Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

The Truth About On-Again, Off-Again Couples

Cycling is more common than many think but comes with hidden costs.

When two people get together, their relationship can proceed along one of four possible paths:

  1. They stay together, forever (and hopefully happily!). 
  2. They eventually break up, permanently, and go their separate ways.
  3. They eventually break up, permanently, but stay connected in some way.
  4. They eventually break up…and then they make-up...and then they break up...

This last option—when individuals sever the relationship but then recommit to it—becomes particularly intriguing when couples break up and make up again and again. Repeated ending and renewing of a relationship is often called relationship cycling (Dailey, Pfister, Jin, Beck, & Clark, 2009), and this dynamic can threaten the health and well-being of the relationship and its members.

A Problem Well After College

Recent research out of Kansas State University (Vennum, Lindstrom, Monk, & Adams, 2014) offers insight into the effects of relationship cycling beyond the college years—a novel contribution since college students are the focus of most on-again/off-again relationship studies (e.g., Dailey et al., 2009). Relationship researchers often turn to college samples because of their accessibility and because the instability that characterizes on-again/off-again relationships is not uncommon in that population.

But it’s important to know what happens in cyclical relationships as people progress through their 20s and 30s and into their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. As time goes on, men and women often see their relationships evolve into those marked by more constraints—factors that inhibit couples from breaking up. Cohabitation and marriage both come with substantial relationship constraints, and are more common as people leave college and move further into adulthood. If we really want to know the potential for cyclical relationships, we need to look at how well they transition into cohabiting and marital relationships. 

How often do people in on-again/off-again relationships decide to cohabitate or make the leap to get married? What happens when they do? Are these relationships healthy? Are they stable?

Cycling Is Remarkably Common

Evidence drawn from a sample of 323 cohabitating, and 752 married, heterosexual, middle-aged couples revealed that an on-again/off-again history is fairly frequent among adults: 37 percent of cohabiters and 23 percent of married couples reported at one time breaking up and then getting back together with their current partner (Vennum et al., 2014). While some of this cycling occurred when they were dating, 22 percent of cohabiters indicated that they cycled at least once after already deciding to live together. And while approximately 12 percent of those married couples who had experienced cycling at some point in their relationship did so during their marriage (i.e., a trail separation), most had engaged in premarital cycling.

Once On-Again/Off-Again, Always On-Again/Off-Again?

It’s not too surprising to discover that couples who were on-again/off-again while dating later become more likely to cycle during cohabitation. Almost half (48 percent) of married people who had cycled during cohabitation had already gone through cycling while dating. It seems that cycling while dating can beget cycling during cohabitation. Interestingly, though, the pattern appears to stop there. Overall, married couples who embark on trial separations are no more or no less likely to have experienced cycling prior to marriage—perhaps because marriage adds additional constraints (factors that make it more difficult to break up).

The Costs of Cycling

Cohabiting and married couples who had at one point been on-again/off-again have more uncertainty about their relationship’s future, and are less satisfied in their relationships than others (Vennum et al., 2014). This is a fascinating finding because it mirrors the type of evidence documented in on-again/off-again dating relationships. The poorer relationship quality marking cycling among dating couples, then, seems to transfer into the more committed contexts of cohabitation and marriage.

What to Do About It

While many on-again/off-again relationships transition into stable partnerships, it remains an empirical question as to why many of these relationships are fraught with distress. The poor relationship quality characteristic of cycling during dating relationships seems to persist into cohabitation and marriage. It’s as though the lower quality experienced during dating carries over into the next stages of a relationship, in which more constraints make it harder to get out of (i.e., cohabitation, marriage).  

Breaking free from an unhappy relationship is no easy task, and it becomes harder when children finances, or dependence are part of the equation. Evaluating satisfaction before accruing these constraints may be ideal, but change can happen at any time in a relationship’s life course. Some relationships might persist being low in quality. Others might end. In others, partners may find new ways to address each other’s needs, to be grateful for and supportive of each other, and to elevate the benefits of being in their relationship over the costs.

 

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References

  • Dailey, R. M., Pfiester, A., Jin, B., Beck, G., & Clark, G. (2009). On‐again/off‐again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships?. Personal Relationships, 16(1), 23-47.
  • Vennum, A., Lindstrom, R., Monk, J. K., & Adams, R. (2014). “It’s complicated” The continuity and correlates of cycling in cohabiting and marital relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31(3), 410-430.

 


Image by shutterstock

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

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