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Neuropsych

Back-burner communication with your ex is likely to end poorly

The internet has made it easier than ever to keep in touch with our exes. For people in relationships, that can cause problems.
Credit: Mariia Korneeva / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • "Back-burner" refers to somebody to whom you are sexually or romantically attracted, but not committed, and with whom you maintain contact in case you someday want to pursue some type of relationship.

  • A recent study explored what tends to happen to people who are in committed relationships but keep an ex as a back-burner through digital communication.

  • The results suggest that maintaining communication with an ex — even if it doesn't lead to sex — is liable to lead to negative feelings.

Online communication has changed not only how we first meet our romantic partners but also the ways we can keep in touch with them after breaking up. Before the internet, contacting an ex was a more deliberate act: a phone call, an in-person visit. But with social media and texting, keeping in touch with exes is as easy as clicking a few buttons. 

Although such communication can be harmless and more or less platonic, some psychologists say it is often driven by a desire to keep romantic “embers” glowing just in case we ever want to rekindle the relationship, whether for the long-term or just a hookup. 

A study recently published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking explored what happens when people in committed relationships keep an ex as a so-called “back-burner.” The results show that, for people in relationships, maintaining contact with an ex through digital communication corresponds to more negative feelings, even if they do not end up engaging in sexual activity with their ex. 

Back-burners and digital communication

The researchers surveyed 246 adults in committed relationships, most of whom reported having at least one back-burner in their life. Here is how the study defined back-burner for the participants:

“Back burners are people we are romantically and/or sexually interested in, who we’re not currently committed to, and with whom we keep in contact in the possibility that we might someday connect romantically and/or sexually. People can have back burners whether or not they’re already in a committed romantic relationship with someone else. Back burners can also take different forms. For example, back burners could be former romantic/sexual partners or current sexual partners, provided we’re not committed to them, we still desire them romantically and/or sexually, and that this desire is one of the reasons we keep in touch with them. Finally, we may end up getting together with some of our back burners, while we may never get together with others.”

The participants then listed exactly how many back-burners they had in their lives and rated which were most desirable. The participants also selected a label that best described their relationship with their most-desired back-burner. Ultimately, the researchers collapsed all the labels into two broad categories: exes and non-exes. 

The results showed that most people in committed relationships reported communication with at least one back-burner, and that those whose most-desired back-burner was an ex tended to engage in more digital communication with their back-burner. What’s more, that increased communication corresponded with more sexual activity.

“Both paths suggest ex-partners represent a kind of back burner for whom the fiery limbo smolders, and these relationships are consistent with the relationship model of sexual desire,” the researchers wrote. “These associations held even after controlling for attitudes toward casual sex, age, and relationship longevity, which indicates that the nature of an ex-partner and the act of communicating themselves may contribute to maintaining sexual feelings toward that back burner.”

Just friends?

Unsurprisingly, the study found that participants in committed relationships who hooked up with their back-burner exes reported greater negative affect, defined through terms like distress, anxiety, and fear. But interestingly, the results showed that people tended to develop more negative feelings the more they digitally communicated with their back-burner exes — even if the two never engaged in sexual activity. 

The study did not aim to uncover why even conversations with back-burner exes might prompt negative emotions; feeling guilty about potentially betraying your current relationship in a subtle way would be one obvious explanation. The researchers suggested:

“For ex-partner back burners, digital communication may also bring past problems into the present. Compared with non-ex-partner back burners, having a back burner as an ex may invite rumination about the former relationship, activating negative memories. For example, exes may remind participants of the reasons the relationship ended in the first place (e.g., ‘I had forgotten how Bob doesn’t support my goals’).”

Still, the researchers noted their study had limitations, and that the results do not establish causality between digital communication and any form of infidelity or negative affect. Rather, the results amount to a “snapshot of a complicated process” that is back-burner communication — a relationship limbo ground that has undergone significant changes in the digital age. 


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