Compared to other dating trend names — zombieing, whelming, benching — "cushioning" doesn't sound so bad. But in reality, the meaning isn't as cozy as you might think. Cushioning, according to Urban Dictionary, happens when someone is entertaining other potential romantic "options" while they're in a committed relationship. And it's a dating trend we wish didn't exist.
Tennesha Wood, dating coach and founder of The Broom List, a matchmaking firm for Black professionals, says that cushioning counts as emotional cheating. "There's a line there," she tells Refinery29. "You're not necessarily physically cheating, but you are engaging in a behaviour with a potential romantic interest that you're probably not telling your partner about."
What is cushioning?
Before we get into it, it's important to note that cushioning isn't necessarily all bad, specifically in the beginning of a relationship before you've established boundaries for exclusivity. "At the beginning of a relationship it's very common and it makes a lot of sense," Maria Sosa, MS, MFT, expert for the relationship app Clarity, tells Refinery29. "However after you have defined the relationship and you've said, 'Okay, we're committed to each other,' then it gets a little bit into that betrayal area."
At its core, cushioning typically stems from avoidance, fear, and insecurity in a relationship, Wood explains. "It's the fear that the relationship won't work out, and playing into that fear you're essentially already setting it up for failure because you're thinking about when it ends," she says.
If someone is afraid that a relationship is doomed, they might entertain options to "cushion" the breakup (hence the name). They might be holding onto feelings from past relationships, seeking attention and validation from others, or know deep down that their partner isn't right for them and want to avoid a painful break up. Cushioning can also happen when someone isn't feeling fulfilled in their relationship. Maybe their partner is emotionally unavailable or doesn't communicate with them in a healthy way — they then might look outside of the relationship to fulfil those needs.
Essentially, this is self-serving behaviour. Sosa points out that, as humans, we're always trying to minimise our pain and potential hurt. "You're trying to take care of yourself," she says. "But if this is someone you're really interested in and they find out, there's a potential loss for you because they might just end the relationship." Having one foot out the door of a relationship is almost always a recipe for disaster. "If there's a sense of secrecy, if you feel like you have to hide these things from your partner, then it's definitely a red flag," Sosa says.
Are you being cushioned?
If you think you're being cushioned by a partner — maybe they're being distant or acting cold towards you, or you just have a gut feeling — both Sosa and Wood agree that the best thing for you to do is to be up front and direct about it. Wood recommends saying something along the lines of, 'I feel like you're being distant' or 'I feel like you're talking to other people. Are my suspicions actually true?' If they admit to it, ask them why. "Is there something in the relationship they weren't or aren't getting from you that they need?" Wood suggests asking. "From there you can move forward, depending on their answer."
If their answer is that you're not giving them enough time or attention and that's something they require, then that's an issue you can work on and move forward with if you choose to do so. But if that person isn't taking responsibility for their actions or saying they're not sure or refuse to give you an answer, then you have to ask yourself if this is a relationship you really want to be in. "Ultimately if it's not something you think that can be mended or fixed, then you have the opportunity to leave that relationship," Sosa says.
Are you cushioning someone else?
If you're the one doing the cushioning, it's a good indicator that you need to look inward. "It's a good place to connect with yourself and what's going on with you as a person and as part of a relationship," Sosa says. Ask yourself these questions: Am I avoiding intimacy and vulnerability? Am I trying to make up for things that I'm lacking in my relationship? Can I discuss this with my partner and say, I want to make this work? Or do I want to look into other prospects? Think about your answers to these questions and reflect on what you really want out of your relationship. If it ends up that your partner isn't for you, then that's fine — just be honest with yourself and them.
Wood says the real moral dilemma of cushioning isn't considering other prospects, it's being dishonest about it. "If your needs aren't being met or this isn't the type of relationship you want, that's when it's time to have a conversation with your partner," she explains. "At all stages of your relationship, you need to be communicating with your partner."
So, start a conversation with them. Tell them what you're missing from the relationship. "A lot of the times, I don't think this is about what your partner is doing," Wood says. "I think it's a real insecurity in either yourself or things that have happened in your past and you're projecting it onto this relationship and not giving it its full shot because you're preparing for it to end."
We may be asking too much of the relationship, too, if we feel compelled to entertain other romantic prospects. "We've grown up and been taught that we meet this one person who we end up being with who's supposed to meet all of our needs," Sosa says. "This one person is our best friend, the person we're intimate with, who we have deep conversations with, and it puts a lot of pressure on relationships for that one person to be our everything."
But if you find yourself reaching outside of your relationship as a way to escape a partner that is toxic or abusive, then that's a completely different scenario, Sosa says. "You're not cushioning, you're looking for safety," she explains. Look for resources to contact, such as the National Domestic Violence Helpline, or your own friends and family.
Where to go from here
If you're cushioning what is otherwise a healthy relationship, and don't have a desire to be open with your partner about your actions, then you might need to look even further within. "If you don't care about hurting someone else's feelings or you don't care how your behaviours are affecting others, then there are some issues that you need to discuss and look into to understand why don't you care about this person's feelings or why it's not a big deal to you," Sosa explains.
Right now, we don't need any more doomsday prep — especially not for our relationships. The key to putting an end to cushioning (and preventing it in the first place) is being upfront, open, and honest with yourself and your partner about what you want and need in a committed relationship. Sure, that looks different to everyone, but hopefully you both can come to an agreement about what you're looking for. Otherwise, one of you might go looking for it in someone else.