Valentine’s Day is approaching, and as happens every year, the commercialized holiday will likely drum up relationship anxiety for those in uncertain or undefined romantic entanglements. Our rom-com-centric society urges us to seek out "the one" – but how do we feel content in our choice?
This dilemma may be particularly true for millennials, who, as everyone loves to announce, are supposedly more commitment-phobic than previous generations. But regardless of whether today’s young adults are Tinder addicts bent on destroying the institution of marriage, maintaining relationships with potential backup partners in case your current one doesn't work is a well-known and certainly not new pattern of human behavior.
Communications researcher Jayson L. Dibble of Hope College has been studying how modern technology is impacting this phenomenon, given that platforms like social media and texting have made it incredibly easy to keep in touch with a stash of prospects, fittingly dubbed “back burners”. His 2014 investigation confirmed that many people use communication methods associated with intimate relationships (no, not sexting; rather positive, assuring, and open dialogues) to keep in contact with at least one back burner, even if they’re currently in a committed relationship.
But before you start to squirm with guilt because you fall into this category, or explode with jealousy at the thought that your significant other does, take note of his group’s other findings.
A follow-up study, recently published in Communication Research Reports, revealed that having back burners is not necessarily linked to the level of commitment or dissatisfaction in one’s relationship.
"The evidence isn’t abundant, but early indications show no link between the number of back burners people have and how committed they are to their partners when the communication happens electronically, which is how most people talk to their back burners," Dibble told IFLScience. "We think it’s still a little early for doom and gloom."
"Plenty of other research also tells us that even if we do keep tabs on our prospects, those prospects don’t look as attractive to us when we’re in a loving, committed relationship. Put differently, even if the grass is greener on the other side, a happy gardener isn’t as likely to notice."
Dibble and his co-authors surveyed 658 college students about their digital communication, relationship status, and number of back burners. Overall, 72.9 percent of the students used text or online messaging to regularly speak with at least one backburner. Among individuals in committed relationships, the proportion was still quite high at 55.6 percent. The number of back burners was also essentially the same between groups – single people maintained an average of six back burners whereas those in a relationship maintained five.
Single people tended to cultivate their back burners with greater frequency of communication, however, than those with a partner. The data also showed that men used the maintenance strategy of "assurances", expressions that the relationship will persevere through time, more than women. Both sexes used messages with tones of “positivity” (warm and compassionate) and “openness” (self-disclosure and sharing secrets) equally.
Because the latest investigation was limited to college-age individuals, future studies will look into how back burners affect long-term, mature relationships among older participants.
"I can imagine some people letting their back burner communication go too far, but we don’t yet know where the line is between natural attention to your alternatives and real threats to your relationship.