Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

How Healthy Are On-Again/Off-Again Relationships?

What do we really know about on-again/off-again relationships? Why do people break-up, make-up, and then break-up and make-up again? Can repeated separations and reunions be healthy? Read More

On again - Off again

I had a long term boyfriend where we were constantly cycling. Our relationship was great for about 6 months and then he would start behaving badly and do something that he knew would anger me. I would get upset and break up with him. I spent years blaming myself and worked hard on breaking the cycle by being better behaved and less easily angered.

It took me several years to realize that I wasn't the problem, the man liked cycling. Had a look any closer he cycled his employment every 6 months too and he cycled his friendship, he cycled his drinking and he cycled his drug use. He liked ups and downs, never a constant even life.

He and I were great friends and worked well together, I got tired of the eggshell-walking. We broke up the last time, and a few months later he was back at my door expecting to patch things up once again. He was furious when I told him it was over permanently.


I personally know a young lady from one of these relationships. They spent four years on and off and ended up with a baby. The young man was very in love but she was all over the place. Young man died at 21 from a gunshot wound after the last break up. I think it should have ended before he had become so attached that he had to die without her. I won't blame her tho because of drugs.

Sadly, I'm in the exact same situation now too. He thinks he will be nothing without me and I'm tired of him making me so upset every other week. Maybe dealing with these relationships is part of our upbringing?


Its commonly called vacillating and done by those with fear of abandonment issues. Common causes are poor and inconsistent parenting, abuse, neglect, etc, during childhood. It is often characterized by fast moving relationships, choosing mates based on shallow characteristics, periods of idealizing and devaluing, trust issues, and anger issues.
Dialectal or cognitive behavior therapy are good treatments. Often these individuals need counseling to experience a season of personal growth, character building, and maturity; much like being reparented, they need to learn new ways to relate to people and recognize and manage emotional triggers. Sadly, many will not seek it until their lives are in shambles.

there are many degrees of abandonment issues (in fact we all have some, there are no perfect parents or childhoods); in my experience vacillators are often insecure, selfish and prideful. Their trust issues, immaturity (lack of character) and impulsiveness make them susceptible to infidelity. They often know they need to change, but are reluctant and too proud to seek help. They may be addicted to any number of things, the least of which are love, relationships, and sex. Conversely, they may be very charming and persuasive at keeping a mate around, and skilled at stringing along multiple relationships.
If you are trying to date (or are married to) a person with these issues, I suggest maintaining space and strong boundaries until they have accepted their faults and taken diligent and heartfelt action to overcome these issues. Open and honest discussion is rarely fruitful because vacillators struggle with being completely open and honest; it could lead to rejection, their greatest fear.


Great comment! I've never heard the theory of "vacillators" before but it makes sense. Based on your description I'm pretty sure I'm dating a vacillator who has all the insecurity, selfishness, and pride issues from time to time, but luckily he is not a cheater. I am also guilty of being a vacillator to a small extent...the difference is that I can see my faults when they're pointed out to me...he can't and instead just tries to turn the blame back on me in any way possible. If he weren't so damn awesome in other ways that matter to me (supportive, loving, generous, invested, intelligent, funny, etc.) I don't think we would have made it very far. We're at 2 years now...we'll see how it goes from here ;)

Do not return sour milk to

Do not return sour milk to the refrigerator. Pour it out. Get fresh milk.

haha I love this quote! heard

haha I love this quote! heard it before, always come back to it.

I was also in one of these

I was also in one of these on-again, off-again relationships for four years. We had our first (of dozens) of the break-ups two months in. It was always my decision to break up because of how unhappy he made me. But then we'd communicate again after usually about a week and things would be back on. I'd try to bring up the things I wanted to work on and he would acknowledge them and then we'd never speak of them again, until the next time I brought up things I wanted to change and we'd break up again because I knew he'd never change anything and because he was extremely averse to anything resembling conflict. During all these break-ups, I worked on my personal growth and figured out ways to be a more integrated person without a significant other, and after fours of being with him, I'm a totally different person than when we got together. He didn't grow or change one bit. I think my biggest issue was fear of abandonment and loneliness, and I always welcomed that old familiarity back into my life, even though my rational mind knew what was around the corner. We had our final break-up just after the four-year mark and for the first time it was his decision. I'm so glad he did it. When you're cycling like that, you can never commit, you constantly wonder who else is out there that's better for you, you never can really get to know the person and you never are able to healthily resolve conflicts. I hope this was a learning experience for my future relationships. I think people ought to trust their gut instincts right off the bat. They're usually correct, especially when you fall in love too fast.


