“I had been chatting with a girl for a while, and whenever I talked about going out she would give me the runaround, until she finally told me that she had a partner. Still, she kept messaging me from time to time on Instagram. She says that her relationship is complicated, and while she doesn’t open the door to us going out, she doesn’t put an end to whatever our relationship is, either. It’s like she’s playing hard to get, like we don’t get anywhere, but she’s still in touch with me. And I’m not sure why, but I’m still hooked on talking to her.” That’s Martín’s story. And he is not alone. These days, there are many cases like his: people who have a partner, but who also keep a standby relationship just in case – a practice known as cushioning.
However, what we now call “cushioning” has actually been studied for a long time as the practice of having “back burner relationships.” Psychology Today published a study carried out by researchers Jayson Dibble, Narissra Punyanunt-Carter and Michelle Drouin that revealed that 56% of people who had a romantic commitment claimed to have a backup partner. Most kept in touch via text messages, but they also used social media and, at the time, email.
Even though this investigation did not find significant differences by gender, another survey carried out by the market research company One Poll found that, in a survey of 1,000 women, half had a backup partner in case their current relationship did not work. And they weren’t exactly from outside their circle; one in four women confessed that her current partner actually knew her “substitute man.”
In this regard, researcher David Buss claimed in one of his evolutionary psychology papers for the University of Texas that women are programmed to have backup mates in case their original mate falls ill or dies, as prehistorically the possibility of death was higher, so to ensure offspring it was necessary to have a substitute. But this argument doesn’t hold up today.
How to find out if you are the backup (or if your partner is cushioning)
Although it seems that cushioning is common, detecting it can be hard. How do we know if we are somebody’s standby lover, engaging in meaningless flirting or if we are mistaking a simple friendship for something else? On the other hand, could our partner be out there, looking for a cushion to fall back on?
Psychologist and sexologist Alberto Álamo addresses both concerns. “If we notice that there are promises, mentions of the future, or just ambiguity (for no reason, maybe sometimes the other person is very available, but sometimes it is impossible to talk to them), this can be a sign that the person that we are attracted to is using us as cushions.”
Judith Viudes, also a psychologist and sexologist, adds that “another characteristic is when the other person exhibits intermittent behavior.” The problem is that this creates a feeling of being hooked. “The other person lives in the constant uncertainty of not knowing what is happening, but at the same time they keep expecting that interest or attention.” This can cause a state of anxiety.
That is why it is important to learn how to identify a case of cushioning. “If we are feeling unpleasant emotions, anxiety and discomfort with a person, we have to stop and prioritize. If there is no mutual responsibility to develop healthy bonds, then it is better to set limits or let go,” reflects Viudes.
Things could be more difficult when it is your partner who has a backup. “Illogical and sudden losses and recovery of interest, as well as shifts in attitude or mood, could be signs that our partner may be cushioning,” warns Álamo.
If this is the case, Viudes recommends asking directly and assertively. The important thing, according to the psychologist, is to decide if you are going to continue in the relationship or not. And you have to be clear that “these behaviors are solely the responsibility of those who engage in them. It is not our fault, and of course it has nothing to do with our validity.”
The million-dollar question, then, would be: what drives a person to do this? Viudes warns that the answer is also complex. “Having ‘backup’ people can be the consequence of many variables; for example, some people are afraid of loneliness, afraid of facing painful emotions after a breakup or not knowing how to manage them, they live worried about what others may say, there is a lack of knowledge regarding what a healthy relationship is and more.” Of course, people also do it “out of selfishness, irresponsibility or low self-esteem, for example.”
So, more than a new behavior, this is just a new label for something that has existed for a very long time. However, in recent times, social media has helped expose this practice. “Cushioning is not something new. It’s just that now it has been named in order to bring this type of practice to the forefront, something that also helps to identify it,” continues the psychologist. “Identifying harmful and toxic behaviors that have become very normalized – but which were already quite present in our society – helps us to pay more attention to how others treat us and how that affects our emotional well-being and our mental health.”