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Why On-Again, Off-Again Relationships Are So Stressful

New research on relationship cycling.

Key points

  • The experience of one or more breakups and reconciliations with one’s romantic partner is called relationship cycling.
  • A recent investigation found relationship cycling is associated with increased symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • The more times people broke up and got back together again, the more psychological distress they experienced.
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People who have broken up and reconciled with their romantic partner once or more times are said to be in an on-again, off-again (or on-off or on-and-off) relationship.

The pattern of breaking up and getting back together, also called relationship cycling, is associated with psychological distress (e.g., anxiety and depression). In fact, according to a recent paper by Monk et al., published in the April issue of Family Relations, the more times an individual cycles, the more distress they will likely feel.

Let us look at the study.

Investigating mental health and on-and-off relationships

Sample: 545 (at Wave 1); 59% female and 38% male; average age of 35 years old; 87% White; 49% married and 23% dating; 21% gay and 19% lesbian; 51% in same-sex romantic relationships; 80% living with their romantic partner; average relationship length of 7 years; 42% with children.

Data were collected at four points during 2015 and 2016. As noted, at Wave 1, the sample size was 545. At Waves 2, 3, and 4, it was 443, 407, and 358, respectively.


  • Psychological distress: Anxiety and depressive symptoms were assessed using anxiety and depression items from the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-4 and PHQ-8).
  • Relationship cycling: Participants were asked if “they had ever broken up and gotten back together with their current partner,” and if so, the number of times they had broken up and reconciled.
  • Relationship type: same-sex vs. different-sex romantic relationship
  • Relationship violence: items from the physical assault subscale of the Revised Conflict Tactics Scale (e.g., “My partner punched or hit me with something that could hurt”).
  • Relationship satisfaction: the Couple Satisfaction Index (e.g., “I have a warm and comfortable relationship with my partner”).
  • Relationship uncertainty: the relationship uncertainty subscale of the Relational Uncertainty Scale (e.g., “How certain are you about how you can or cannot behave around your partner?”)

On-and-off relationships and psychological distress

Analysis of data showed relationship cycling was associated with anxiety and depression.

Specifically, those who had repeatedly broken up and reconciled with their dating partner “reported more symptoms of psychological distress over the 15-month period.” This suggests, “the more frequently participants broke up and renewed, the more distress symptoms they reported at baseline and over time.”

The association between distress and relationship cycling remained even when the authors accounted for psychological uncertainty, a history of relationship violence, and relationship satisfaction.

So, why are on-again, off-again relationships stressful? Perhaps because they increase the number of relationship transitions, which can trigger disruptions and turbulence. A relationship transition refers to a “period of discontinuity between times of relative stability, during which individuals adapt to changing roles, identities, and circumstances.”

Transitions can negatively impact the pattern of interdependence between romantic partners, resulting in perceptions of the partner as interfering with one’s goals as opposed to promoting desired goals; and thus lead to feelings of uncertainty (about the relationship or partner’s participation) and relationship instability.

Due to relationship cycling, romantic partners “become vigilant about their relationship, react intensely to events that would ordinarily be mundane, and experience volatility relating to each other.”

Thus, transitioning, even if in and out of a relationship with the same person, can disrupt daily routines and create a sense of discontinuity. Indeed, the reasons couples give for getting back together often include “the felt tension associated with lingering feelings, shared finances, and other constraints.”

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The reviewed study found “not only was relationship cycling associated with distress at baseline but breakup and renewal of a union was associated with more distress over time.” In fact, “the more times individuals cycled, the more distress symptoms they reported.”

So, if you are considering breaking up or getting back together again with a romantic partner, keep in mind that these relationship transitions may lower relationship satisfaction, cause distress, and create a sense of chaos, instability, and uncertainty (e.g., interfere with your routines, goals, or future plans).

Such distress can potentially cause mental health issues and mental illness (e.g., anxiety, depression), just as healthy romantic relationships, particularly healthy marriages, can have a positive influence on both physical health and mental health.

Therefore, compared to cycling, it is often better to either end the relationship permanently or to stay only if stabilizing the relationship is a real possibility.

If unable to address the causes of relationship cycling on your own—particularly serious causes involving physical assault, emotional abuse, and sexual violence—you may benefit from seeking professional help, whether individual psychotherapy or couples therapy (marriage counseling).

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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