Years ago, author Sara C. experienced strong chemistry with a colleague despite being married for 14 years. Her relationship with the coworker started as flirtatious banter and coffee meetups before they became intimately involved.

The emotional connection had deepened long before they physically connected, jeopardizing her marriage as Sara nurtured a potential relationship in her mind.

“My affair began as an emotional one,” Sara shared anonymously. She believes that in many long-term relationships, unresolved issues and routine can lead to emotional stagnation.

Sara pointed out that such feelings of boredom or unresolved issues can make people view others differently, possibly enhancing emotional connections.

These relationships are sometimes referred to as backburner relationships, where one keeps potential romantic or sexual interests on hold while in a committed relationship. The 2014 study from Computers in Human Behavior defines a backburner as someone you communicate with, keeping the door open for future involvement.

Jayson Dibble, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at Hope College, explained that such relationships involve consistent communication, going beyond mere hypothetical scenarios.

From an evolutionary perspective, maintaining such options could be strategic for ensuring future reproductive success, facilitated by simple gestures like occasional messages or social media interactions.

Marriage and family therapist Elisabeth LaMotte compares this to cushioning—a form of relationship insurance where one maintains a flirtatious connection with someone as a backup. LaMotte notes that this often highlights what’s missing in the primary relationship.

Cushioning involves secretly fostering a connection with someone who starkly contrasts the challenges faced in one’s current relationship, such as dating a laid-back person when your partner is high-strung. However, this prevents both parties from addressing and potentially resolving their issues through communication.

Such dynamics often lead to undervaluing a potentially stable relationship. Pursued backburner relationships face the same day-to-day challenges as any relationship.

Sometimes, these interactions fizzle out or force individuals to confront their unresolved issues. Comedian and writer Xaxier Toby, who pursued a backburner relationship after a breakup, realized that it provided temporary validation but no real emotional substance, comparing it to the fleeting satisfaction of sugar.

Cushioning not only unfairly involves the backburner individual but also harms one’s current relationship, according to dating coach Samantha Burns. It often stems from insecurity or dissatisfaction.

Burns advises taking time to reflect on why you seek external validation and if it’s a distraction from problems within your current relationship. Focusing on and communicating within your primary relationship is key to resolving issues and maintaining a successful partnership.

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