Here's What It's Really Like to Be Someone's "Insignificant Other"
A text popped up on my phone. "Hey, are you free for a call?"
The text was from Ben*. "What's up?" I asked. "Why do you need to talk?" I was in the middle of making dinner and only had a few minutes.
He skirted around the explanation. "Well, um, I was just out getting groceries and wanted someone to talk to..."
I sensed his hesitation and immediately thought to myself, "Let me guess, Nina's not around." His girlfriend went on business trips that left him alone for strings of days, during which he'd question their entire relationship. He'd then call me, seeking reassurances about everything from his hairline and his looks to his very un-punk office job. Sometimes he'd ask for anecdotes about my own dating life for comic relief, but it was always essentially the same emotional conversation.
"Also, Nina's out of town," he added. I sighed. I knew why he was really calling. I was the Insignificant Other.
All of the emotions, none of the sex: Whether it's in weirdly flirtatious texts or during confessional-hang outs, the Insignificant Other is the "something more" a person seeks to complement their romantic relationship. Someone shares with their Insignificant Other the things he or she can't tell friends or (especially) their partner. And while it never turns physical, it feels borderline.
That's because the Insignificant Other relationship treads finely between friendship and flirtation, but most often involves both. For the person in the relationship, it's an escape — not for sex, but for emotional fulfillment.
"The relationship feels safe. Once sex gets involved in any relationship, things get complicated," Anne, 27, who had an Insignificant Other throughout college, told Mic.
The Insignificant Other relationship can be a mutual trade. Research shows that relationships most often suffer from lack of communication, and Insignificant Others provide a validating stream of communication outside the constraints of a romantic relationship for both the coupled-off person and the Insignificant Other themselves.
But it's not always a fair trade, if one person is secretly holding out for more or the Insignificant Other feels annoyingly pigeon-holed by their limited position. "There is intimacy. We talk about the future and we share secrets. That's not casual at all," writer Shannon Seibert said of being the "in-between girl."
Tired of being strung along when she would have preferred to be the girlfriend, Seibert wrote on Elite Daily, "I'm a space-filler and a safe place to go because I am consistent, and that's what they need."
It was only recently that I realized I'd also become the emotional external hard drive for a number of men who were spoken for. Juan sent me a photo of his six-pack when he was in a long-distance relationship, looking for a "Wow." Sean drunkenly asked me to listen to a song he'd written for an unrequited love, telling me about her in between blatant come-ons. Ben went so far as to write me a handwritten letter declaring he might dump Nina in the next six months (spoiler: he didn't).
I was a one-stop filling station for an ego boost, a mild flirtation, a secret thrill – regardless of whether or not I was attracted to the men or wanted something more than friendship.
Getting hooked: In the typical rom-com setup, the female friend watches her supposedly platonic male BFF fall in love with someone else as she nurses her emotions from the sidelines and wishes she'd been the chosen woman (hello, My Best Friend's Wedding).
The Insignificant Other reverses the equation: The partnered person is the one who needs their platonic friend emotionally, dragging them alongside their relationship whether the other person likes it or not. It's like being "on the hook," as Marshall on How I Met Your Mother might say, except that the person "hooking" actually has a true emotional connection with the person they're keeping around.
Cassie, a 20-something living on the East Coast, has recently found herself the Insignificant Other to a male friend who's in a committed relationship. The pair, whose connection had an undercurrent of attraction from the start, chat every day, venting about work and everyday frustrations.
Cassie describes the situation as flirty but casual. "I think we use each other as emotional supports," Cassie told Mic. "There was a period of time in which we were also texting a few times a week, but that has subsided somewhat because I think it started to feel inappropriate."
That's because with such emotional closeness has come guilt — namely, fear of his girlfriend's reaction to Cassie. "She would be uncomfortable with the volume of communication, particularly because I don't think he talked to her about me as a person he was friends with," Cassie said. More than a platonic friendship and less than a true cheating lover, Cassie's role as an Insignificant Other is built on emotionally fraught terrain.
A tricky power dynamic: The one-sided nature of Insignificant Other relationships creates a treacherous dynamic between two people who are ostensibly friends. Anne found herself having this type of relationship her freshman year of college with George, a guy whom she immediately had a crush on.
As she moved from relationship to relationship, she encouraged George in his dating life, even going so far as to text women for him. "We got into the habit of relationship-venting and -bashing," Anne told Mic. "With me, it was usually about the guy I was seeing; with him, it was usually about deciding whether to ask a girl out on a second date."
It remained flirtatious and pleasant, until one week on a wine tour, George made a move on Anne. What caused the shift? "Part of me thinks it's the emotionally safe space I created for him — that my boosting his confidence up, and him feeling comfortable talking about his dating insecurities to me, made him feel connected to me in a way I wasn't to him," Anne said.
For Anne, the appeal of the Insignificant Other was the emotional intimacy without the risk of vulnerability. "I felt in control of the relationship, and offering him insights in some weird way boosted my own confidence — maybe in a way my own partner at the time couldn't provide," she said.
"At the end of the day, people want to feel validated, attractive and desired," Amy Moors, a sex researcher specializing in non-monogamous relationships and casual sex, told Mic. If they're not getting it from their main relationship, they may feel empowered to go get it from someone else.
21st-century infidelity: It's one thing to embrace an Insignificant Other if you're both single; it's another when the relationship is an appendage to an actual romantic relationship. In those cases, the blurriness of the status reflects the ever-shifting nature of cheating, one that includes the digital, non-physical ways we're connecting.
Between copious texts, few mentions of their S.O. and hopeful "what ifs," the fine line between friend and infidelity begins to blur. A 2013 study published in Evolutionary Psychology found that some couples believed that behaviors like "forming a deep emotional bond," "texting erotic messages," "spending lots of time together" and "talking on the phone several times a week" were indicative of infidelity.
But these ambiguous moves are interpreted differently by each person. Studies have shown that straight men feel more threatened by sexual infidelity than emotional cheating, while straight women are more threatened by the thought of their partner falling in love with someone else. A 2010 study from the Journal of Family Issues found that women consider deception and withholding information from a partner to be cheating more often than men do.
This might play into why more men seem to have Insignificant Others (anecdotally, at least) than women — since men tend to define cheating more literally, a flirtatious emotional outlet might seem like a risk-free escape. Whereas for straight women, calling on a man when they're "emotionally horny," as one 20-something woman put it to Mic, would constitute cheating.
Redefining a "significant" other: Having someone else you lean on isn't necessarily bad. Proponents of "monogamish" relationships like TEDx speaker Jessica O'Reilly believe that flirting and fantasizing about other people can help make already existing relationships stronger. Opening up your relationship in small ways, she said, "forces your relationship to thrive on emotional expression, connectivity balanced with freedom and an active sex life."
But those lines need to become less blurry in order for trust to remain. Said Moors, "As long as people in monogamous relationships (or other types of relationships) agree that flirting or being emotionally intimate with people other than their partner is fine, then using technology in these ways would be a way for people to feel validated, yet remain sexually faithful."
Agreeing is key. What the Insignificant Other may reflect most is a need to readjust the terms of relationships in the age of constant connection. Without those conversations, people like Cassie, George and myself become Insignificant Others.
"He wants to have his cake and eat it too," my best friend once said to me while discussing Ben. I realized it was true, but I also couldn't blame him. There's never been an easier time to reach for a fork.
*Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.