Dating Don’ts: Are You Keeping A Relationship On The Backburner?

We all have that one person who lingers. You know, that person you dated for a little while, but never really cut ties with. Maybe you periodically check in with them, just to see how they’re doing, or keep an eye on their Facebook relationship status to see if they’re still available. Maybe they’re the person you’re interested in, but not for the immediate future. Maybe you see yourself with them five years down the line, when you’re ready to settle, and hopefully they feel the same way, too. Maybe you entertain the idea of starting it up again, when you’ve blown through all your Tinder matches and your OKCupid inbox holds nothing but baby MRAs and leering sexual come-ons. This, my friends, is a backburner relationship, described in The Atlantic as “a person to whom one is not presently committed, and with whom one maintains a degree of some communication, in order to keep or establish the possibility of future romantic and/or sexual involvement.” It sounds bad, like the worst possible way to keep someone tethered to you without taking action, but really, it’s not the worst thing. Chances are, you’re doing it with someone in your life, and have been for quite some time.

A backburner relationship is akin to those vows you make with a single friend when you’re kinda drunk at the bar one night, swearing to marry each other if you haven’t found anyone by 40. A backburner relationship is simply keeping your options — all your options — completely open, and it’s something that every person does, whether they know it or not. It’s still entertaining those late night texts from the one ex you didn’t hate entirely, or those flirty Facebook messages that toe the line with your college boyfriend. It’s the romantic equivalent of comparison shopping, always being aware of what the market has to offer. It’s a self-preservation method, an insurance policy that guarantees you won’t die alone with only your cats for company. The older I get, the more I see its value.

I am not lonely. I have a fulfilling life, a bustling career and friends and family that keep me occupied. I value my alone time, and cherish the Sunday afternoons when I don’t have to bend to someone else’s brunch plans or watch football in a crowded bar when I can enjoy it from the comfort of my own couch. These are activities that don’t necessarily disappear once you’re in a relationship, but when you’re single and happy, they are tiny moments to cherish just the same.

I know what it’s like to be in a relationship, too, and recognize its value. I’ve been in the relationships where Sundays are lazy days spent rolling around in bed and eating bagels and drinking coffee and lingering at the doorway to say goodbye. I know how nice it is to have someone in the house that you can share your thoughts with, laugh about the weird thing the cat is doing, and dissect the entirely unbelievable and ridiculous plot on “Homeland.” It’s the contentedness of all of this that makes me think that a backburner relationship wouldn’t be so bad.

It can be selfish. This is implicit in the definition. Keeping someone in your life “just in case” is a selfish act. Leading people on, toying with their emotions and keeping them in your back pocket so that you can stave off loneliness is selfish. But a backburner relationship often recognizes that timing is everything and that while timing might not be right now, it may be someday – when you’re both single, or finally emotionally available, or ready to stop fucking around and settle down, or when you’ve exhausted all your other options and “companionship” doesn’t sound like settling.

When I broke up with my college boyfriend, we had an explicit conversation about how he had kept me around as a backup option for a year after we stopped dating. I was livid, telling him in no uncertain terms that I deserved better than that, that I was no one’s second choice. As I plod into my thirties, happily single, but with a dull desire to date only because it feels like something I should maybe start thinking about, the idea of having someone on the backburner seems to just make sense.

Eventually, you reach a point where it feels like you’ve run through the list of available and eligible people in your city, and you’re done going on dates that lead to unsatisfying sex or a string of texts after you’ve gently rebuffed their advances. The appeal of the backburner is that, even though you ended things for one reason or another, whatever you had with them was actually working. Sure, it had bumps, but maybe they were due to emotional immaturity or age or Mercury in retrograde. Maybe the relationship ended not on your terms, but on theirs, and you’re realizing now that the mistakes that you made wouldn’t happen again, because you’ve changed.

The utility of a backburner relationship isn’t the actual rekindling of what once was. It’s a salve against what might be. Really, the chances of getting back together with any of the people you keep in your back pocket are pretty low. It’s the stuff of romantic comedies and the occasional real life success story, shared by a beaming friend at a bar over wine and mediocre bacon wrapped dates, her friends leaning in closer to hear, eyes widening as the narrative unfolds. A backburner allows you to hold on to hope. Sometimes, that’s not so bad at all.

Do you have a backburner relationship? What’s the story? Share in the comments!