Research has shown there’s a correlation between Facebook use and relationship conflict—meaning, most young people enjoy a little social media soap opera drama every once in a while and come out the other end just fine; that is, as long as we’re not actually among the parties involved. It’s easy to assume why this has become such an epidemic. Smartphones let us communicate with exes and potential hookups much more easily and more privately than ever before. Now, whether our partners are cool with that is another story.
Those prospects are called “back burners”—we keep them around just in case our current situation doesn’t work out. It’s a pretty common relationship alternative, though researchers have only recently begun to explore its dynamics. A study published earlier this year does offer some insight into how technology helps us keep our relationship options open, even when we’ve presumably settled down with “the one.”
The study’s authors were interested in understanding whether people devote the same kind of energy they use in their traditional relationships to the people they consider their back burners; they surveyed 658 college students, and asked them questions about how they communicate with their prospects (whether by text, Facebook, etc.); how many they kept in touch with; and to what degree they incorporated positivity, openness, and assurances into their conversations.
Depending on how you feel about your partner still speaking to an ex, it may be unsettling to learn that, yes, people do use what researchers called "positive maintenance strategies" in their back-burner relationships—between 65 percent to 90 percent, in fact, depending on whether they were currently single or doing the serious relationship thing. Consistent with previous research, the study also found that people who were in committed relationships reported a similar number of back burners as people living the solo life.
Before rushing off to snoop through your partner’s Facebook account, here’s some good news: A related study found no link between the number of back burners a person maintains and how committed they are to their current partner. “More broadly, technology notwithstanding, the tendency for people to keep in contact with back burners may simply say nothing about how committed or happy those people are in their current relationships,” the study states. “Optimists might infer this to mean that back burner communication is common and should not be taken as evidence of low commitment to one’s current partner.”
In other words, Jayson Dibble, lead author on both studies and an associate professor of communication at Hope College in Michigan, tells Brides, “Simply knowing my partner keeps tabs on back burners doesn’t say anything about how likely they are to leave me. Of course, this research is still new, and all of our data so far are from college students. But we think it’s important to remind folks that back burners aren’t necessarily people we’re cheating with.”
He also points out that many people communicate with their back burners platonically, adding, “To be sure, it’s human nature to notice attractive others (if only to ensure we’ve still got the best deal), and this can happen without any desire to act on it. We think it’s still early to sound the general alarm.
“Even folks in happy, committed relationships continue to take notice of their alternatives, so this is nothing new,” he continues. “We don’t know yet whether we should just accept back burners as a fact of (digital) life, but we don’t see evidence yet that says we need to panic. If all other indicators are positive, maybe the back burner thing doesn’t have to be a big deal.”