How can this article not mention codependency? It seems really strange to me, when this is what an on and off again relationship is like. People choose their own dramas and need to take responsibility for them. This is a good article on codependency and also explores resources for how to avoid and be prepared for these types of relationships in the future. It's worth providing the tools and resources to help people get out of unconscious patters in relationships as well.

My own experience I'm dealing with now.

I'm currently in an on again off again relationship. Right now we are off again. If the pattern serves me right, he'll be contacting me in the next couple of weeks. The relationship itself is the best one I've ever been in. He is so very sweet to me and puts me first. However, he has these terrible mood swings. He hasn't gotten help and refuses to. I've stayed by his side for the past year and a half. In the beginning we broke up a billion times. Nothing was more than a few hours. I moved in with him on his parents property 2 months into our relationship. Every few months he'd have an episode. He'd get cold (the opposite of how he is). I would be the reason for all his unhappiness. He would smile so much while we were together and talk about us to everyone. So when we split everyone is confused. His family suffers and my job suffers from our break ups. Usually it starts with something I say or do and all of sudden he says he's never been happy and its always the same issues. I'll be happy and he'll give me this bombshell. Usually the days leading up to it will be our very best. Infact this last break up we went to the beach and had fun. Because I say something he doesn't like, it'll turn into something about me being against him.

When we split I go to mothers. I don't drive so since its towns away I have to leave my job. Luckily both these times I've been able to work out my notice and find another job in the town my mother is in.

No matter what I will love him. Yes, if he shows back up I will go back to him. However, this time its different on my end. I'm not sobbing like an idiot. A part of me is hoping he won't contact me and a part of me wishes and hopes he does. But if the pattern continues, he'll be back.



I'm sorry to hear it has been so tumultuous. What you are describing is codependency a form of relationship addiction. For the sake of your self & your soul I would advise you to go & talk to a qualified therapist or psychologist about it. You deserve yo have a wonderful, happy life, are you having that now?

Seek help and support and take your power back.

I wish you well on your journey.

Just seeing the pattern clearly now

So we're off again - nearly 2 years of this now. He lives with his parents though he's nearly 50, and we both have mental health problems. Co dependency - yes, absolutely.

Someone said above their ex cycles - goes away, comes back, goes away - and does this with his friends too. So does mine. He gets close to people for a while, then gets paranoid about them and drops them, or just drops them with no apparent reason.

We have our pattern. The day after he agreed to go out with me, he changed his mind. The day after we first slept together, he changed his mind. He has done many walk-outs and retreats back into his parents' home. Then he contacts me again when he wants sympathy. This has happened so often. He says we need a break, and maybe one day we'll be together, and goes, and I'm in pieces: I contact him and get nowhere: later, he comes back and tells me all about his problems, we get together, and so on.

I last spoke to him yesterday and he seemed to be saying it was over but we have something scheduled for Sept which we have to do together. So I suppose he feels "safe". I feel abandoned, crap though this all is (I am a lonely person)

I don't want to get angry and shout at him down the phone or send nasty texts. Because I'll get badly hurt.

Best thing is to stay away. When I contact him, I have this big daydream which never comes true - just pain, pain, pain. Yet I don't know if I'm strong enough to say No if he contacts me.

There's a lot of good advice everywhere. But I need strength and hope. I need to face immense pain and rage and hold still with it. It's an awful lot to face. Well, OK, then - start here. I'll start by doing it shakily, scared it'll fall apart. OK now. This is the start. Could take years. Well - it'll take as long as it needs to.

Why don't you decide to not to make a decision

Find something else to do, work on finding new friends or a hobby. There is no reason for your to insist to yourself that you stay away forever. Take it one day at a time, make some future plans that don't involve this man. Work on finding somebody else to take his place for your September event, that way you won't get your hopes up.

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Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.


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