What Does Cushioning Mean In The Dating World?

Breaking up is hard to do. That's why, even before a relationship split is ever discussed, many people take steps to prepare themselves when they sense that a breakup is inevitable. As psychologist Loren Soeiro told Brides, "In planning to break up with someone, you'll go through a fair amount of distress yourself. Depending on how long you've anticipated the breakup, you'll likely experience some form of anxiety or dread as you look ahead to taking unpleasant steps."

To minimize the pain, some people may begin grieving the relationship before it's even over, while others may take a purely practical approach, such as deciding how to move out of a home they share with their soon-to-be ex. These strategies can be a healthy response to a tough situation. But there are other, not-so-kind ways of preparing for a relationship split. For example, pulling a slow fade, where one partner has decided they're no longer committed to the relationship and slowly distance themselves from the other person, can be more emotionally damaging than ghosting, according to Psychology Today.

Another potentially toxic pre-breakup behavior is called "cushioning." And even if you're unfamiliar with the term, it's possible you've been cushioned before — or have cushioned someone else.

What is cushioning?

Cushioning might sound cozy, but it's taken on a different meaning in the world of relationships, at least for the last few years. According to Urban Dictionary, "cushioning" is a slang term used to describe a situation where someone in a relationship flirts with other people to cushion the blow of an impending breakup. Generally, the other partner has no idea what's going on, often unaware that a breakup is even on the horizon.

Entertaining options outside of the relationship — before officially calling it quits — can be a form of micro-cheating, especially if the relationship has already been defined as monogamous. So if it's so wrong, why do people do it? Marriage and Family Therapist Maria Sosa told Refinery29 that cushioning stems from "the fear that the relationship won't work out." Cushioning can be a way of avoiding vulnerability and possible rejection in the future by turning your attention to other prospects. Spiral Psychology also points out that people often flirt while in a relationship for validation. And if a breakup is in the cards, it could be a way to confirm that you're still desirable to others before diving back into the dating pool.

How to spot and deal with cushioning

What makes being on the receiving end of cushioning so painful is that you often don't know it's happening. Thankfully, there are some signs of cushioning that make it easy to spot.

According to Today, one hint that your partner may be cushioning you is that they've become hot and cold. Though you once shared a warm, loving bond, they're now ignoring you and disappearing before eventually reappearing again, as if everything is fine. Other signs that something is up? Your partner has grown extra attached to their phone, they're secretive about what they're doing and who they're talking to, and they're no longer interested in physical intimacy.

If you think your significant other is cushioning, Tennesha Wood, a dating coach and matchmaker, told Refinery29 that it's best to be direct and tell your partner that you feel there's some distance in the relationship. Sharing your suspicions, without making accusations, can give them an opportunity to fess up. If you're the one seeking outside "cushions," a little self-reflection can go a long way. Look for patterns of avoidance or relationship anxiety, and do an inventory of your needs to see which might not be getting met. Speaking up about your feelings can bring you and your partner closer. And if your goal is to go your separate ways, give up cushioning and make a clean break instead.