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Back Burner Relationship – Definition, Signs, Psychology and Everything Else

Back Burner Relationship – Definition, Signs, Psychology and Everything Else

Updated on Dec 01, 2022

Reviewed by Katina Tarver, MA (Mental Health and Wellness Counseling) , Life & Relationship Coach

Back Burner Relationship - Definition, Signs, Psychology and More

Do you suspect your partner has a back burner relationship? Or, do you think your partner put you on the back burner?

I can’t even imagine what you’re feeling right now… but my heart cries about how betrayed you feel. But hey… this isn’t the moment to shed tears.

I promise to find you a solution to your issue. You’ll even get a rough idea of why your partner chose this path.

So, c’mon, let’s walk towards a better future together…

Back Burner Relationship Infographics

Back Burner Relationship - Definition & Signs
Back Burner Relationship – Definition & Signs
Back Burner Relationship - How to Deal with a Back Burner Relationship?
Back Burner Relationship – How to Deal with a Back Burner Relationship?

Back Burner Relationship Meaning

If a person who already has a primary or committed partner builds a bond with a potential mate as a backup in case the actual partner leaves them, it is called a back burner relationship.

In a back burner relationship aka benching or cushioning, you put someone on the back burner, i.e., you stay connected with a romantic interest like an ex or a friend that has a crush on you just to keep your options open.

You keep them interested and hopeful about a relationship with you in the future… if your current relationship doesn’t work out or if you don’t settle down by some given time frame.

This is actually not wrong or immoral if you do this when your primary relationship is still new and you haven’t had “the” conversation.

However, if you’re in a long-term committed relationship, back burner relationships are hurtful to both the primary and secondary partners. The primary partner feels cheated and the back burner partner feels used like a backup.

It is a sign of insecurity as you’re afraid of your partner leaving you or the relationship not working.

So, are you anxious about backburner relationship signs in your partner? Let’s find them out here…

Signs that your partner has back burner relationship

If you feel suspicious about your partner’s commitment to you, don’t suffer silently. Though heartbreaking, I’ll urge you to find the truth. Even if they don’t admit it by themselves, you can unveil it with these signs…

1. They meet their exes frequently

If your partner often makes plans with their exes from God knows which era and has outings with the excuse that it’s a college or school reunion… or that all co-workers from an old company will go on a trip and their ex happens to be a part of the group. 

Yup! Your suspicions are pretty on point… they have a back burner relationship.

2. They just “don’t wanna be rude”

If they’re always texting their ex, ask them to just tell them that they’re taken and are happily settled in a relationship. Notice what your partner says.

If they have a back burner relationship, they’ll definitely find an excuse to stay connected with them… they might even make you feel bad because you’re being rude and insensitive.

3. They’re all over others’ social media

A glaring red flag of your partner having a back burner relationship stays hidden in their social media activity. They’ll like and comment on a particular person’s pictures and posts.

Of course, you’ll have no idea at all who this person is… even if you know all of their friends and family members, you can’t remember who this person is.

4. They have some “friends” you don’t know

Next, if you confront your partner about this person whose photos they always comment “cute” on… they’ll try to convince you they’re an old friend they recently got in touch with or a distant relative.

Even if you’re familiar with all of their close ones, they’re extremely intimate with that one person you’ve never heard of… that’s another petty excuse to hide a back burner relationship.

5. Their actual friends linked someone else with them romantically

If you hang out with your partner’s friends and they even jokingly say that someday your partner might end up with someone else and not you… don’t ignore that sign.

They might try to cover it up, but there’s definitely someone your partner hides and their friends have news of it.

6. Their phone is always going off

People in committed relationships prioritize their primary partners. But a back burner partner won’t know that and always try to get your partner’s attention.

So, you’ll notice they’ll get frequent texts on different social media platforms but none of them will be from a known contact.

Or, you might see it saved with their friend’s name with added “home/work/*service provider name*” if it’s on WhatsApp or normal texts. But it’ll look fishy because that acquaintance doesn’t text your partner as much.

7. You have no idea about their social life

A person with a back burner relationship will often have socializing plans. They’ll spend time with you and their other close ones.

