“She met somebody on the Internet.”

It wasn’t the first time we’d heard it, and I doubt it will be the last. My husband’s work as a pastor ushers us into many joyful times in the lives of couples, but it also seats us front and center on the more devastating ones. This was one of those times. He sat before us, a father of two young children and now abandoned husband, recounting how his marriage had crumbled, due in part to an online relationship.

Unfortunately, our friend is not alone. Facebook is increasingly cited in divorce proceedings while texts and e-mails document cyber trails of indiscretion. The reality is so prevalent that there are even apps that allow you to monitor your partner’s online behavior. But for all the obvious pitfalls, it seems that love and fidelity in the digital age may have a new snag: backburner relationships.

In a recent study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, researchers Jayson Dibble and Michelle Drouin documented the phenomenon of backburner relationships. According to Dibble and Drouin, a backburner relationship 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 goal of the study was to identify how technology may make it easier for us to keep a “little black book.”

To be clear, backburner relationships are not online affairs. They are possibilities. They are relationships that we keep open by communication such as “friending” each other, liking a status update, or texting. Nothing steamy or exotic, just the occasional “checking in.” Because the risk of such online interaction is minimal, many of the participants—men at twice the rate of women—admit to keeping in touch with friends and previous lovers in case their current relationship heads south.

The Economics of Love

The phenomenon of backburner relationships can be explained, in part, by how we go about forming romantic relationships. Experts tell us that human beings tend to approach relationships much the same way we approach other economic decisions. We attempt to optimize our benefits while minimizing our costs. For many people, it seems, this means keeping an eye open for partners that may be a better investment—someone that we believe could optimize our happiness.

Yet, there’s an irony to backburner relationships. While the Internet may make it easier to maintain them, the information we gain from online interaction may not be entirely accurate. Our ability to evaluate whether or someone has potential as a future lover may be skewed by the very medium that keeps us in contact with them.

Consider how easy it is to create and maintain an online persona. Social networking sites, and even texting to a degree, open up direct, personal contact at the same time that they allow us to control how others see us. So that even as it feels we are becoming more intimate with someone, they can also hide certain truths about themselves while emphasizing others. And as anyone in marketing can tell you, successful branding directly correlates with the desirability of a product. We may end up desiring a deeper relationship with a “backburner,” not because we’ve fallen for them per se, but because we’ve fallen for their online persona.

Real life relationships, on the other hand, are much messier. They include the frustration of living with someone whose faults are all too obvious—the annoying way he slurps his coffee, her inability to ever arrive on time, or worse, his struggle with depression or her fight with chronic illness. In real life, there is no way to filter these complexities from our romantic experience; when compared to those online, real life relationships will always appear more difficult and more demanding.

But online interaction skews our perspective in another way too. Because the online experience is tailored to the user’s individual reality, we quite literally only see what we want to see. When I log on, I am immediately met with banners and ads targeting my specific likes and browser history. Facebook even structures my newsfeed to reflect my interests. If I were to start commenting on the profile of an old boyfriend, he would begin to show up more often in my feed. The more I see of him, the more I’m likely to interact with him. And the more I interact with him, the more I’ll see of him. But my emotions don’t necessarily register that the data is being manipulated. Instead, they are likely to read his presence as the result of destiny drawing us together. And because my digital experience is designed to tap into my own needs and desires, it will also correlate with positive emotions. Online, my wants are being entertained; online, my needs are being addressed, perhaps in a way that they are not in real life.

Defining Commitment

But even if we recognize how technology warps our ability to evaluate romantic possibilities, we must still wrestle with a more fundamental question: What affect does keeping your options open have on your current relationship? The research suggests that being in a committed relationship doesn’t necessarily stop backburner relationships, but could maintaining backburner relationships hinder you from investing in your current relationship? What if always keeping an eye open for better alternatives is not a symptom of a struggling relationship but a potential cause of it?

The answer may rest in how you understand commitment. Does a “committed relationship” mean a relationship in which both partners believe they have found the best possible option for their future happiness? Or does it describe a relationship in which both partners have bound themselves to each other even in the face of better options?

