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Could “Back Burner” Relationships Be Harmful to Your Recovery?

Could "Back Burner" Relationships Be Harmful to Your Recovery?

There is a great amount of value in the relationships we cultivate in recovery and the way our personal development changes in these relationships. It has been said that in early recovery serious intimate relationships should be avoided during the initial growth process, to give time for real emotional stability. But when faced with romantic relationships, some people keep what has been referred to as “back burner” relationships, and the nature of this kind of connection in early recovery gives it the ability to be very harmful to your sobriety, whether you’re early in recovery or not.

What is a “Back Burner” Relationship?

The idea of the “back burner” relationship has been recently looking into more in depth with a controlled study, and the individuals conducting the study describe “back burner” relationships as,

“…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.”

Recent Study on “Back Burners”

Jason Dibble and Michelle Drouin are two psychologists who  investigated how the back burner phenomenon and its role in relationships today by recruiting young men and women for a study on if and how they use social media, texting, and other media to maintain such relationships. The study involved 374 young men and women with an average age of 21. Some in the sample reported being in an exclusive romantic relationship, some said they were not. The entire sample completed questionnaires about their use of cell phones and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Those who were in committed relationships answered questions about how committed they felt—and about how many back burners, as defined above, they might have in their personal network, along with the overall quality of each back-burner relationship.

It was quickly determined that this group used text messages, Facebook and social media, and cell phones to keep up contact with their “back burners”. All together there was a reported average of five-and-a-half “back burner” relationships. The researchers assumed that individuals in exclusive romantic relationships would have fewer “back burner” relationships than single individuals. However this was not the case. The average number of “back burner” relationships for the two categories was about the same. Further, the total number of back burners remained consistent regardless of how committed these men and women felt to their primary relationships.

How “Back Burner” Relationships Harm Recovery

Given the statistics from this study, it is fair to say that technology and social media interactions today have made the maintenance of “back burner” relationships much easier, and in many ways it has almost become normalized in modern culture. However in recovery this practice is hazardous to sobriety because it goes against many keep principles in recovery, and it only invites more stress and emotional turmoil. The same can be said if you are the one being the “back burner” while someone else weighs their options at your expense.

“Back Burner” relationships can cause serious trouble in recovery by contradicting many of the essential values that become important when working a program of recovery. These ‘just in case’ romances take away from the core concepts that contribute to lasting sobriety such as:

  • Honesty
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Humility
  • Integrity

All these things factor into your spiritual fitness and emotional growth. If you are constantly undermining these important parts of your recovery by using others as ‘back up plan’ relationships and not valuing them as individuals you run the risk of stunting your growth and lapsing back into old behaviors.

This kind of relationship also can create more drama and conflict in your life. When someone is kept to the side and lead along they may cultivate resentments and retaliate. They could eventually lash out against you, or they could simply move on and cause damage to your ego. Either way it has the potential to have negative impact on your emotional well-being.

Both the harm to personal values and the risk of conflict are definitely multiplied drastically for those in recovery who are already in some kind of serious relationship! If you are already supposed to be ‘committed’ to one person, and yet you have a few potential replacements already on stand-by that you give just enough attention to keep them interested, you are sabotaging your emotional health and throwing a lot of those principles of recovery out the window.

Just try to imagine your knee-jerk reaction when the person you’re supposed to be committed to finds out, and they hurt you in some way to get back at you, and then your “back burner” finds out and bails too. And the spiritual fitness you should have to resolve the guilt or stress is not there because you have consistently acted in a way that dilutes you honesty, integrity, and humility to a point where you defenses from old coping habits are too weak, and your spread too thin from not applying your program of recovery to your life.

Some relationships, behaviors and habits are more damaging than we care to notice until it is too late. If you are having reservations in your relationships, it may be a sign that something more serious needs to change, or your relationship needs to change, before you cause suffering for yourself and others in recovery. Remember that we are growing in our hearts, and fighting for our lives! If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-777-9588

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