Backburners – Preparing for the Worst as a Third Culture Kid

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Culturs-expert-flagIn a recent study, researchers explored how new communication tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, make it easier for individuals to keep ‘backburners’. What is a backburner, you ask? A backburner is someone who you are not involved with at the time, but who you keep in touch with as a potential romantic partner in the future. It is not only those who are single who have backburners, but also those in committed relationships.[1]


The 374 participants in the study were from a large American university, and the average age was 20.[2] Therefore, the study is not necessarily as generalizable as we would like it to be, and more research needs to be done for a larger range of ages and locations, but it was interesting to see that the number of backburners in this particular investigation was not significantly different for those who were single than those in a relationship!

When I first read this, I was flabbergasted! How could someone in a committed and loving relationship keep people on the backburner like that? For one, the backburner is being led on by you as they believe they have a real chance in the future – they are dragged along, whilst you remain in your comfortable relationship. And secondly, how disrespectful to your partner, who most likely is blissfully unaware that you are maintaining these possible romantic interests for a rainy day – or, more specifically, for when your relationship with them crumbles.

I stopped to think if I had previously kept ‘backburners’ myself whilst in relationships. And, to my own surprise -and slight embarrassment- I realized I had. In the first three to six months of a relationship, I had kept in touch with male friends or contacts on Facebook, who I’d met a while ago at an event, a house party or through friends. Why was I keeping those connections? Was it really because I believed they were my friends? Or was it simply out of fear that my relationship could crumble at any moment?

How terrible, right? Well, the thing is, looking back I know exactly why I was doing this. Having grown up as a Third Culture Kid, or someone who’s grown up outside their passport country, all I knew were goodbyes. I had moved schools and countries four times before the age of 18 and was, therefore, used to leaving friends and homes behind at a moment’s notice. And, not only that, I was also accustomed to others leaving me as we attended international schools, where this was the norm. After living in this way during my formative years, it was hard for me to believe that the person that I was in a relationship with would actually stay with me for the long-term.


Over time, I had learned how to prepare for the worst, and anticipate goodbyes before they even happened. The idea of a backburner was just what I needed. I was anticipating the worst and preparing for what I thought would inevitably happen, which meant acquiring new romantic interests. It was just being logical and level-headed – or so I thought.

As more months rolled by, however, I realized the person I was with hadn’t left yet. Nor had I. For once, I wasn’t restless. I stopped all contact with backburners. I didn’t give into fear. Instead, I took a leap of faith. In love.

[1] Dibble, J. L., & Drouin, M. (2014). Using modern technology to keep in touch with back burners: An investment model analysis. Computers in Human Behavior34, 96-100.

[2] Dibble, J. L., & Drouin, M. (2014). Using modern technology to keep in touch with back burners: An investment model analysis. Computers in Human Behavior34, 96-100.

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