The recent study of backburner relationships relied on couples who self-identified as being in committed relationships. Given that it was conducted among college students (average age of 21), it’s fair to assume that these relationships were not married relationships and would most likely fall under the first definition of commitment: relationships in which the partners believe they are currently with their best option.

The problem with this understanding of commitment is that it will only ever be as secure as your partner’s ability to trump the competition. As long as he or she remains your best match, your relationship will be stable. But what if he can’t? What if you meet someone who is a better fit for your personality? What if one of those backburner relationships suddenly fires up?

The irony of commitment—the kind evidenced in marriage—is that it exists because of the what if, not despite it. Without the potential for other alternatives, the concept of commitment is meaningless. If two people are by all measures the clearest, most direct avenue for each others’ happiness, they will naturally gravitate toward one other, bound together by sheer self-interest. In this sense, marriage exists, not because other viable options don’t, but precisely because they do.

This understanding of commitment mirrors the Christian understanding of faith. While faith is not a blind leap in the dark, it exists because a certain level of uncertainty also exists. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (emphasis mine). Perhaps this is also why the Scripture likens the relationship between God and His people (which is achieved through faith) with marital commitment.

At root, both faith and romantic commitment must entertain the reality that other possibilities exist. Faith that does not question is not faith; and commitment that does not acknowledge that other couplings are possible is not true commitment. Just as faith must reach into the unknown and embrace God, a truly committed couple must reach into the unknown and embrace each other, regardless of other possibilities.

Committing to Recommit

Several years ago, when I was in my early twenties and newly married, I taught ESL and American culture to corporate ex-pats. My work often put me in close proximity with European men who were well-educated, attractive, successful, and, most significantly, away from home. The structure of our lessons meant that we’d meet one-on-one, twice a week for two hours at a time. It was both highly personal and at times, private—much like online friendships. Looking back, I realize that nothing other than my naïveté saved me from a world of temptation. But during this time, I also learned a valuable lesson about the nature of commitment.

One of my students was N., an Israeli woman whose family had relocated to the States while her husband O. managed an extensive government project. O. and N. had married young, had three children, and over the course of their marriage, navigated family life, post-graduate work, his career in the military, and multiple overseas moves. At any point, their marriage could have ended: their lives brought them into contact with all kinds of interesting people; they were often separated from each other, sometimes living on different continents; and as they matured, they grew into people vastly different from their twenty-something selves who had pledged their lives to each other.

One day, during a break in our lesson, I asked N. how they had made it. How had they survived through all the stress, all the potential pitfalls, all the other possibilities? She looked me in the eye and said: “Hannah, I have been married four times.”

Was there something I didn’t know? Was their happy marriage a façade?

She continued: “I have been married four times—each time to the same man.”

In many ways, N.’s understanding of commitment was more mature and realistic than the other forms of commitment I’d seen to that point. For her, commitment wasn’t a decision she’d made at one moment or even one that rested on her emotional state. It was a way of life. It was a process by which she regularly re-committed herself to her husband, even in the face of other options.

Such an understanding of commitment will be essential to navigating relationships in the digital age. Just as the Internet has opened exponential possibilities for business, education, entertainment, and personal growth, it has also opened exponential possibilities for romance. If the ads in my sidebar are to be believed, this happily married mother of three is just one click away from finding my perfect match based on 29 dimensions of compatibility. Add to that the myriad relationships that happen organically as my social network expands, and suddenly my commitment to my husband is not only a question of previous friendships that might turn romantic; it also includes the possibility of future ones as well.

The reality of backburner relationships—the “should haves” and “might one days”—has always existed. And at some level, every relationship must acknowledge the what ifs: What if I’d ended up with my former boyfriend, the one who according to Facebook is working his way to the top of a Fortune 500 company? What if I’d married the girl whose ENFJ personality is a better fit to my INFP? Rather than deny these realities, we must understand that life-long marital commitment exists to trump the very real possibility that yes, you could have ended up with someone else entirely. But here, in the face of other romantic possibilities, the beauty of life-long marital commitment is also clear. Truly committing ourselves to each other does not mean simply saying, “I chose you over all the lovers of my past.” True commitment also declares: “I chose you over all the lovers of my future as well.”

Hannah Anderson lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with her husband and three young children. She is the author of Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image and blogs at sometimesalight.com

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.