So What's A ‘Back-up Boyfriend’ Anyway?

Her Voice

While being interviewed a while back, someone asked me how I've been able to survive all that I've been through without losing my mind. One, God. Two, living alone so that I can have my own space to process stuff. Three, writing. Pretty much in that order. Next year will be the 20th year since I left Corporate America and decided to give full-time writing a shot and if there's one thing these past two decades have taught me, it's that I have a pattern of putting something into its proper place—which 8.9 times out of 10 equates to putting it behind me—once I write it out.

So, once I read that back-up boyfriends are a current relationship trend and discovering that irritated me to the point that I asked my editor if I could write-rant about it, I realized there was something within that needed to be resolved. And girrrrrrl is there.


I don't know what rock I've been living under, but up until a few months ago, I had no clue that there was an official term for what I must admit most of my "dating" (and yes, that deserves to be in quotes) life was like. After reading what a back-up boyfriend/girlfriend is, that's EXACTLY what I was doing—and by doing, I mean settling for—in about 75 percent of my "relationships" (again, the quotes are necessary).

What exactly is a back-up all about? It's someone who either thinks they are the main person in an individual's life even though they aren't OR they are someone who fulfills the duties of being the main one without any confirmation (or even reassurances really) from the person they are involved with.

The first category didn't apply to me much. Oh, but that last one? That last one?!

Let me create a visual for you. There's a guy from my past who I loved. Adored. Worked with even. A few times, I would attend events where he was and I would see a girl. She wasn't hanging all over him but she was hanging around. You know, kind of like she was waiting for all of his "fans" (boy, it's quotes everywhere today, chile) to leave. Her energy was strong enough that I finally asked him if he had a girlfriend. He said, "No." He had his flaws, believe you me, but lying wasn't one of them (yet), so I took it at face value.

I don't go out to stuff a ton so it took a while for this to become an issue. But a couple of months later, I saw her again. He was on stage with a shirt that I had bought him and she was in the front row filming what he was doing. At first, I was like "Whatever" but when I realized she was filming him with his phone, I was like "Hold up." I confronted him for the second time and guess what his response was? It was some trash, to be honest. "I don't have a girlfriend. I can't control what she thinks she is, though." Really, playa? OK. (Not OK…but OK.)


The way that life deals with me is, it eases me into things before just straight-up slapping me all upside my head when I don't listen. Those two conversations that I shared with you, that should've been enough to cut my losses (which really wasn't much of a loss in hindsight) and move on. But it was a loooooooong phone conversation where ole' boy talked about it not being easy to be caught up in a duality with two women (her and me) when the cold water hit me all over and down my face.

Ohhhhhhhhhh…so I'm the back-up girlfriend.

The one he can keep on reserve in case things don't work out with his main chick. I'm the one who is doing all of the things that a girlfriend does (and some things she doesn't do) but because we had the "Of course, I love you, Shellie" chat but not the "Yeah, whatever. Are we about to do this or what?" discussion, he was able to reap the benefits of my being another girlfriend without putting in the labor of being a boyfriend. Ugh. Just ugh.


The more I think about it, whoever it is that came up with the phrase "back-up boyfriend" or "back-up girlfriend" was really trying to be gentle with our feelings because what it really boils down to is us (the back-up girlfriend) being in denial and the guy capitalizing on it as best he can, for as long as he can. That's why I'm personally not big on back-ups because it's someone being used. Well, usually manipulated first and then used.

So, since I'm admitting that I've clearly been a back-up girlfriend before, many times over in fact, why does the title of this piece address back-up boyfriends instead? Because, while you might think that this kind of emotional contingency plan is something that's more popular among men, I did my research (read about it here and here). While it appears that men seem to have more sex partners than (most) women do, at least half of us—whether we're single or married—have a back-up boyfriend…someone in the wings, just in case things don't work out with the one we're currently with. These men might be an ex, a co-worker, someone we met online…anyone who we know is getting more-than-just-a-friend treatment, even if it's just emotionally; anyone who, if our partner found out, there would be all sorts of hell breaking loose.

So, why do so many of us do it? Why is having a break-up boyfriend so popular right now?

The main reported reasons are because 1) we're not totally feeling the relationship that we're in; 2) we're not getting all of our needs met, so we're using someone else in order to make up for it and/or 3) we know the relationship that we're in isn't going to last and we don't want to be alone once everything comes to a head.

And just what are some of the surefire signs that you've got a back-up boyfriend in your life?

  • You're in a relationship with someone that is solely on your terms.
  • There typically is a lot of emotional intimacy without much—if any—sexual involvement.
  • You want the attention from the back-up, but you don't care too much about their life overall.
  • No one really knows that your back-up exists or it is severely downplayed to those who find out.
  • They do most of the giving while you do most of the taking.
  • You might make plans, but you don't really stick to them.
  • You don't want them seeing other people even though you're involved with someone else.
  • You say and do just enough to give them hope without offering up any real or lasting guarantees.

If you heard a ding in your head for four or more of these eight points, you've got a back-up boyfriend on your hands and no, it's not anything to feel good about. I mean, just think how you would feel if you knew that someone was treating you as a back-up girlfriend. Is that something you would want to call your mama and brag about? Exactly.


Look, I already know that a part of the reason why I'm SMH and RME (Rolling My Eyes) about this is because I've fallen prey to this foolishness on more than one occasion. But I think what also unnerves me about it is when you've got back-ups, for whatever the reason, it doesn't help your current relationship. It either A) makes you very lazy in it or B) helps to speed up its expiration date because when you're emotionally (and sometimes physically) split between two or more individuals, it's hard to give your all to anyone. And with your time, effort and energy being all over the place, it's hard to see who really is best for you—the current, the back-up or someone else altogether.

So, while you're using the back-up, you're also wasting your own time. Back-ups might be fun distractions, but they can also lead to pretty big problems. At some point, a decision is going to have to be made and, more times than not, once it is, things don't end well. For you and the person you're with and/or you and your so-called back-up. I would know because once the reality set in of what was really going on in my own situation, I changed my number the very next day. Dude and I haven't spoken since. Treating me like a back-up cost him more than no longer being his stand-up; it ultimately cost us our friendship too.


Bottom line, not everything that's popular is right. Not everything that sounds like a good idea actually is. Life has a way of boomeranging on us—of giving us exactly what we gave to someone else, whether we want it or not. If you've got a back-up boyfriend or you're considering getting one, I hope my journey is a cautionary tale.

Get a boyfriend and keep him. Or break-up and try someone new. Operating from a clean and honest slate brings forth good karma. At the same time, you're gambling with what life decides to bring your way if you sign up for a back-up. You've been warned.

Featured image by Getty Images.

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