Social Networking and the 'Back Burner' Phenomenon

07/16/2014 04:51 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2014

In his biography of President Warren Harding, The Harding Affair, author James David Robenalt reveals a number of rather steamy love letters written by Harding, who was married, to Carrie Philips, his acquaintance -- and eventual lover -- of 15 years (and which affair ended just before his inauguration).

Today, Ms. Philips could also be described as a "back burner" of Mr. Harding. That term has been defined by psychologists Jason Dibble and Michelle Drouin as follows:

"A back burner describes a person with whom one is not presently committed and with whom one maintains some degree of communication, in order to keep or establish the possibility of future romantic and/or sexual involvement."

One huge difference between being a back burner in the days of Harding and Philips as opposed to today is the paper trail this couple left behind. Back then the written word was just about the only way to maintain that "degree of communication" -- and in their case that degree was apparently off the charts, with references that included Ms. Philips' "matchless breasts."

Working quite independently of Robenalt's biography, Dibble and Drouin set out to investigate how the back burner phenomenon might be playing out today. To do so they decided to recruit young men and women as volunteers for a study of if and how they might use modern technologies such as social media, texting, and so on to maintain back burner relationships (Computers in Human Behavior, 2014, vol. 34, pp. 96-100).

The Back Burner Phenomenon Endures Over Time

This study involved 374 young men and women with an average age of 21. This volunteer sample included some who stated that they were currently in an exclusive romantic relationship, and some who were not. The entire sample completed questionnaires that asked about their use of technologies such as cell phones and the Internet, and including social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Those who were in committed relationships answered questions about how committed they felt, and also about how many back burners, as defined above, they might have in their personal network, and what was the overall quality of each back burner relationship. "High quality" back burners were defined as follows: "The people other than my partner with whom I might become involved are very appealing." In other words, a high quality back burner is a relationship that is at least lukewarm!

What Dibble and Drouin found is instructive on several levels. First, this group of young people used text messages, Facebook, and sometimes cell phones to maintain contact with their back burners. Second, as a group they reported having an average of 5.5 back burners, more of whom they communicated with in a platonic as opposed to a romantic way.

The researchers hypothesized at the outset that those individuals who were currently in an exclusive romantic relationship would report having fewer back burner relationships than those who were not in romantic relationships. It didn't turn out that way. The average number of back burner relationships for these two different groups was actually about the same. Furthermore, the total number of back burners remained the same, regardless of how committed these men and women felt to their primary relationships. Finally, having "high quality" back burner relationships seemed to promote having more back burner relationships.

What Does It All Mean?

So what are we to make of these findings? First and foremost, it's obvious that the kind of relationship that Harding and Philips had is hardly a thing of the past. To the contrary, the back burner phenomenon appears to be thriving -- at least among young people who are "connected." It does not, on the other hand, indicate that individuals who say they are in exclusive romantic relationships will necessarily cheat on those relationships. But they do engage in ongoing "relationships" with "desirable" others. The difference is that they can do this without leaving a "paper trail" as Harding and Philips necessarily had to.

Dibble and Drouin point out, in attempting to explain their findings, that, "modern technologies allow for covert communication, including communication with back burners. For example, potential romantic alternatives can exist under different names on a mobile phone, Facebook friends lists can be hidden."

I'm not entirely sure I agree with these researchers' explanation. It certainly does appear that the back burner phenomenon has not only endured as a social reality, but that it may have actually proliferated due to the existence of electronic and social media. Maintaining back burner relationships -- potential replacements for an existing one -- may in fact be almost normal today -- assuming that the young men and women in this study were aware that everyone was in fact maintaining them. Unfortunately that is a question that was not asked. So we are left to consider one of two possible explanations for the data: either technology has facilitated secrecy, or, alternatively, as far as back burners are concerned, "everyone does it and everyone knows it."

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder, and Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One's) Drinking a Problem?