In an article recently published by The Atlantic, Julie Beck puts a name to something we can all relate to – the backburner. What is a backburner? A backburner is the type of person you have flirted with or might have previously dated, but aren’t interested in pursuing actively. They are your backup. They are an option on the table. You might text them late at night, or when you need validation, but for whatever reason, you think you can do better. You’re keeping that person around just in case.
Backburners are equally common among men and women. For men, backburners might fulfill different criteria than they are looking for in a long-term mate, but because they may not be able to commit to one person just yet, they enjoy the more fun, frivolous experiences that backburners often provide. For women, backburners are left to languish in that category because they don’t “check all the boxes,” essentially waiting around until those women eventually realize they’ll never find someone who meets their unrealistic expectations. Both male and female backburners are left in emotional purgatory.
Keeping these backburner relationships alive is easier now than ever. You can check her Facebook to see what’s going on in her life. You can see if he’s viewed your Snapchat story. I have a friend who judges the success of his Instagram posts based on how many of his likes are exes or past flings – those likes are “worth” more than others because they prove he’s still desirable to them. Social media is designed to replicate the feelings of human interaction we enjoy the most – feelings of self-worth and acceptance. We simply want to be liked. Another friend calls her backburner guys “roaches,” because they keep coming out of the woodwork and never die. Interaction with backburners is almost a badge of honor for singles – it verifies that they could settle down if they really wanted to.
While this type of behavior isn’t unique to millennials, it is likely the backburner phenomenon has been exacerbated by Tinder and other apps. A study done in 2012 suggested that online dating may cause a “shopping mentality” and “objectification” of potential mates. If that’s the case, then having more backburners is like having more of a commodity – the more the better. In having access to more and more potential dates, singles are able to keep more people on the backburner simultaneously. This practice only strengthens the problematic relationship between self-worth and desirability.
While I certainly agree it’s advantageous to keep one’s options open, I have seen firsthand that keeping people on the backburner, without categorization or future intent to pursue, can be an unhealthy practice. Ultimately, someone gets burned. Your backburner might still be pining for you, or you come to realize they are the right person for you at an inopportune time. Rarely does a backburner relationship reignite and result in long term happiness for both parties.
The Atlantic article was sent to me by someone I might consider a backburner. Whether it was a subtle (or not so subtle) slap in the face, it certainly made me think about keeping other people’s feelings at the forefront, rather than relegating them to an afterthought. Having more backburners doesn’t make you a more desirable person – truly confident people don’t need that type of validation. Be the better person and don’t leave him or her hanging – it’s simply good karma.