See, I have this dress. It hangs unworn in my closet, flattened between more practical items. It doesn’t fit me well anymore — neither my body nor my lifestyle. It’s a little too short and show-offy.
But, man, there were a couple of years when it not only made me feel beautiful, stylish, and sexy, it made me become those things. That frickin’ frock was the crème de la closet.
There’s a foolishly optimistic part of me, a tiny gooey spot in my otherwise fully baked brain, that holds out hope I might someday rock that dress again and feel that good in it. And be that good in it.
And because that fantasy is so delicious — because the mere memory of wearing it guns my engine as I’m rifling through my wardrobe each day — I will never, ever give that dress away. It’ll hang there between my sensible skirts and other forgiving go-to garments until I’m too old even for those.
But I was surprised to learn recently that size-too-small dresses aren’t the only things that people keep simmering on the back burners of their lives. A study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that technology is making it easier than ever before for people to maintain a “backburner relationship,” or to stay in digital communication with someone they see as a potential future lover.
Here’s the surprising part: People in committed relationships have just as many “backburners” as single folks do. And these results jive with a recent Daily Mail survey revealing that half of married women have a “fall-back partner” in mind just in case their marriages go south.
On the creepier side, such statistics conjure images of mysterious Amy Dunne of Gone Girl, who keeps an old boarding-school flame in her perfectly pressed back pocket. You know, for emergencies.
But if we’re being honest, I’ll bet we can all think of two or three B-listers who’d be first, second, and third on our phone tree if we had some breakup news to break.
You could argue that it’s just good sense. As someone who regularly stands in one checkout line at Costco while forcing my children to wait in another line in case that one goes faster — it just seems smart to know one’s options. It’s not so different than those pragmatic pacts made by platonic pals: “If we’re not married to other people by the time we’re 35, we’ll marry each other, okay?”
Heck, it could even be romantic. We’ve all heard stories about seniors who are widowed and then seek out their high-school sweethearts — who also just happen to be widowed — and they all live happily, if not enduringly, ever after.
But isn’t it hedging your bets? Can you truly and fully commit to one thing if you’re holding on, all the while, to another? Does harboring an innocent-but-secret back-burner crush mean you’re not “all in” on your roiling-boiling front burner?
“The casualness of Facebook is key,” insists a guy I know, whose current girlfriend was a back burner he reconnected with on the social media platform. “It’s not in the scheming sense of wanting to have a backup relationship on deck the moment my current relationship ends. But if there’s someone I’d be interested in if my or her circumstances change, it costs nothing to keep myself on their radar by liking or commenting on the occasional Facebook post.”
Another friend of mine reconnected with a longtime back burner she met in 1976. “There was always some undeniable spark, but we were never both available at the same time,” she says. “Five years ago, I ‘innocently’ sent him a note on Facebook congratulating him when his beloved Yankees won the World Series. That post turned into a private message, which turned into a phone call, which turned into a meeting — and in two weeks, we’ll celebrate our three-year wedding anniversary!
“Instead of ‘back burner,’ I prefer to think of it as Sexually Charged Networking.”