However, you can’t ever make spontaneous plans with them as they gave word elsewhere. You’ll find that if you didn’t ask them out, you won’t even know about their packed socializing routine.

8. They call themselves “flirty”

Human behavior isn’t consistent, so not all people try to hide their back burner relationships.

When you confront your partner about being in touch with their exes or even other potential mates, they may blame it on their personality and say they’re the “flirty type”.

This shows that they’re not committed to you and might even have a back burner relationship or two… and aren’t even ashamed of it. If they act this way, feel free to walk out because they don’t respect you the least.

9. They always have a backup plan when you’re busy

When you can’t make it on dates at the last minute, take note of your partner’s behavior. If they instantly come up with different plans with others… but it’s not with their friends or family, something is off.

After all, if someone else is ready to tag along on their last-minute plans, they surely crave your partner. And that alone shows your partner has a back burner relationship.

10. You have a deep gut feeling

Sometimes, you may not even compare your partner’s behavior with a checklist. Still, your instincts say that something is off.

Most of the time, instincts don’t lie because it’s the conclusion of a mixture of facts collected in your subconscious mind. So, don’t ignore this feeling or wait for it to change.

However, if you suspect worse that you’re not even the primary partner, take a look here…

Signs you’re someone’s back burner partner

Though it’s hurtful to know your partner planned a backup relationship, it’s far more devastating and disrespectful to know the object of your affections consider you as their second or even last option.

But if the seed of suspicion is sown, that might be the case. So, let’s make sure over here…

1. This person isn’t committing wholeheartedly

One of the greatest signs of being someone’s back burner partner is when your place in their life is inconsistent.

At one point they want you and you’re the best person alive on earth. You feel they’re so committed to you. But when you want them back, you’re being clingy and must stop.

It’s all because they wanna lead this arrangement on their terms!

2. They’re in a relationship, but you feel you’re the one they want

A clear-cut sign of you being someone’s back burner partner is when they already have a stable relationship… but they’ll make you feel you’re their soulmate. 

You may not make out or be their Thanksgiving plus one, but they make you feel special… as if you have this nameless spiritual connection that nobody can understand.

3. There’s only one-sided flirting and no progress

If that person always gives you romantic and/or sexual compliments or that they never met someone as intelligent… or they make eye contact for a little too long, they’re clearly flirting! They make you feel wanted but won’t ask you out.

Moreover, if you try to flirt back and they avoid you, that’s a huge red flag of being a backburner partner. Again, they want to be in control of the situation.

4. They always signal you have a chance

Though they’ll never ask you out or confess their feelings, they’ll make you fantasize about a romantic relationship. They’ll say “you and I might actually make a good couple”.

You hope that it’ll happen soon but it never does… even though you’re available and ready!

You wonder what’s taking them so long… it’s all because you’re on the back burner here.

5. You occasionally do “some” romantic stuff

A major red flag of being a back burner partner is when they’ll take you on romantic dates… but everything will be quite private. They’ll never take you to a place where they might be spotted by their acquaintances.

They might have a movie date at your place or a romantic candlelight dinner at a restaurant or a movie date near your house.

6. You’re their go-to person to vent out… but only on FB

Whether they’re bored, troubled, or had a bad day… they’ll always reach out to you late at night. You feel so special because you can fix their mood or calm them down.

However, you feel uneasy because… why do they always text you this stuff on FB, IG, or WA? Why don’t they ever call you?

It’s probably because they don’t want to disturb their primary partner’s sleep while talking to their back burner partner!

7. They’ll fill your notifications but won’t enter your life

If someone likes and comments sweet things on all of your posts on social media and makes you feel like they’re crushing on you, you’ll obviously hope to go on a date or meet them if you’re equally interested.

But the moment you ask them out on a date, if they back off…  you’re their back burner partner! They only want to keep you around with minimal online efforts.

8. They don’t want you to date anyone

So, what if they won’t make a move? Someone else will notice your value and want to date you. And when this person sees your picture at a coffee shop with a new person, they blow their fuse.

