How Healthy Are On-Again/Off-Again Relationships?
Make-ups and breakups create a roller coaster ride of love, pain, and passion.
Posted Feb 28, 2014
“I keep on fallin’ in and out of love with you. Sometimes I love ya, sometimes you make me blue. Sometimes I feel good, at times I feel used. Lovin’ you darlin’ makes me so confused.” –Alicia Keys
When we think about how romantic relationships work, we probably think about the classic trajectory: Two people meet, they form a relationship, and as time passes they decided to either stay together or breakup. Such a straightforward path certainly reflects many people’s experiences, but the search for love is often a much more convoluted, conflicted, and confusing journey. So we ask this question: How healthy are on-again/off-again relationship?
By some estimates, over 60% of people, at one time or another, have experienced the complicated relationship trajectory that defines an on-again/off-again relationship (Dailey, Pfiester, Jin, Beck, & Clark, 2009a). Instead of having a clean breakup, on-again/off-again relationships take a cyclical form, involving a series dissolutions and renewals. Couples breakup and then make-up, then breakup and make-up again, establishing a routine roller coaster of intimacy, hurt, passion, and loss. Why does this cyclical pattern happen?
The breakup. People in on-again/off-again relationships often initially break up because of conflict, personal characteristics of the partner or self, general relationship dissatisfaction or stagnation, or wanting to date somebody else (Dailey, Rossetto, Pfiester, & Surra, 2009b). These breakups typically lack the clear and open communication that characterizes the kind of negotiated farewell common in permanent breakups (Dailey et al., 2009a).
The reunion. After the breakup, on-again/off-again couples decide to renew their relationship for any number of reasons, such as: lingering feelings, beliefs that their ex may be “the one,” missing the companionship that comes with being in a relationship, or wanting that comfort and familiarity of the relationship (Dailey, Jin, Pfiester, & Beck, 2011). Sometimes they discover it’s hard to find other dating partners out there, making them more interested in reconnecting with their ex (Dailey et al., 2009b). In general, people in on-again/off-again relationships have a lot of doubts and disappointments about the relationship, are frustrated with the situation, and have a great deal of uncertainty about their relationship status (Dailey et al., 2011).
How healthy is this pattern? Some evidence suggests that a pattern of separations and reconciliations is toxic to both relationship and personal well-being. The more frequently couples cycle back and forth between being together and being apart, the more their relationships tend to deteriorate to involve negative interactions, less satisfaction, and less commitment (Dailey et al., 2009a). This suggests that breakups and make-ups might add a degree of stress to an on-again relationship that isn’t present in non-cyclical relationships. Meanwhile, breakups are incredibly difficult, associated with psychological distress and decreased life satisfaction (Rhoades, Kamp Dush, Atkins, Stanley, & Markman, 2012). Despite the potential joy of a reunion, repeated breakups bring a great deal of stress into a person’s life.
If we’re trying to understand whether on-again/off-again relationship are healthy, we should acknowledge that they’re not all the same. Some evidence suggests that on-again/off-again relationships sort themselves into two primary types (Dailey, Jin, Brody, & McCracken, 2013). The first, called the capitalized-on-transitions type, describes a couple that makes the most of changing circumstances, letting transitions serve as tests or opportunities for relationship improvement. For example, a breakup might allow for the growth that enables a healthy relationship after reunion. The gradual separation type engages in the on-again/off-again pattern with hopes and expectations, but ultimately this pattern gives way to a final breakup.
The extent to which on-again/off-again relationship are healthy seems linked to these types. People who work at their on-again/off-again relationship and openly negotiate transitions into or out of the relationship tend to be more satisfied in their relationships, and outsiders tend to approve of these relationships more (Dailey et al., 2013). This coincides with a capitalized-on-transitions approach to a relationship, suggesting that some change (i.e., breakup then reuniting) can be positive. However, many people have conflicting emotions when it comes to their on-again/off-again relationship experiences. They might care about the other person, but the relationship leaves them wanting. Instead of severing the ties completely, they imagine what the relationship could be, and participate in a reunion that then leads to realization and another breakup. Such on-again/off-again relationships often end in breakup, suggesting that the gradual separation type is fundamentally less healthy than the capitalized-on-transitions type.
Should couples reunite after a breakup? In the end, if a couple leaves open the possibility of reunion post-breakup, evidence suggests the couple could benefit from openly discussing the relationship transition, communicating freely and honestly about their individual needs and desires, and using a post-breakup period to evaluate how it feels to live separate lives. Such an evaluation might acknowledge that even good-decision breakups can be incredibly challenging (Rhoades et al., 2012). Based on the negative relationship dynamics associated with repeated cycling (Dailey et al., 2009a), after more than one breakup, couples might pause before initiating a reunion in order to carefully weigh the advantageous of another renewal against a consideration of their own emotional well-being and the many possible paths towards a healthy and stable relationship.
Dailey, R. M., Jin, B., Brody, N., & McCracken, A. A. (2013). A dimensional approach to characterizing on-again/off-again romantic relationships. Interpersona: An International Journal on Personal Relationships, 7(2), 196-214.
Dailey, R. M., Jin, B., Pfiester, A., & Beck, G. (2011). On-again/off-again dating relationships: what keeps partners coming back?. The Journal of Social Psychology, 151, 417-440.
Dailey, R. M., Pfiester, A., Jin, B., Beck, G., & Clark, G. (2009a). On‐again/off‐again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships?. Personal Relationships, 16, 23-47.
Dailey, R. M., Rossetto, K. R., Pfiester, A., & Surra, C. A. (2009b). A qualitative analysis of on-again/off-again romantic relationships:“It’s up and down, all around”. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26, 443-466.
Rhoades, G. K., Kamp Dush, C. M., Atkins, D. C., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Breaking up is hard to do: the impact of unmarried relationship dissolution on mental health and life satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 25, 366-374.