Question: Have you ever dated someone, but stayed in touch with other people in a friendly way, people you aren’t dating or sleeping with, but whom you might like or go out with if your current thing didn’t work out? Maybe you always fave their tweets or occasionally comment on their Facebook posts, or keep an ongoing chat alive, but without ever doing anything to act on your attraction. Well, congratulations, you’re an asshole.
At least, you are according to the internet. Called “cushioning,” it’s described as people you might chat with or flirt with who serve as attention cushions for your main relationship, which may or may not work out. “Yeah, I don’t think it’s going that well with Dave,” begins the example sentence on Urban Dictionary. “Luckily I’ve been cushioning him with Pablo and Gary.” The internet has been smitten with the term for the last few months, with handwringing thinkpieces calling the practice the “new thing to worry about,” or, worse, simply a new way to describe an old thing that’s actually far more sinister: cheating.
“Cushioning isn’t new at all,” Cassie Murdoch writes at Mashable. “It’s just a fancier word for an ancient practice better known as cheating. It’s one thing if you’re at the very beginning of dating someone and you’re not sure where it’s going. But if you’re spending serious time with a partner — and worse if he or she thinks you’re monogamous — giving others the sense that you’re still interested is dishonest and unfair to everyone involved.”
Eh, maybe. Define “interested.” But more importantly, define “cheating.” Cheating is actively engaging in an emotional or physical relationship while in a committed monogamous relationship with someone else. Cushioning is not cheating; it is simply realizing somewhere in the back of your mind (or not) that there are other people you could date should things with your current person fall through. People you already know!
Maybe you get along just fine with a colleague or have someone in your social circle you’ve always thought seemed interesting. You’re not doing anything about it — you’re not meeting up and fucking them — but you maintain some kind of positive friendship or interaction. You could call it having friends who you find attractive. You could call it being alive. You could call it what every person has done since the dawn of time, which is realize there is more than one interesting person who crosses your path you might be compatible with. Maybe you’ll get around to dating them. Maybe not. May as well keep it friendly though! Ya never know.
This is literally how dating works. People date each other and it doesn’t work out. Do you think your next girlfriend will be a complete stranger who emerged from the subway this morning and has never met your friends? Or do you think it will be someone you may already know who is already in your life, maybe even a friend or the ex of a friend? This is not a real question.
Cushioning is another in a slew of other newfangled internet words for dating-related woes that used to be called something else. But they all in essence, do one thing: They reflect some level of uninterest in a person, but vary the technique with which you fuck with this unlucky soul who has chosen to like you. You’re definitely an asshole, but not necessarily a cheating one. Just the kind of asshole who is probably a little bored and likes the attention other people you don’t really like (right now!) will give you.
Ghosting, for instance, means cutting off all contact, usually abruptly and out of nowhere, when a relationship is dead to you. You knew it before as just not talking to someone you aren’t interested anymore. Ghosting sounds better, of course, but the practice is as old as sorry I fell asleep because I don’t care. Slow fading is just ghosting over time. Formerly known as “letting it peter out.” Either method will get rid of someone eventually—it’s just a matter of how, and how much time you’ve got.
Then there’s breadcrumbing and benching, cushioning’s closest cousins. The former means doling out just enough morsels of interest that someone stays invested and on the hook, though you never intend to materialize a real relationship — whether in person (because you met on the internet), or emotionally in terms of real commitment. The latter is just keeping someone out of the game but on the team. Benching is only distinguishable from breadcrumbing by the quality and frequency of contact.
In other words, you talk a lot to some people you don’t want to be with right now. You talk only a little to others. This is not a revelation, in concept or in practice, and the suggestion that monogamy means you never flirt or interact with other people you might end up with if things go south is almost puritanical, given the constant immersion in others’ lives we maintain at all times on social media.
In reality, we’re just devising better words to deal with the same harsh truth we’ve always had to reconcile: Relationships should be mutual; often they are not. Timing is everything; often it will derail you. And last but not least, people should feel compelled to be with you, and anything short of that is probably not going to work out. At least not now! Maybe not ever! But maybe some day? So let’s keep it nice and friendly, shall we? What’s the harm?