Back Burner Relationship: Are You Stuck In a Toxic Slow Burn?

Many of us have, it seems, been there. You know, yearning desperately for a guy who gives us just enough special attention to keep us secretly waiting and hoping that it will, one day, turn into something more? As One Day reminds us, unrequited love can last for years and years and years if the other person does just enough to keep us patiently waiting on the sidelines. It’s what dating experts call a ‘back burner relationship’.

“It could be argued that One Day romanticises a back burner relationship,” says Jade Thomas MBACP, Psychotherapist and Founder of Luxe Psychology Practice to GLAMOUR. “Despite the long-lasting friendship developing over the years, the series keeps the audience hooked leading to the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ anticipation. However, in reality ‘back burner’ relationships can cause emotional distress to those involved.”

And it’s not the only recent show to glamourise yearning and waiting while a “friend” keeps leading you on. Just take the upcoming season of Bridgerton that will focus on the friends-to-lovers arc of Penelope and Colin.

If these love stories feel eerily familiar, you may be stuck in a ‘back burner relationship’ of your own.

What is a back burner relationship?

A back burner relationship happens when someone is keeping you — well — on the back burner.

“It’s a situation in which one person in a romantic partnership keeps another person in their life as a potential backup or reserve option, often while actively pursuing or maintaining a primary relationship with someone else,” explains Thomas.

Whether you’re in a friendship with someone who is constantly flirting with you and reminding you of your almost-hook ups (ahem, looking at you, Dexter), or you’re in a casual romantic relationship that never seems to progress while your partner continues to date other people more seriously, this could constitute a back burner relationship.

The dangers of falling into a back burner relationship

As One Day shows us, being on someone’s back burner can come with plenty of emotional turmoil. With a back burner relationship, the other person is usually not only someone you’ve had a crush on for years, but also someone you’ve built a strong emotional connection with. Needless to say, watching this person have relationships with others while keeping you at arm’s length can be nothing short of devastating.

“Back burner relationships can cause emotional distress to those involved, leading to the partner on the receiving end feeling neglected, insecure, or used,” Thomas says.

In addition to the emotional impact of a back burner relationship, there are practical ramifications, too. When you’re on the back burner, you’re constantly hoping for an eventual relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable. This can leave you unavailable for real relationships.

Why is it so tempting to keep a back burner relationship going?

According to Thomas, back burner relationships have only become more common in the digital age.

“Unfortunately, modern dating (dating apps and social media) has changed the way people develop relationships, leading individuals to feel hesitant in fully committing due to the wide range of availability and choice with others,” she says. “People may fear they might miss out on something better, almost feeling like they need some form of insurance, which can lead to a lot of ‘back-burner’ relationships.”

How to deal with being on the back burner

If you find yourself in a back burner relationship, it’s important to take steps to get off the back burner in a healthy way. This could mean starting a more committed romantic relationship, establishing the boundaries of your friendship, or even cutting ties altogether.

  • Establish what you want in a relationship: Do you want to feel like a back burner or a second option? Is this relationship making you feel good?
  • Establish boundaries: If the answer to these questions is no, then establish boundaries within the relationship to let the individual know that this is not acceptable behaviour.
  • Consider the long-term: If the individual continues this behaviour, then it might lead you to question your compatibility with this person and if the relationship would fulfil you in the long-term.

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