Is “Cushioning” as Toxic as It Sounds? The Shady Dating Trend, Explained

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We’re sending e-mails until 6 p.m., spinning on our stationary bike when we get home, throwing together dinner, calling back Mom and trying to stay awake for our reality TV ritual before bed. We barely have time to date one person. But there are some super-daters among us who can balance multiple coffee chats, jaunts around town and late-night texts with ease. Called “cushioning,” this dating trend involves chatting with several partners at once to cushion the blow of a potential break-up. You might know cushioning in a committed relationship by its other name: cheating. But what about approaching cushioning in a new relationship, when dating around is more permissible? Below, we asked three relationship experts when it is and isn’t healthy to cushion, plus how to bring it up with a new partner.

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Meet the Experts:

Wait, What Exactly *Is* Cushioning?

Cushioning is an emotional safety net meant to shield us from the impact of dating unknowns, Winter shares in a recent YouTube video. What if my date ghosts me after four dates? Will my current partner and I recover from a major disagreement? What will my ex think if she knows I’m single? Rather than falling headfirst into loneliness and uncertainty, the cushioner has a reserve of romantic interests waiting to catch them before they reach the ground. Someone who cushions aims to keep their options open by “overlapping” people they’re dating. Rather than openly addressing problems or reflecting on how they might have been a better partner, Winter says cushioners cycle from one person to the next to avoid any post-breakup alone time.

Yikes. Why Might Someone Cushion?

When someone cushions within an exclusive couple, ego and fear are their main drivers. “No one wants to be dumped, rejected or made to feel like a last priority,” says Winter. To ensure a person’s self-esteem isn’t bruised by a difficult split, they might cushion to renew their confidence with a new fling (or two). Online perception is a big piece here too, says Johnson, “for adults of the social media generation where their sense of self is determined and valued by likes, follows and general external validation.” Meaning a cushioner gets a boost from others checking out their date night photos on Instagram, no matter how the relationship is functioning on the inside. 

We can’t fall in love without surrender: giving a part of ourselves to another person and accepting we might get hurt. But Winters explains in the cushioner’s case, “Their capacity to love cannot tolerate risk or loss.” This fear holds the dater back from a real lasting partnership. Instead of “deeply struggling to protect yourself,” she advises learning to relinquish control and building your communication skills so you can work through relationship bumps that arise. 

Is Cushioning Ever OK?

We know, cushioning is sounding more toxic by the second. But Trombetti says it’s useful when we’re initially seeking out a partner. The matchmaker green lights dating others within the first 60 days of a new relationship, saying it offers us a chance to examine our feelings and “observe if this person is capable and willing to meet our needs such as commitment, lifestyle and investment of time.” The learnings that emerge when dating—that you hate when someone talks over you or want someone who cares about your dog—lead us to discover the type of person we’d like to link with long-term. This healthy exploration “keeps us from leading too much with our heart and helps us secure the most compatible relationship.” advises Trombetti.

The only acceptable way to cushion is with complete transparency. Per Johnson, this sounds like, “I'm focused on finding a long-term partner, so I am openly dating around until I find someone I feel super compatible with. I'm happy to answer questions you may have about that and would love to know how you're going about dating.”

Why Is It So Detrimental to Relationships?

We can all agree cushioning within a committed, monogamous relationship constitutes cheating. But even before you’ve both had the exclusivity talk, cushioning can hinder your chances at a deep connection. By cushioning beyond the two month-mark of a relationship, Trombetti says you’re hurting yourself and your new partner. “While you might say you want commitment, this behavior communicates the opposite.”

Mentally ranking your dating candidates when cushioning is especially egregious, says Johnson, since this involves singling out who earns most of your energy and relegating others to a standby list to call upon when your relationship declines. And while this hierarchy is clear in the mind of the cushioner, the people they’re dating have no idea where they stand. “The cushioner doesn't make it clear that they are dating other people, leading all of their dates to believe the cushioner is more invested than in reality.” Johnson points out. 

How Can We Steer Clear of Cushioners?

Bringing up commitment within the first few weeks of a relationship can feel daunting. (You can’t ask “What are we?” during a lighthearted round of bowling). Trombetti says to spend time observing your partner first to see if they check your boxes. When dating outlooks come up, you can share you’re looking for a long-term partner. “Laying out your wants and needs in a relationship doesn’t have to mean you’ve decided you want these things with them,” which she adds can alleviate some of the pressure. 

Amid the awkwardness, don’t shy away from setting clear expectations during your chat. Johnson, who advocates for radical transparency from the start of a relationship, outlines an example of how to weed out the cushioners in the dating field. “Right now, I'm only looking to date one person at a time until I find the right fit for a relationship. How are you approaching dating right now?” or “I'm looking for a partner without unfinished business with exes or casual dating partners, where are you at with this? I'd love to hear about your recent/current dating history.” Asking these questions up front ensures you’re both aligned in your relationship goals (and helps prevent any cushioning surprises down the line). 

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Senior Social Strategy & Trends Editor

From 2017-2023 Michaela Magliochetti held the role of Senior Social Strategy & Trends Editor covering wellness, horoscopes, trends and more.