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Domestic Drama: On-Again, Off-Again

What drives couples to repeatedly break up and then make up?

For Laura, a 35-year-old corporate recruiter from New York City, dating had always felt like a Ferris wheel ride. When a relationship started to feel wrong, she'd leave to get a new vantage point on things, but as the pain of singleness set in, she retreated to her former partner for comfort, ending up back where she started. She'd repeat the cycle several times before breaking things off permanently. "It became this crazy pattern," she says. "They weren't good guys at all, but whenever something in my life was difficult, I would go back."

Laura's longtime boomeranging habit puts her in good company. The dynamic is quite common. University of Texas communications professor Rene Dailey found that 60 percent of adults have had a romantic relationship and then gotten back together, and that three-quarters of those respondents had been through the breakup, makeup cycle at least twice. But embarking on this bumpy relational road takes an emotional toll: On-off couples have more relational stress than non-cyclical couples, she found.

Given the obvious costs, why do couples keep dancing the on-and-off tango? Many who seesaw from freeze-outs to fervent proclamations of love know deep down that the relationship probably isn't right, says psychologist Steven Stosny. But when couples are faced with the loneliness and low self-esteem that accompany a breakup, they continually fall back on the temporary relief of reconciliation.

It's often the fleeting high points of a fundamentally rocky relationship that convince embattled partners to keep coming back for more, spurring a tortuous dynamic with no end in sight. "Often there is something that works very well for you about this person," says Gail Saltz, a Manhattan-based psychiatrist and author of Becoming Real. But when your mate's dreamy qualities are accompanied by deal-breaker ones like dishonesty or irresponsibility, it can be difficult to make a clear-headed assessment of whether to stay or leave.

While problem behaviors may prompt a periodic hiatus, on-again, off-again couples continue to reunite out of a persistent hope that the moments of happiness and fulfillment they've known will someday constitute the entire relationship. "People say, 'I can fix this other part of my partner,' " Saltz says, even though efforts at "remodeling" a mate are typically useless. The self-deprecating internal monologues serial on-off artists conduct after a breakup—"What was I thinking? I'll never meet someone as funny, smart, and attractive ever again!"—can also lead to repeated reconciliations.

While periodic estrangement is painful, some couples see a silver lining. By experiencing life without their significant others for a while, they come away with a deeper understanding of the value of their bond, even if the romance doesn't always have storybook qualities.

But this kind of "pruning" is no panacea. Virginia psychotherapist Toni Coleman warns couples to steer clear of the false epiphanies making up and breaking up can encourage. After an emotion-filled reunion, it's tempting to assume your partner has permanently changed for the better. But underlying conflicts that simmered before the breakup will resurface—just ask consummate on-off artists Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, who married and divorced twice before breaking up for good. "Things will change only if both people commit to working on the big issues," says Coleman.

Saltz recommends veterans of the breakup, makeup carousel take time to think about why they've been there so long in the first place. "The key is in recognizing that there is a pattern," she says. "You need to elucidate what the draw of this relationship really is for you." Some on-off cyclists, she explains, repeatedly return to partnerships with flaws that mirror those in their own parents' marriage, which they've unconsciously internalized as fundamental to any relationship. If your mother took her cheating partner back over and over again, you may be inclined to do the same. "Just the awareness of that can help you step out: 'Oh, my gosh, this is really me being my mother, and I don't want to recapitulate her love story,' " says Saltz.

Another way to decide whether to fish or cut bait for good, Coleman says, is to take as long a view as possible. By forcing partners to consider the implications of "forever," so-called fast-forwarding scenarios may make them less likely to acquiesce to the temporary high of being "on" again with a problematic mate.

Since casting aside her most recent drama-ridden relationship, Laura has decided to steer clear of the dating world for a while. She sees her new freedom as a chance to step back and contemplate how to avoid the trap in the future. "The whole love industry makes you feel like you have to be in a relationship all the time, but right now I'm just taking some time to figure things out," she says. "I truly am happy on my own." —Elizabeth Svoboda

Breaking the BreakUp Cycle

On-again, off-again couples often find themselves caught between their desire for freedom and their fear of regret. Here's how to decide whether to sign on for the long haul or get out for good.

  • Adopt a worst-case-scenario mindset. Many perpetual boomerangers keep returning because they assume they can change their partner's worst habits. But that's wishful thinking, psychotherapist Toni Coleman says. "You have to assume that the behaviors you see will get more entrenched and worse over time. Ask yourself, 'If that turns out to be the case, would I still want to be in this relationship?'"
  • Seek advice from a trusted third party. Therapists fill the bill nicely, but family and friends can be just as helpful. Because they don't have as much invested in your partner as you do, they can provide unbiased opinions as to whether smooth sailing is in your relationship's future.
  • Take a time-out. In an on-again, off-again pairing, hiatuses are par for the course. But resolve to make this one different. Use the emotional distance to think clearly about what you want from a long-term relationship. Make a list if it helps you organize your thoughts. If your partner doesn't measure up, make the hiatus permanent.