sort of message do you craft to keep someone close enough to maintain the attraction, but not so close as to spark into a full-flame relationship? What do these messages look like that keeps someone in sort of an in-between state?”

“We also wonder how attached people become to their back burner relationships, as well as what it might mean to lose a back burner,” Dibble said. “Research shows, for example, that being left out of a computer-based ball-tossing game registers as actual pain in one’s brain. If a back burner becomes suddenly unavailable (e.g., Facebook status changes from “single” to “in a relationship”), does that register similarly on one’s physiology?”

Previous research conducted by Dibble suggests that a person who has a number of back burners can still be committed to their current romantic relationship.

“People have different feelings about this whole business of keeping in touch with back burners, and whether or not it harms our relationships. In fact, well-established theory led us to predict in an earlier study that the more back burners people have, the less committed they should be to their romantic partner,” he explained. “But this isn’t what happened. To our surprise, we found no association between these two things. What this means right now is, simply knowing that somebody has back burners doesn’t say anything about how committed they are to their partner. This research is still in its early stages, but we don’t see much yet that says we should sound the general alarm.”

“It seems the repertoire of human romance goes well beyond dating and getting married in the traditional sense. Back burners aren’t new by any means (remember the “little black book”?), but researchers are beginning to study them only now. Being inherently neither good nor bad, back burners may be another aspect of human connection that serves the bigger goal of helping folks find someone special and develop satisfying relationships,” Dibble added.

“Learning more about back burners through research can help us learn more about what are the real threats to our relationships and where we may not need to worry as much. Our goal as always is to help people learn to develop the kinds of relationships in which they can be happy and fulfilled!”

The study, “Maintaining Relationship Alternatives Electronically: Positive Relationship Maintenance in Back Burner Relationships“, was co-authored by Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter and Michelle Drouin.