Back-burner relationships: Why we can’t fully let go of past relationships.

Whether it’s an ex that checks in every few months “just to see how you are” or a past date that you can’t help but think there could’ve been more to, many of us, whether we’re conscious of it or not, have casual, fleeting relationships with people from our past that we can’t just fully detach from.

Are there still feelings there? Could the opportunity still exist? What would be the harm in trying again?

1. The Study

A 2020 psychological study gave these sporadic interactions a name: back-burner relationships. A back-burner is “a person to whom one is not presently committed, and with whom one maintains some degree of communication, in order to keep or establish the possibility of future romantic and/or sexual involvement.”

With back-burner relationships, you keep the door open to the possibility of a liaison with someone from your past. If you’re single, you may want to keep the possibility of reconnecting with someone open as it feels nicer to have an option than no one at all. If you’re in a relationship, keeping contact with a past partner or crush could also be a way of not placing all your eggs in one basket.

The researchers behind the back-burner study found that 73% of respondents in their study stated that they had more than one back-burner, regardless of whether they were single, casually dating or in a committed relationship.

In fact, the majority of those surveyed (56%) admitted to having back-burners while in a relationship.

2. Why do we maintain back-burner relationships?

Back-burner relationships can be thought of as someone’s relationship insurance, in other words, should their existing relationship break up, they have access to others who fill the role of their next potential relationship or romantic interest.

However, another reason people may keep back-burner relationships is that they use them as a means to avoid real commitment in their current relationship. As long as they maintain these external connections, in their mind they are not fully emotionally invested in their relationship.

Back-burner relationships are maintained because they require less attention and daily maintenance. They exist without an expectation that the relationship must go somewhere or it falls apart.

It is very much based on an unspecified future – “what ifs” and “maybe one days” so there is little pressure on both parties to make it “work” in the present.

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

If you’re in a relationship, whilst also maintaining a connection from the past, be self aware as to what your reasons are for doing so. Be mindful if you’ve had a fight with your current partner and immediately turn to a previous one for a quick ego boost or some intimacy. If you do want to keep in touch with someone on a friendly basis, be transparent about that fact with your current partner: and be honest with yourself about what your intentions are for doing so.

However, while back-burner relationships may not officially qualify as “cheating”, they do involve deceit, which can lead to trust issues within the primary relationship if one partner becomes aware.

It’s more often a better bet to focus on people who consistently give you their time and attention in the real world.