We Use Facebook to Keep Tabs on Our ‘Back Burners’

Photo: Pete McArthur/Corbis

New research suggests one motivation for communicating on Facebook (and other social-media sites): to keep some of our connections on the “back burner” as potential future romantic partners.

If you’re not currently in a romantic relationship, it makes sense that you may think of some people in your social network as romantic possibilities. However, do people who are currently in exclusive romantic relationships also keep potential mates on the back burner? The research team defined back burners as: 

people we are romantically and/or sexual interested in, who we are not currently involved with, and with whom we keep in contact in the possibility that we might someday connect romantically and/or sexually. People can have back burners even if they are already in a romantic relationship with someone else. Also, a former romantic and/or sexual partner can still count as a back burner so long as we still desire a romantic and/or sexual connection with them. 

College students were asked to count the total number of contacts and number of back burners they had on their most frequently used social-networking site (e.g., Facebook). In addition, they were asked to count the number of back burners with whom they had platonic/non-sexual communication, and how many they communicated with in a romantic/sexual way.

We’ll take a break here for a minute while you finish up tallying yours.

Done counting yet? Let’s see how you stack up. On average, both men and women reported having about 350 contacts (e.g., total Facebook friends), but from those contacts, men reported having more than twice as many back burners than women (8.4 to 3.8).

People in relationships reported communicating with just as many back burners as single people. Of these, those in romantic relationships reported already having platonic conversations with 2.7 people, and romantic/sexual conversations with 1.8 people. That’s right: College students in relationships report having romantic/sexual conversations with, on average, nearly two people other than their current romantic partner.

In short, it is common for people in relationships to keep potential partners waiting in the wings. Maybe these back burners are a safety net in case their current relationship goes south. Or maybe they are setting the stage to move up to someone they think would be a better partner. It’s also possible that they are keeping old flames going following a breakup. Whatever the motivations are, technology makes it easy to keep these connections going.

This post first appeared on Science of RelationshipsBenjamin Le is the co-founder of Science of Relationships, and he’s also an associate professor of psychology at Haverford College. 

We Use Facebook to Keep Tabs on ‘Back Burners’