Illustration by Grace Wilson
Whether because of other priorities, another partner, incompatibilities, or simple bad timing, a back-burner relationship is one you know won't work out. But you can't help wondering: What if?
After Alex* and I met at a friend's Halloween party and discovered our mutual love of Magic the Gathering, he invited me for a game at his apartment. I didn't think I was romantically interested, but I arrived wearing makeup.
Over the next three years, we met up for Magic games, coffee, and (perhaps intentionally) graphic conversations about our sex lives. We slept in the same bed twice and cuddled "platonically" three times.
When we later matched on Tinder, he sent me a message saying, "Found you!" I pretended not to notice.
I didn't think things could work out between us. He seemed more interested in casual sex and occasionally made comments that rubbed me the wrong way. But in my loneliest moments, my imagination would go wild, playing and replaying a narrative shamelessly inspired by the "best friends turned lovers" cliche.
When I started seeing my boyfriend, Alex was one of the first people to meet him. He approved, calling him "sweet." But whenever I had doubts about my relationship and wondered what would happen if my boyfriend and I broke up, Alex was one of the first people who popped into my mind.
Alex wasn't "benched"—i.e., strung along as a backup in case my first-choice romance didn't pan out. It's more like we put each other on the back burner: We had a mutual, but unspoken, understanding that a relationship between us wouldn't work at the time, but if a few things were to change, who knows?
When we back-burner our friends, acquaintances, or hookup buddies, we're not leading them on. We genuinely could see a relationship develop, but we don't want to pursue it at that moment, whether because of other priorities, another partner, incompatibilities we believe we could one day resolve, or simple bad timing.
People in back-burner relationships "truly care about the person but understand that the relationship has what they perceive to be a high likelihood of failure," licensed marriage and family therapist Allen Wagner explains.
When Sabrina met her back-burner buddy on OKCupid, she was having an affair with a married man, and they both were dealing with mental health issues. Neither was in a good place to date seriously, but they grew close. "Because we were going through such similar shit, it was easy to just be open with each other," she said.
Photo by Aleksandra Kovac via Stocksy
Alice* has kept more than one crush on the back burner because she's been scared to risk ruining the friendship she has with them. "If I get very into them, then I will usually daydream about situations in which we are together, and I will genuinely think we could be together at some point in the future, but of course not in the present moment because that would be too scary and mess everything up," she said.
Location is another major contributor to back-burner relationships. Abe told me he and multiple exes have back-burnered each other when they moved, hoping they could rekindle their romances once they reunited. It hasn't worked out yet.
Matt Hunter, founder of the relationship coach service cambyo, has encountered many people who don't know what city they'll settle in and want to keep options open in different places. He has even back-burnered someone himself with the hope that they'll end up in the same place and his attraction to her will grow.
Another man, Michael, frequently texts (and sexts) with his "not-my-boyfriend," who lives four hours away and went on a few dates with him before he moved. While Michael doubts things will ever work out between them, he can't let go of the hope that they might. Besides, he said, "It's comforting to know that when you're feeling bored—or, honestly, when you feel ugly and unwanted—you've got somebody who's going to tell you, 'Nice butt.'"
It's comforting to know that when you're feeling bored, you've got somebody who's going to tell you, 'Nice butt.'
Clinical psychologist Wyatt Fisher considers desire for praise a major reason people back-burner one another. The reminder that someone finds us desirable enough to date provides an ego boost, even if they never act on that desire. In this way, a back-burner buddy can function like a friend with benefits. Instead of sex, the benefit is the validation a relationship offers—and perhaps the reassurance that you won't be alone forever.
Fisher believes some people have "chronic back-burner relationships" because they want to enjoy these benefits without commitment. Michael admits he might be one of them.
"I'll give any guy the equal opportunity to woo me and fit into my life, but I'm also not about to chase someone down and try to push a relationship forward," he explained. "I'll easily forget about them as soon as they let me. Until I feel lonely. Then it's time to go through my text messages and pick a few to talk to."
Sometimes, commitment-phobes will back-burner people indefinitely. They'll plan to wait until they're ready, but that moment never comes—or comes too late. "People can sit on the back burner, and when it's time to bring them to the fire, a person realizes that, while they [themselves] are ready for that, that other person [on the back burner] has moved on," said Wagner.
Another mistake people make, he said, is back-burnering people because they have a connection but don't fit every item on their checklist. The "invincibility and optimism" that leads us to constantly hold out for someone better can eventually leave us out of options.
But that doesn't mean back-burner relationships never stand a chance of making it to the front burner. Clarissa Silva, author of the relationship blog "YOU'RE JUST A DUMBASS," once back-burnered someone because she lived in New York and he was in Alabama; she also wasn't buying his laid-back Southern demeanor. But as they kept in touch as friends, she realized she preferred him over the guys in her own city. She front-burnered him, he moved, and they got engaged. She nearly fell into the checklist trap, she said. But before she could commit, she had to risk putting him on the back burner while she sampled what else was cooking.
A back-burner relationship can be healthy as long as the situation dissuading you from dating isn't permanent and you understand things may not work out, Wagner says. It may seem idealistic to believe something that isn't right now could one day be, but since we and our needs are always changing, the way we interact with others does, too. "What is not compatible in one phase of our lives can very much be compromised at another," Wagner said.
That's what happened with Sabrina, who gave up on her back-burner buddy only to match with him on Bumble after ten months of not speaking. Now, they're dating exclusively. "This time around it's different because we know so much. He was honest that he's sick of moving and being lonely," she said. "Things are definitely moving off the back burner."
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