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Is Romantic Reconciliation Worth the Effort?

On-off relationships are not an ongoing party.

"In a quarrel, leave room for reconciliation." —Russian proverb

"The worst reconciliation is better than the best divorce." —Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

The breakup of a romantic relationship is a serious event, one which typically has a devastating emotional impact on at least one, and often both, partners. Nevertheless, there are many instances in which couples break up and then renew their relationship with the same partner. Are we masochists of some kind, or do we just prefer the devil we know over the unknown?

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Romantic relationships are typically conceptualized by either togetherness or termination. However, in many cases, relationships can undergo a process of togetherness and dissolution with the same partner; these are referred to as on-off relationships.

Despite the emotional difficulties associated with ending a relationship, a surprisingly high percentage of couples break up and then renew their relationship with the same person. One study found that as many as 40 percent of the sample had gone through this process, with 75 percent of the respondents reporting at least two renewals with the same partner.

Most separated couples think about reconciliation, and it seems that reconciliation has some measure of success. Is such reconciliation based on ignorance, positive illusions, or the persistence of love?

People can hold two implicitly opposing theories about human behavior: (a) an entity theory, which assumes that human nature is stable and unchanged, and (b) a functional theory, which considers that human nature can to a certain extent change. The romantic beliefs associated with the first theory are those related to destiny and to notions such as "we are meant to be together"; the second theory gives rise to the idea that relationships must be nurtured.

Both theories are, to some extent, correct and incorrect. There are traits and circumstances which are very hard to change, and there are those that can be changed by investing effort. One of the differences between people concerns the extent and nature of the traits that can be changed. The relative measure of the stable and changeable traits is a crucial determinant of one's decision to stay in the relationship, leave it, or return to it once again.

Separation, rather than repair, is the direction to be taken when the negative traits are located within the stable zone. In this case, the partner is certainly not "the one and only." It seems that people are potentially disposed to pursue or abandon reconciliation efforts based in part upon their belief about the changeability of the partner's traits. Repair is worth pursuing when the prospects of change are significant.

Reconciliation is more complex than the initiation of a relationship or maintaining it, and the strategies that need to be used are generally not obvious. It seems that positive or neutral means are more successful than negative means for achieving reconciliation.

In a study about reconciliation strategies, the most common ones were explanation ("I would mainly tell him how I feel, what I think about him, and why I want to get back together"), setting the scene for reconciliation ("I would call him on the phone and say that I needed to see him in person"), an appeal to the nature of the relationship ("I would remind him of all the good times we've had together"), and filler statements ("I don't even think you know what you want").

Attempts at reconciliation typically occur as a result primarily of lingering loving feelings; other relevant features are uncertainty about what the preceding breakup indicated, not having dated others after the breakup, and feeling that the break could improve the relationship. Reconciliation attempts are more likely when the dissolution has been unilateral. In such circumstances, the presence of profound love on one end encourages a further attempt at reconciliation.

On-off relationships are certainly not an ongoing party. The breakup indicates difficulties that do not exist in non-cyclical relationships. Indeed, on-off partners report more negative aspects in the relationship (e.g., conflict ineffectiveness, relational uncertainty) and fewer positive aspects (e.g., relational maintenance, satisfaction, and commitment) than partners in non-cyclical relationships.

Despite these negative circumstances, which led the partners to the previous dissolution, they wish to try it one more time. This indicates that they still miss and love each other and that they are unhappy with the option of continuing the separation.

Renewals are more likely when the on-off nature yields a new perspective of the relationship that offers the chance of improvement. This is especially true when the dissolution was due to isolated events or to external circumstances. The fact that these events and circumstances were temporary in nature means that the relationship might stand a greater chance of flourishing in better circumstances.

To sum up, on-off relationships typically express a predicament concerning the value and future of the relationship. Alongside the difficulties, there is love (otherwise there would be no significant reason to renew the connection), and the fate of the relationship will be determined primarily by the nature of these difficulties.

If those difficulties are of a permanent nature, arising from essential aspects of the partners' personality, the prospects of the reconciled relationship are slim. If the difficulties arose more from external circumstances or isolated events, the prospects of the relationship are much higher. In the latter case, reconciliation is not merely worth the effort but is likely to forestall painful regrets in the future.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, as I know that the difficulties in our on-off relationship are due to your essential flaws, I do not see much potential in continuing it, but let me think about it a bit more, while you continue to keep that well-paid job you have."

More from Aaron Ben-Zeév Ph.D.
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