Tracey Cox discusses the dating trend of having 'back-up people'

Are you guilty of ‘cushioning’? Tracey Cox reveals why the latest trend for dating one person seriously with multiple ‘back-ups’ on the side isn’t as bad as it sounds (and what to do if YOU are on the receiving end)

  • Tracey Cox says people cushion when they’re looking for perfect relationships
  • The sex expert says hedging your bets isn’t always a bad thing in love
  • But adds having one foot out the door will eventually sabotage your relationship 

Kelly is four months into a relationship with someone she really likes.

She’s hoping like mad it will turn into a serious, committed relationship but continues to flirt with three other guys on the side.

Why risk a relationship she cares about by doing this?

‘I’ve been hurt in the past and I don’t want to be left all alone,’ she justifies, when I call her on it. “If this relationship doesn’t work out, at least I have back-ups.”

Sound familiar?

Kelly isn’t the only person guilty of committing the latest millennial dating sin: ‘cushioning’. 

Sex expert Tracey Cox explains why keeping people as back-ups at the beginning of a relationship can be reassuring, but explains why you should not do it long-term (woman looking at her phone, stock picture)

Are we all guilty of cushioning?

Cushioning is when you have ‘cushions’ as well as a main relationship: people you flirt and chat with, just in case things don’t work out.

These people are there to cushion the blow of rejection.

It might be latest millennial dating trend but despite the catchy buzzword, cushioning is a behaviour that’s as old as the hills.

It’s a basic human instinct to protect ourselves and hedging your bets by having some ‘spares’ helps shield us from potential hurt.

Most people cushion at the start of relationships, others never stop. They have a posy of ‘back-up people’ even when they’re married with kids.

Tracey explains why keeping a list of ‘back-ups’ at the beginning of a relationship might hinder its chance of turning serious 

Long-term cushioning is – clearly – wrong on many levels.

But cushioning at the start of relationships could actually have some benefits.

Hedging your bets has its pluses

If you have a pattern of committing way too early and ending up hurt, cushioning can be a sensible ploy.

Having other people around can stop you becoming obsessed with the new person. It also reminds you there are other people in the world who can make you happy.

‘I had a tendency to fall for women instantly and get way too possessive and clingy too early on,’ a 35-year-old, now married man told me.

‘It put them off. When I met my (now) wife, instead of instantly cutting off anyone I was flirting with, innocently or not-so-innocently, I kept them going.

‘I felt like I had a safety net and was then able to take things slower without rushing things and scaring her off.’

It’s not sensible to love a stranger unconditionally

Wait until you’ve seen the person under stress, watch how they interact with friends, meet their family and see how they handle anger and arguments before you truly commit.

This takes time.

If having relatively harmless flirtations with other people helps to slow you down at the start, cushioning might not be a bad thing.

We all need a fan club

Cushioning also helps if you have a habit of falling for people who treat you badly.

Having a little back up fan club can help you see things clearly and stop you from committing to someone who doesn’t deserve you.

If you’re constantly being told ‘I would never treat you like that’ by your cushions, it’s time to examine the toxicity of your relationships and work on building your self-esteem.

Given the pluses, shouldn’t we all be cushioning?

Not quite.

Why cushioning will sabotage your relationship

Keeping a cool head at the start is one thing, having one foot out the door once the relationship develops means it doesn’t stand a chance.

Not only are cushions unnecessary, constant temptation, they stop you working through any issues that arise.

People who cushion are often yearning for a perfect relationship: one that actually doesn’t exist.

‘If only I could find someone who is as reliable as John, as hot as Jason and as rich as Richard,’ you think. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find all those attractive attributes in one person!

People who ‘cushion’ are often looking to find a perfect relationship and keep people on a string to achieve it 

Life, sadly, doesn’t work like that. Everyone has faults (and would be rather boring if they didn’t!) The only other way to have the perfect person is to keep lots on a string.

Cushions also stop you seeing both sides of the argument because they’re always on your side.

Text them to say your partner’s being mean and they’re guaranteed to back you up and flatter.

Feeling smug that you’re so perfect, might make you feel good but it’s not going to help build a healthy, functioning relationship with your main partner.

Is it ever OK to cushion?

If you’re cushioning at the start of a relationship and haven’t had ‘the talk’ to agree you won’t see other people, you haven’t officially done anything wrong.

Just don’t kid yourself your partner will see it that way if they find out.

It’s human to want your partner to fall for you, the moment you fall for them. If they find out later on that you were still playing others along, when they were about to introduce you to their parents, a blossoming relationship can be cut off at the knees.


Here’s what to do if you suspect your new partner is hedging their bets and keeping other people as back-ups.

Call them on it. Say, ‘I’ve noticed you still flirt with other people’ or ‘Do you realise your best friend has a thing for you? It’s making me feel uncomfortable’.

Let them know you want a monogamous relationship and what you expect from them. If it’s still quite early, say something like “I get that we’ve just met but, if we do decide to commit, will you be open to stopping these flirtations?’

Give it time. People fall in love at different speeds. If the relationship is young, give it time to breathe and for them to catch up. Most flirtations tend to drop off naturally over time, when the relationship becomes more serious.

Have an honest talk about where they see your relationship going. Some people cushion because they’re insecure and worried you’ll hurt them. Reassure them you’re as involved as they are and the problem’s solved.

Other people cushion because they have deep-seated intimacy issues. If that’s the case, are they prepared to do the work on themselves so they can commit?

They’re cushioning because they have no desire to settle down with one person? Probably not the answer you wanted but better to find out early!

Even if you don’t find out about your partner’s cushions, most people know when they don’t have your full attention.

How to pull away the safety net

Guilty as charged?

The first thing to do if you’re constantly cushioning is to work out why you’re doing it.

Have you been cheated on and have trust issues? Are you worried you’ll get hurt?

Or is your heart simply not in the relationship? You’re with someone you’re not that into, purely because you don’t want to be alone?

Once you know the main motivation, it’s easier to find a solution.

Have a wide support group

The more ‘cushioned’ you feel by your friends and family, the less inclined you’ll be to have romantic extras waiting in the wings.

People feel more comfortable putting all their eggs in one basket once they know they’ll survive if things end badly.

Have some respect for your ‘cushions’

Sometimes, it’s perfectly clear you’re just flirting and boosting each other’s egos. Other times, you’re stringing someone along who has deep, genuine feelings for you.

In that case you’re guilty of another dodgy dating crime called ‘breadcrumbing’: giving little titbits of false hope and raising expectations with no intention of following through.

Don’t do it: it’s cruel.

Know what you want and don’t be scared to ask for it Want to see your partner more often but not sure they want to ramp things up a level? Be brave: let them know.

Not sure of your partner’s feelings for you? Tell them you’re not sure where you stand and let them reassure you.

Get some therapy

I used to cushion.

I had big jealousy issues going on after my Dad had an affair and having other flirtations on the back burner made me feel safe.

After a few sessions with a brilliant therapist, I realised it was also a highly effective way of avoiding intimacy.

If there are lots of people in the room, it’s hard for one person to get close.

There are no guarantees with love. At some point you have to close your eyes and take a gigantic leap of faith.

Have the courage to remove the training wheels and you might just find you don’t just walk, you soar.

You’ll find Tracey’s product range, supersex and Edge at Find more articles about love and sex on

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