Sex & Relationships

Relationships: What is ‘cushioning’ and when is it OK to do it in a relationship?

Not too long ago, I had dinner with a friend who had just recently entered a relationship. As we talked, she confessed to feeling unsure about her boyfriend — and to having dinner solo with a single “guy friend” the previous night. She’d tried to tell him she’d recently coupled off but couldn’t. She didn’t know why. Two weeks later, she’d broken it off with her boyfriend and was still hanging out with her single guy friend.

Meet a new dating term that was born in 2017: “cushioning.” To summarize, cushioning basically means having prospects that you keep in touch with, just in case your existing relationship (or budding relationship) flames out. The term is seemingly a throwback to a 2014 study on “back burners,” prospects you communicate with now and then just in case you want to open the door to something romantic or sexual later on.

When you’re in a relationship, though, how do you think of cushions and back burners? And perhaps more important, how should you think about them? I’d say most people still have them, even when they are romantically involved. In this 2017 study, the researchers talk about “boundary crossing” and “boundary violation.” The former, the milder of the two, is “brushing up against the proverbial guardrail of non-cheating behavior,” like flirting with a casual friend or ex online. While emotional or physical cheating is a violation, even crossing a line has negative relationship impacts.

I’ve had a lot of people express confusion to me about the boundary lines in a relationship. What is an emotional affair? What is cheating? What lines can’t I cross? It’s interesting that we often can’t define emotional cheating, but we’re curious about it — and there is sooo much are-we-aren’t-we behavior. In recent survey of 5,000 Facebook users, nearly half owned up to using social media for emotional engagement with potential romantic flames who were not their current partners.

All that said, I want to talk about where the lines should be. What’s normal. And what’s not.

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Situation #1: Interacting frequently with a back burner on social media

We are all exposed to hundreds of people on social media each day, some of whom we could have seen ourselves dating had the chips ever fallen the right way. Maybe even some people who we might see ourselves dating in the future — you know, if our current relationship falls apart. So, intentionality means a lot here, because no one is going to be able to monitor your behavior.

In all social media situations, the best strategy is to keep it visible, or imagine that it is; if you feel you wouldn’t want your significant other to see whom you’re interacting with or how you’re interacting, then it’s best to refrain. Keep all conversations friendly, not flirty. And notice if your reach-outs are in any way reactive to your relationship’s health. Are you not getting enough attention from your partner? Did you just get into a disagreement? If you’re using social media interaction with back burners to fill a hole or gloss over a problem, then go to the source instead.

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Situation #2: Meeting up with a potential cushion one-on-one

This is a tricky one, because it’s very possible there might be a slight layer of chemistry with certain friends — especially, in a classic boundary-touching example, between two heterosexual friends of the opposite sex. However, I am not of the school of thought that two friends of the opposite sex can’t be friends. If you were friends before your current relationship started, then just be transparent about any meetups you may have with this person and discuss any fears/issues/concerns with your partner.

That said, I think timing of the friendship matters. Actively seeking out new friends, who might be potential cushions, while you’re in a relationship ventures out into dangerous and potentially boundary-crossing territory. Meeting new friends is something you usually have a lot more time and emotional energy for while you are single. So if you feel the urge to befriend potential back burners while coupled, and you do want to indulge some layer of spark or feeling, ask yourself if your relationship needs a satisfaction check-in before pursuing those sorts of friends.

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Situation #3: Asking a back burner for advice about your relationship

Especially in heterosexual relationships, it’s often tempting to get the opposite sex’s point of view. I still remember, in my youngest dating days, reaching out to my male best friend for advice on my relationship. (He was insightful, even if I leaned on him a little too much.) It’s not necessarily bad to ask that opinion of a friend or cushion, but it is bad if you are looking for emotional validation about your opinion on a fight or grievance with a partner.

If it’s advice about something you want to do for your partner, like a gift around the holidays, that’s fairly innocuous — and others can be helpful. If it’s help about resolving a disagreement, never take it to someone you might consider a cushion or back burner; this is definitely brushing up against boundary lines, and a form of emotional intimacy that could damage your existing relationship and break trust. Many partners wouldn’t be cool knowing you’ve aired an issue to someone you have that kind of bond with, and true resolution will only happen if you go straight to the source anyway. Avoid, avoid.

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Situation #4: Connecting with a former prospect with whom you have history, even if it was a long time ago

Sometimes, you break things off with a potential partner due to timing issues. Perhaps one of you moved across the country to pursue a career opportunity, or you both had to work through some growing pains on the road to adulthood. Sometimes, those are sparks that never die — and it’s easy to get curious about that person later. What are they up to now?

It’s also not uncommon for someone who fits the former-flame/sorta-friend bill to cross your path in the future. Maybe they moved back to the area, broke up with an existing partner, or are passing through town. In these situations, where the flame never really burned out completely, you should expect to feel some form of chemistry with them. And even if curiosity is killing you, you should not indulge the urge to check up on or meet up with them.

In almost all gray areas, what you feel on the inside has to be the litmus test for engagement; if there’s some layer of romantic chemistry, even if it’s light or long past, then seeking intimacy with that person is a recipe for disaster. It can easily break the trust in a relationship. On top of that, this kind of boundary-brushing behavior, or even the desire for it, is usually the symptom of something bigger — perhaps it’s an issue you need to address with your partner, or perhaps you need to consider a breakup. Feeling chemistry with someone else and wishing you could pursue it can be a sign you’re one foot out the door of your current relationship.

Bottom line

At the end of the day, if you wouldn’t divulge to your partner the entirety of your interactions with a back burner, opposite-sex friend, cushion, or what have you, you shouldn’t engage with that person. And if you want a long-term monogamous relationship but feel genuinely tempted to cross some boundary lines, you should do some soul-searching — and then consult your existing partner with what you find.