Do you have a backburner relationship?

People who you keep in the background and won’t quite let go


Sometimes, you don’t know where you stand.

“I was getting with this guy throughout my whole degree,” Alice says. “He still frequently asks to come over and stay because he’s back living at home with his parents. I’m just waiting for when loneliness strikes to finally cave in and say yes.”

The guy is Alice’s backburner: a person who you’re not going out with, but with whom you keep up some level of communication, so as to keep open the option of something (whether sexual or romantic) happening in the future.

It’s someone who lives in the back of your mind, someone with whom you check in, now and again, to catch up. It’s someone to chat to, and who probably makes you feel a bit less lonely. We all have a few backburner relationships, whether we mean to or not; it’s human nature, a personal safety net.

“I was seeing this boy in my final year at uni,” says Lucy. “We’d become really close and I’d started to fall for him, and I thought he had for me, too. But he told me he couldn’t be with me right now. I knew he cared about me, and I knew he wanted me too. He couldn’t commit, but then again, he couldn’t completely let me go.”

Indeed, the phrase “right now” (two words) can be enough to put something on the “backburner”. It adds hope to your potential relationship; it’s just enough to keep you there, though not enough to establish anything official. But there’s a constant, low-level sense that one day it will happen.

Who are these people? Are they exes? Friends? Mostly it’s people you know you’re attracted to, with whom something may or may not have happened: friends, guys or girls you’ve met a couple of times. The would’ves, could’ves and should’ves.

Some backburner relationships run on security: knowing that the person you are messaging, calling, or Skyping feels roughly the same way and has similar intentions. Others are more vague: you can’t really articulate what you’re doing, but it doesn’t feel like nothing. You likely don’t even want it to go anywhere – not right now, anyway – but it can be strangely reassuring.

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You might not speak much in person – or at all. Instead, maybe you Facebook chat, WhatsApp, or they like your picture on Instagram a day after everyone else did. On the other hand – it might be someone who’s sort of part of your extended Facebook group. You flirt when you hang out, they usually buy you a drink – but it feels static. Weirdly, you don’t even care that much.

Obviously, sometimes you do. You send the, “hey, how you doing?” at 10pm after a few glasses of wine. They don’t reply, or they do – it still doesn’t go anywhere.

Sometimes, it does get a bit weird. One of you mentions a girlfriend or boyfriend a little late in the exchange; it feels shoehorned in. The texts get a bit intense (and then still don’t go anywhere).

Incidentally, just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean that you don’t have a backburner – or that you’re not being considered a backburner by someone else.

“I know my girlfriend speaks to guys behind my back,” says Alex. “I’m not an idiot. I don’t want to bring it up with her; I know that it’s stupid and I’m probably overthinking it, but I know she would run to them if anything went wrong with us, and that worries me.”

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“I guess it’s a security thing, isn’t it”, said another 20-something, “the sense that none of us wants to be truly alone. Backburner relationships mean you always have an option, you’re never on your own.”

It might boil down to loneliness; it might boil down risk-aversion, or the furiously pragmatic desire to keep our options open. By the time you’re in your 20s, you’ve probably been through a few relationships that haven’t worked and you no longer believe in the myth of happy ever after; while at the same time, entertaining fantasies that something that hasn’t yet worked could, one day.