By Teja Lele Desai, Mumbai Mirror with Susan Winter | Sep 17, 2013, 08.12 AM IST

In a bid to minimise unwanted heartache, young people in relationships are opting for standby lovers.

Plan A didn’t work out? There’s always Plan B. These days, it’s not workplaces that encourage a backup plan. Modern relationships do, too. Is it the inability to be decisive or the fear of not knowing how a relationship will pan out, that is behind standby relationships?

Consulting psychotherapist and counsellor Dr Minnu R Bhonsle isn’t surprised that a ‘backup plan’ has merged in relationships in the recent past. “It could either be fear – that of the breakdown of one relationship – or greed – a sense of entitlement that makes you believe you deserve more than the best,” she explains.

Interestingly, a backup plan goes against the essence of a romantic relationship, which has traditionally been viewed as a monogamous union. But like marriage, monogamy too is a conscious choice, and it’s ceasing to be the norm in a climate of open relationships, where both partners are free to invest emotionally and sexually outside the relationship. Additionally, a Plan B helps a single gauge his or her romantic market value, and land the best available partner. Most of us have indulged in it, although in a different avatar. Despite being in a relationship, we indulge in ‘harmless’ flirting to assess whether we’ve still got what it takes.

New York-based relationship counsellor and writer Susan Winter says it’s the overriding need to “minimise unwanted heartache” that’s at play when someone juggles two lovers. “Singles prefer to collect a stable of partners. This supply of prospects eliminates the need (and fear) of total commitment to the ‘one’. Fear of loss offset by ample choice drives this sort of dating format,” she tells Mirror in an e-mail interview.

In an article titled, Love’s Plan B, psychologist Dr Nando Pelusi argues, that the quest for an alternate partner is a natural, widely used strategy, although we hate to admit it. “Although we may love our exclusive partner, we can still think about other romantic possibilities — people we keep in a mental box that can be opened in case of the current relationship’s demise. No matter how content we are, we still seek a sense of security by creating a web of potential future romantic alliances.”

The desire to look for options gets stronger, say experts, if the Plan A candidate is prone to neglecting or mistreating his/her partner. It’s then that a mate might be tempted to test the waters to look for viable options. Winter feels that humans have an innate sense of preference when it comes to romance. “There’s always a #1 and #2 position underlying this type of ‘band-aid’ relationship. The primary lover gets top billing while the secondary person serves as a ‘safety position’ backup,” she says. “Think about it: If #1 were fantastic in every way, why would a #2 be up for consideration?”

Enter the spare

The evolution of romance means men and women are seeking to minimise loss, and add any possible gain to their dating strategy. The ‘spare’ is a novel choice that’s gaining traction, Winter says. Distinguishing the standby lover from another, Winter says, it’s not to be confused with an extra-marital affair. Neither does it fall in the realm of polyamory – the practice of having more than one intimate relation with the knowledge of all concerned -, and it’s certainly not only about sex.

Often, both relationships may be equally strong and committed, and provide equal mental, emotional and physical support and sustenance. At a presentation at the Human Behaviour and Evolutionary Psychology Conference, Joshua Duntley, an assistant professor of psychology at Stockton College in New Jersey, said backup partners are not merely short-term mates. It’s not just an affair. “A backup mate is in a separate category: a man or woman who is viable as a serious partner in his or her own right,” he said.

“This scenario is driven by the need for a greater field of choice in partners, while maintaining a sense of security in case of failure to meet partnership cohesion,” Winter says. “Unlike marriages, where one may take a lover to fulfil sexual needs the spouse cannot or will not provide, a backup-dating scenario is activated by fear of rejection and/or emotional fallout,” she adds.

Freeing the trend of moral judgment, she asks, “Why narrow the field before you’re clear on your ‘wants’ and ‘don’t-wants’?”

In love with two?

Which brings us to the question, is it possible to love two people equally at the same time? Relationship commentator Helen Croyden says that the claim of being able to love two people equally is just. “I don’t think you can love two people equally; but you can love two people differently,” she says.

While researching her new book, Screw the Fairytale, Croyden looked at what happens to our brains when we fall in love. “There is a big distinction between romantic love (that passionate giddy feeling you have for someone new) and deep feelings of attachment (when you have grown to love and trust someone and have a deep sense of familiarity). Both are forms of love but are associated with different brain responses and hormones. Romantic love is fervent but can’t last forever. So someone ‘in love’ with their partner can find himself falling in romantic love with someone else,” she says.

Mumbai-based dating coach Ankit Anubhav argues that humans, regardless of gender, are attention-seekers. “We like to keep our options open. While we are dating, we may be in love but are constantly looking out for what’s better,” he says. Anubhav, who runs a heartbreak helpline, says standby love is easier because lovers today are learning to compartmentalise all aspects of their lives. “They keep their personal, professional, relationship and all other aspects as far away from each other as possible. This ensures that they can do as they please.”

What’s the future?

Dr Bhonsle warns that the trend comes with its consequences. Those who sit on the fence could end up discontented with either choice and leave the other feeling used. “A man-woman relationship is a reciprocal one and needs to involve mutual respect and commitment. If you approach it with a what’s-in-it for-me mindset, it may not be fulfilling for either,” she says.

It’s important that young lovers understand that there is no ‘perfect’ relationship. “People and relationships grow and evolve, and therefore have to be negotiated on an ongoing basis. That’s what makes any relationship last,” she advises.

Croyden nixes the idea that someone can complete us. “We think we can live with our soulmate happily ever after, and not feel attracted to anyone else.”

In future, she expects to see an evolution in the pattern of relationships. “Once we move away from the compulsion of finding Mr or Ms Right, personal engagements will be more transient. People will form a series of loving, stable and respectful relationships rather than a life-long one,” Croyden says.