Oh… it’s not because you didn’t wait for them to propose to you. They just want you to stay available, single, and on their convenient back burner!

9. They remember you during fights with their partner

Whenever they have troubles with their steady partner, if they come running to you with a tear-stained face and ask you to comfort them… you might feel they deserve so much better and that you can make them much happier than their actual partner.

But you’re so wrong… they just want to keep you hooked on to this feeling and serve your purpose as the back burner partner!

10. They literally make you their last resort

The saddest sign of being a back burner partner is when a person doesn’t even hide the fact that you’re their last resort. They’ll say “If neither of us gets married before 35, let’s get married!”

You feel you have a good chance and that they know about your feelings… but unfortunately, you overlook that there’s no certainty.

11. Your texts always get the last answers

Once in a while, it’s alright to not get instant replies to your texts because everyone has responsibilities. However, when that person takes days or weeks to respond to your texts, that’s not normal.

In a back burner relationship, they’ll sway you off your feet with cute phrases… but it’ll only happen once in a blue moon because you aren’t the only one in their life!

12. They never work on the big plans

Another sign of being someone’s back burner relationship is when they ignite the fantasies of vacations, dates, and life together… but never work on them.

Even if they have a 3-day weekend vacation and you remind them about their plans… they’ll flat out refuse you with “I’m not sure about my work routine”… they always have some excuses planned.

13. Instead you become their last-minute plan

Though they won’t work on the big plans themselves, you have to abide by their instant plans. They won’t text you the entire week and leave you thinking what’s up? Then they’ll text you Friday at 8.

This is a tell-tale sign that they prioritized someone else over you and since that person can’t make it, you – the back burner partner – have a chance!

14. They never call you on time

Another sign of being a back burner partner is that they promise to call you around a fixed time but will never keep the word.

In fact, since you’re on the back burner they think it’s okay to ritually ignore you. This is a clear sign because had you been the “front burner” partner, they’d obviously put more effort to hold you.

15. It’s always when they need something

In a healthy relationship, you’re your partner’s sole priority. If you’re in trouble, they’ll try to reach out to you physically or virtually and support you throughout.

However, when you’re on the back burner, they’ll reach out only when they need attention, comfort, help, or anything else. They won’t keep in contact regularly.

16. You’ll never see them free on the weekends

Another major red flags of being the back burner partner is when this person you’re seeing never has time for you on the weekends. They’re either busy with their friends, family, or even work!

If this happens consistently for a long time, they’re lying. They have another serious commitment… and you’re just an open option for them.

17. They lead this relationship or arrangement

A happy and healthy relationship is balanced… at least most of the time. Both partners initiate efforts to spend time with each other.

But if you’re in a back burner relationship, you’ll never get to make plans. Everything will happen on your partner’s terms and pace. Things are pretty one-sided and even if you’re agreeable, you’ll soon lose your mind.

18. You’re never their guest for meaningful events

If you’re dating for a few months, you might expect them to invite you as their plus one to their friend’s wedding or ask you to join in on their family vacation.

However, if you mentioned that you’d love to join in but they make excuses… they pretty much don’t want to show you to others because they have someone else officially.

19. You hate this uncertain or unknown feeling

The greatest sign of all of being in a back burner relationship is your gut feeling. You’ll constantly feel something is off with the relationship and you don’t get loved, respected, or accepted as you must.

Ask yourself whether you’re truly happy and if you’re ready to have this sort of dynamic in your relationship. If you’re the back burner partner, you’ll hate it.

20. They say it’s not the right time

If you still have doubts about whether you’re on the back burner, ask them to make you their official partner and introduce you to their friends and family.

They’ll give you a heartbreaking “this isn’t the right time” or “I’m not prepared for a relationship” to brush you off. In reality, they’ll never be ready for you, their back burner partner… even if you wait for two decades.

Did you find lots of signs in your relationship from here? Wondering how to get off the back burner? C’mon, it’s showtime!

How to deal with a back burner relationship?

