One episode in season five of How I Met Your Mother, called “Hooked,” revolves around people being kept “on the hook,” romantically speaking, by members of the show’s central gang of friends. “I can’t be with you … right now” is the phrase the pals keep using to string these people along, the “right now” leaving the door cracked open just enough that apparently some poor guy is willing to continue to do Robin’s laundry and rub her feet for the vague possibility of a someday relationship.
This does not make the friends look very good, obviously, but keeping track of and keeping in touch with alternative romantic prospects is a common thing for humans to do, even if it is rarely in such an exaggerated, sitcommy way. A recent study published in Computers in Human Behavior dubs these interactions “backburner relationships." A backburner, as defined by the study, is “a person to 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.”
The lead study author, Jayson Dibble, an assistant professor of communication at Hope College, told me, “What originally inspired me to think about this is when you meet somebody at a club and trade numbers, you might go through your contacts [later] and say ‘Oh I remember that guy. I might zing him a note and see how he’s doing ... It was inspired by my old days in grad school.”