Dating a few people at once with the end goal of eventually deciding which one feels like the best fit has become the norm in the age of online dating. But taking one of those potential partners along for the ride as back up while you focus your real efforts on someone else? That's known as "cookie jarring" — and there's nothing sweet about it.
"'Cookie jarring' happens when an individual pursues a relationship to have as a back-up plan or security blanket — with no real intention of a long-term relationship," explains Catalina Lawsin, PhD, a licensed psychologist practicing in New York and Illinois. "These individuals are typically already dating someone who they are pursuing a long-term relationship with, or are at the beginning of a promising relationship."
Similar to the way we might reach for an actual cookie when we're looking for a pick me up, the "cookie jarrer" reaches out to his or her back-up option when they start to feel unsure about where their other relationship is headed, when the person they're actually pursuing isn't available, or after they've been rejected.
According to Lawsin, more often than not, none of this is transparent to the person being cookie jarred. Meaning, you could be in someone's cookie jar right now and not know it.
Why do people 'cookie jar'?
Commitment is scary, rejection is hard and (to quote the Backstreet Boys) "loneliness is tragical". So, stringing along someone you're kind of into, but don't want to get serious with, in order to take the sting out of all of the above while pursuing someone else, might seem like a good plan of action.
But, Theresa Herring, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Chicago, explains that cookie jarring isn't doing anyone any favors. "It keeps you (the cookie jarrer) feeling dependent on having someone, anyone in your life — which is not the healthiest way to start a relationship," she says. "Plus, it could blow up in your face if the person you're actually interested in finds out. And it prevents the person you've cookie jarred from meeting someone who actually likes them enough to date them."
Not surprisingly, insecurity is at the root of why people decide to cookie jar, which Darcie Czajkowski, a psychotherapist practicing in California, says can stem from a variety of places — from infidelity in past relationships to a parents' divorce.
"These past experiences all can shape a person's beliefs about oneself, such as a belief that 'I'm not good enough' or 'I'm not worthy' that create insecurities about what a person brings to a relationship," says Czajkowski. "This, in turn, leads to a fear of being 'found out,' which might explain why the cookie jarrer keeps a backup. It mitigates feelings of 'I'm not good enough' to know that you have options, as well as allowing the person to avoid addressing feelings of 'I'm not good enough' or 'I'm not worthy.'"
That insecurity can also just be a byproduct of modern dating. "We have way more access to potential partners than ever before and that can make us a little insecure," says Herring.
Signs you are sitting in someone's 'cookie jar'
One of the worst parts about cookie jarring is that it can be hard to tell that it's happening — which is by design, since the person doing so is likely trying his or her best to keep you from finding out the truth. However, there are a few signs to look out for.
"If your date never wants to make a definite plan (would you like to go out Friday night?) and just wants to come over to your house on the spur of the moment, he/she doesn't make an effort to keep in touch (you should not be making all the effort) and doesn't seem to think about the future, they’re probably just using you as 'reserve' and not really interested (either in you or in commitment)," explains Tina B. Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and author of “Dr. Romance's Guide to Finding Love Today.” Avoiding conversations about defining the relationship can also be a potential red flag, as well as being overly needy or insecure.
It's also worthwhile to trust your gut here. "If you're dating someone, but always feel a little insecure about your status in their life, there's a good chance that you're being cookie jarred," says Herring. "The knot in your stomach, the lag between responses when you're texting, often point to them not being that into you."
What to do if you suspect it's happening to you
Dating is a two-way street and if you're in a relationship where you're being cookie jarred, chances are that you're not getting what you want or need from the person you're dating. "It is important that you feel clear about what you want from the relationship before you talk with this person so that you can make a decision about whether or not to continue the relationship depending on how they react," says Rachel Davidson, Ph.D, licensed psychologist practicing in Florida.
When you address your concerns, Davidson says to start by having a direct conversation with them, framing it in a way that shows what you infer from their behavior. Using “I” statements is always a smart tactic: "When you (enter action here) I feel (enter emotion here)".
There are a range of potential ways someone who’s cookie jarring you may react when confronted. Here is some guidance on how to respond in the following common scenarios:
They get defensive
The person you’re confronting may try to turn the blame back on you to defend themselves, whether that’s by responding with extreme anger, trying to attack your character or even by accusing you of the cookie jarring.
How to respond: “If they are unwilling to discuss the situation honestly, you should think about ending the conversation and possibly the relationship,” says Davidson. “The number one thing to remember here is to ignore their attacks on you — this is likely an attempt to get you off track from what you are asking them about.” If things become too heated, Davidson suggests finding an exit strategy by suggesting that you table the discussion until he/she is less frustrated.
They seem to not care or have little reaction at all
This reaction can hurt worse than the person getting defensive, but it’s a harsh fact that cookie jarrer’s may not validate your feelings when you bring up the topic. “Cookie jarrer or not, this is a red flag for any relationship,” says Davidson. “You deserve to have your partner be responsive to you and care about concerns when you bring them up, true or not.”
How to respond: Though this may not garner the reaction you desire either, explaining how their non-reaction makes you feel (ex: “You not responding after I've brought up a serious concern makes me feel like you are not committed to this relationship") is one way to address this.
They minimize their behavior
The person you confront may admit to their behavior, but act like it’s no big deal, which can be hurtful and feel invalidating.
How to respond: “If this happens, you should start by expressing your concerns, and then asserting what it is that you want from them. For example, ‘I am only interested in an exclusive relationship and need to know if you agree with that or not,’” says Davidson. When you do, be prepared for them to continue to minimize the importance of what you’re asking for — and to make a decision about whether or not you want to continue the relationship at that point.
"Remember, you have a legitimate right to be respected in your relationships and you should feel empowered to stand your ground around this," says Davidson. "If someone is not willing to bend on this or meet you where you are at, this is a serious red flag and likely means you will continue to feel disrespected in the relationship moving forward."
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