If you find someone made you their back burner partner without your knowledge and deceived you, you’ll probably want to disappear from their life or confront them. But I’ve got better ways, so follow me here…

1. Play hot and cold

If you suspect someone to make you a back burner partner, they won’t connect with you consistently. If something similar happens, you can follow two strategies consecutively here

Stop contacting them completely. People who create back burner relationships without letting them know love it when the other person pays excess attention to them. The lack of attention will make them lose their mind.

If they confront you about your changed attitude, boomerang the question: why did they not contact you?

In this situation, they’ll choose a sly way to manage. So, from then on, blow their phone with excess contact. Call and text them when they’re usually unavailable other than office hours.

Watch them react as they’ll be scared of getting caught by their primary partner.

2. Call them out when they don’t respond to your moves

If that back burning person usually makes romantic moves but won’t let you have a romantic conversation about your future, swiftly point that out.

Tell them that you noticed their weird behavior and you’re suspicious about it. Don’t hold back but also stay respectful. If they’re innocent, their reasons will sound genuine to you.

However, if you’re their backup, they’ll get defensive and even blame you for their actions. Remember, if a person truly wants a romantic relationship with you, they won’t act defensive and are scared of being caught for honest communication.

3. Tell them what kind of relationship you desire

If you’re a back burner partner to someone, they won’t ever try to introduce you to their close ones or date you in a conspicuous area. They’ll try everything to keep you under covers. If this happens, be honest about what you want.

Tell them that you want to be known in their inner circle as their date/partner… that you wish to go out on dates and post pictures… and that you wish to be able to connect with them whenever you want. If not, you can’t have this kind of relationship.

4. Seek respect for your time

If they reject you saying that they aren’t ready for a relationship just yet… or get upset when you date someone and expect you to stay available for them, ask them to respect your time.

Tell them you don’t have all the time in the world to find your perfect match. If they can’t make up their mind, it’s their problem. So long you’re ready to date, love, and be loved, they have no say in this.

Be clear that if they can’t date you, you’ll move on and find new love.

5. Let them choose!

Try to find out if they have a partner. Put your or your bestie’s detective skills to use. Stalk them and their family on social media to find out. Or, if you want to splurge, hire a reputed detective.

If they’re in a stable relationship and you’re the back burner partner, tell them that it’s either you or them. Even if they say “I’m stuck in this relationship and you mean everything to me”, don’t get convinced.

If they choose you, cool… if they choose their partner, break contact. But if they try to get you back while being in the relationship, throw another ultimatum at their face. “If you won’t leave me alone, I’ll call the cops and even let your parents and partner know about everything.”

But, if you feel you’re the primary partner, you can deal with the situation a little differently. Let’s see it here…

How to deal with your partner’s back burner relationship?

The very thought of your partner having a back burner relationship is painful… however, you have the upper hand over the other backup partner as they prioritize you. So use your authority wisely to work on a situation like this…

1. Calm down and talk

The moment you suspect your partner of a back burner relationship, just don’t overreact. It’s better said than done but horrific name-calling and blaming contests won’t take you anywhere.

So, calm your nerves and take deep breaths. If you want, take space for a day and then ask them about it.

While you ask them, make sure you don’t beat around the bush or they’ll try to navigate their way out of the interrogation.

2. Avoid deep questions

The questions must be direct like: Do you have someone else as a backup? What do you do when I cancel plans at the last minute? If our relationship doesn’t last, do you have someone else to hit it off with?

Never ask deep questions like: What do you guys do when you meet? How far are you intimate with them? Am I not enough for you? Is it because I can’t *some insecurity*?

These questions will 100% make you break down and lose your balance in the conversation. So, don’t let that happen whatsoever.

3. Avoid snooping in their phone

Most people connect with their back burner partners through texts, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram… so you might want to check their chats right away.

But if you feel that suspicious about your partner, they definitely did something hurtful. So, what’s the point of it? If you’ll check the chats, you’ll be more heartbroken than ever.

Don’t hurt yourself like that. Assume that they went all the way if you want to… just don’t scar yourself. Otherwise, you won’t be in a position to interrogate and get to the bottom of it. Your emotions can get in the way of actual work.

4. Instead know the reasons

Try hard to stay on the line. Ask your partner what was up. Though I mentioned you to assume the worst, that’s only about the texts.

Ask them to be transparent this time so you don’t feel that you misjudged them later on. Particularly, knowing why they needed a back burner relationship and how they benefited from it.

If there’s still room for reconciliation and if the situation isn’t as bad, you can still keep this in the past and resolve any relationship issues.

5. Take necessary action before the final decision

After knowing everything, you might lose your nerves and say something extremely rude and hurtful… because you’re hurt far more than your partner. This is an expected reaction to emotional pain. You’ll be upset and you won’t even want to forgive your partner for it.

However, make sure you take time and space before reaching any concrete decision. Whether you’ll look past the situation as a minor mistake or you’ll break it off with your partner, think thoroughly with a clear mind.

Share your situation with your loved ones and consider their point of view. If you want to continue the relationship, seek a couples therapist to get rid of other underlying issues.

Curious why people even have back burner relationships? Let’s know the common reasons here…

Why do we maintain back burner relationships?

People seek back burner relationships for several selfish reasons. Even if it’s hurtful, most people don’t feel guilty about it. Instead, they even justify their choices with these common reasons listed here…

1. For a backup or insurance relationship

Some people are too insecure or scared of feeling lonely. They believe having a romantic partner is important.

So, if their primary partner leaves, they won’t be on the losing end, society will think highly of them for “being intelligent and knowing where the primary relationship was headed”.

Basically, it’s so that one doesn’t feel lonely and betrayed after a breakup and won’t have to hunt for a new partner with a broken heart right from scratch.

2. To avoid emotional commitment

Some people don’t like the idea of emotional attachment. This might be because they believe it’s a sign of weakness or they were hurt in the past when they were emotionally attached to a partner or a parent. There can be many other reasons behind a person wanting total emotional detachment.

Since having external connections lowers the chance of emotional investment in a relationship, some people might want a back burner relationship.

3. It’s low maintenance

Back burner relationships don’t need as much attention and maintenance as front burner ones. The partner put on the back burner definitely expects to be a priority, but the one seeking it feels mentally less responsible for it.

They don’t feel guilty for not putting equal effort into it and don’t feel pressured about the future of the bond. The freedom of back burner relationships along with the insurance factor makes them more desired.

4. It gives you a great ego boost

Sometimes, people just slide into others’ DM while they’re still uncertain about their demand as a partner. But when an old flame or someone attractive reacts positively and shows interest, they experience a great ego boost.

Eventually, they get addicted to this good feeling, and confidence boosts more and more which makes them want to continue this back burner relationship. Even thoughts like “I’m not cheating, so it’s fine” make them think there’s nothing wrong at all.

5. It’s easier to get rid of

The future of the back burner relationship is unexpected. If the current relationship lasts long enough and works out fine, they must end the other connection.

Well, if someone invests a lot of time, energy, and emotions in a side relationship, it’s hard to come out clean as there are entangled emotions and even evidence of dating. But if it was as loosely linked as a back burner relationship, it’s easier to let go.

But that’s not all! Even psychologists are curious about the reasons. So, let’s know what experts think here…

Psychology of back burner relationships

As per psychologists, the desire to have a back burner relationship is connected to humankind’s drive to procreate and have stronger offspring. But they don’t work on this desire due to some unknown urge and are well aware of their actions.

Jayson Dibble and Michelle Drouin studied the psychology behind having a back burner relationship.

Before that, they researched Caryl Rusbult’s Investment Model of Relationships.

They found that only the people in committed relationships that are verbal about their feelings are less prone to having romantic relationships outside their primary relationship. For them, even the more attractive mates naturally felt less attractive because of their devotion and affection.

In their research, Dibble and Drouin studied more than 300 undergrads’ behavior. They found that people in committed relationships, as well as people that dated casually, had multiple back burners.

Finally, they concluded that people tend to have one or more back burner partners because of their wired drive to procreate. Sometimes it’s because of this primal sense to seek a fitter partner and birth stronger offspring.

But, of course, nobody learns to have back burners right from the beginning. It all begins with thoughts like “what if” I were not with my current partner and with that cute person from FB and deliberately acting on these urges.

But, are you interested in having your own back burner relationship? If you like this idea but don’t want to hurt anyone, let’s go through it here…

Are there any healthy ways to have a back burner relationship?

You might be curious about back burner relationships naturally, have some of the mentioned reasons, or you want to try it as revenge on your partner’s back burning. Though not the best kind of relationship, you can try it with these steps in mind…

1. Identify your reasons for having a back burner relationship

If you have a serious and committed relationship currently, first figure out your honest reasons to want a back burner relationship.

It can’t be because “everyone around me has one so what’s the harm?” Be specific about why you need it. Is it because you want to be comforted whenever you fight with your partner? Then it’s a bad reason. 

You can’t use your second choice for an ego boost and intimacy… that’s not ethical.

2. Share your intentions to the back burner partner

If you find a plausible reason which isn’t selfish and doesn’t hurt your front or back burner partners, seek a partner with honesty. Tell them what you desire from the relationship.

Mention that you only want a platonic bond and nothing more. Let them know that you already have a primary partner and that you’ll prioritize them over the new person.

Also, tell them what you desire from the relationship. Like how much time you’re ready to invest in them and the relationship dynamics.

3. Explain the meaning of back burner relationships

Definitely clarify to them that having a back burner relationship isn’t the same as having a full-blown affair where people get romantic and intimate. So, explain that the future of a back burner relationship will always stay unknown.

If you have multiple back burner relationships, tell them that you may not choose them even if you separated from your current partner.

Remind them that you didn’t seek this relationship because you’re unhappy with your primary relationship or that you’ll soon break it off.

4. Think if you plan to keep it a secret

Since everyone defines back burner relationships as insignificant or inactive because of the lack of commitment and casualness, people often decide to keep it a secret from their primary partner.

However, that’s not a strict rule. So, you have the choice to decide whether you want to share it with your partner or not. If you share it, make sure you tell them before you even start the quest.

If you tell them, they might not agree. But that doesn’t mean you must deceive them as that’s a dishonest move.

5. Be aware of possible outcomes

If you decide to keep everything a secret from your partner, that’s understandable. However, don’t forget that you’ll deceive your partner that way. If they find out later, they won’t trust you ever again.

Hell might break loose and they will accuse you of cheating as it hurts as bad. After all, if they aren’t seeing anyone else behind your back and they were loyal throughout… in their mind they don’t deserve this treatment. This might also lead to a breakup.

If your partner accuses you, you might want to defend your situation. So, let’s know the reality here…

Is back burner relationship cheating?

A back burner relationship isn’t technically cheating but it’s deceitful and dishonest if your primary and back burner partners aren’t aware of the situation. This is enough to result in a breakup.

Though having a back burner relationship doesn’t equate to cheating completely, this kind of behavior isn’t justified either. After all, it clearly shows that you aren’t completely invested in your partner.

Let’s assume you’re insecure in the relationship. But how does that lead to having a side-chick/guy? That means, for you, being in a relationship or having the “taken” tag is more important than your partner.

Instead of trying to make sure your partner doesn’t leave you or convincing them that you’re the perfect one for them… you go off maintaining a back burner relationship.

This is a dishonest move, even if it’s not cheating in technical terms. Of course, it’ll hurt you and your relationship equally as cheating.

Suppose you didn’t get physically or sexually involved, the lack of emotional commitment is enough to ruin your relationship.

A word from ThePleasantRelationship

Whether you’re on the back burner or you or your partner put someone on one, both the primary and back burner relationship dooms.

So, do back burner relationships ever work?

It doesn’t especially if you’re on the back burner… you stay there until all of eternity and lose your prime time to have a healthy relationship.

However, if the concerned people are aware of each other’s presence and build a sort of ethical non monogamous relationship.

But there’s a catch… only the person seeking the back burner relationship is on the winning side… while the primary and back burner partners will be at a great disadvantage feeling insecure throughout the time.

So, think carefully and choose your happiness wisely.