Does Your On-Again, Off-Again Relationship Have a Future?

Want to stay together? Research reveals how to achieve relational permanence.

Posted Mar 31, 2018

Phovoir/Shutterstock
Source: Phovoir/Shutterstock

With so much in life that is uncertain, many couples draw support from the stability of their relationships. Bonding together, they navigate their ups and downs as a team.

Yet not everyone achieves (or desires) relational permanence. And among those who seek relational stability, many fail to achieve it. Most couples experience ups and downs and engage in some amount of conflict resolution. As time goes on, partners discover new ways to communicate and negotiate, often strengthening their bond in the process.

For Some Couples, Breaking up Is Not Hard to Do, But It's Easy to Undo

In some pairings, when conflict strikes, couples would rather break up than make up. Accordingly, these relationships actually stop and restart, based on the (often temporary) dissatisfaction of one or both partners. Individuals involved in such relationships experience uncertainty and anxiety during the time they are split up and wonder if the state of their union is destined for durability or dissolution. 

The answer depends on their mindset during the separation and the degree to which they are willing to actively invest in the relationship. 

Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Or, Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder?

Some couples seem to “break up” after every major fight. Yet the separation is predictably temporary. After a period of time apart, the partner who jumped ship (this time) recognizes the impulsivity of his or her actions and seeks to reunite. In relationships where both partners routinely retreat to their respective corners in response to relational discord, they eventually cool off and conclude they are better together.  

One feature of cycling relationships is lingering thoughts. Instead of out of sight, out of mind, couples that break up frequently maintain romantic thoughts and feelings for their temporary ex-partner — which leads to reconciliation. Many couples caught in this cycle, however, wonder if there is a way to smooth out the rocky road and forge a permanent path forward. 

If you are caught in a cyclical pattern with a partner who would rather take a time-out than talk, research suggests that relational maintenance behaviors may pave the way towards a positive future. 

The Dynamics of Relational Recycling 

Dailey et al. investigated the relational impacts of breaking up and reconciling within romantic relationships. In a study aptly named “On-again/off-again dating relationships” (2009), they found that couples who broke up and reconciled were less likely to report positive relationship characteristics (such as receiving love and understanding from partners) and more likely to report negatives (such as uncertainty and miscommunication) than couples who had remained together.[i]  They further found that the more breakups and renewals, the less reported relational positives and greater negatives. 

Why do couples break up and reunite? Interestingly, Dailey et al. found that the answer reflected internal relational dynamics. Rather than external forces, such as geographic distance, challenging schedules, or disapproving family or friends, they found that internal factors, such as commitment and relational satisfaction, appeared to distinguish cyclical relationships from those that were non-cyclical.

The Role of Relational Maintenance Behaviors

In a subsequent study, Dailey et al. (2010) focused on relational maintenance behaviors, because on-again/off-again relationships involve continued communications after each breakup.[ii]

In a sample of 487 participants, they compared on-again/off-again (cyclical) relationships with non-cyclical relationships. They found that, as predicted, partners in on-off relationships engaged in fewer maintenance behaviors than partners in non-cyclical relationships. Yet they also discovered that contrary to their predictions, on-off relationship partners did not engage in more relational maintenance behaviors in the post-dissolution phase, as compared to partners who did not have a history of renewing their relationships.

Their study also yielded reports of some specific behavioral examples. In comparison with steady relational partners, intermittent partners shared that they were less patient, less cooperative, and even less polite conversationally with their significant others. They also reported being less likely to include their partner within their social networks.   

Dailey et al. noted that decreased attention to relational maintenance might explain the multiple breakups that on-off partners experience in their relationships. Because maintenance behaviors support relational stability, expending less effort on this important component makes it harder to achieve relational solidarity. 

The Role of Uncertainty

More recent research by Dailey et al. (2012) focused on perceived stability in on-again/off-again relationships.[iii] One of their findings was that couples whose relationships continued to cycle between periods of being together and apart reported a higher level of uncertainty, suggesting relational ambivalence.

The 2012 study polled 177 individuals who were in or had been in an on–again/off-again relationship, with the number of breakups and renewals ranging between one and six. They focused on couples that were in cycling relationships, as distinguished from couples whose relationships were stable or dissolved. Among other things, they found that couples within the cycling group reported more behaviors geared toward relational maintenance, ineffective conflict resolution, and lingering feelings. 

The Steps to Staying Together

Taken together, these studies seem to suggest that for couples seeking relational commitment and permanence, actively engaging in behavior designed to sustain relationships will yield the best return on your investment. 

References

[i]Rene´ M. Dailey, Abigail Pfiester, Borae Jin, Gary Beck, and Gretchen Clark, “On-again/off-again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships?” Personal Relationships, 16, 2009, 23–47.

[ii]Dailey, Rene M., Alexa D. Hampel, and James B. Roberts. 2010. "Relational Maintenance in On-again/Off-again Relationships: An Assessment of How Relational Maintenance, Uncertainty, and Commitment Vary by Relationship Type and Status." Communication Monographs 77, no. 1, 2010, 75-101. 

[iii]Rene ́ M. Dailey, Ashley V. Middleton, and Erik W. Green, “Perceived Relational Stability in on-Again/off-Again Relationships.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 29, no. 1, 2012, 52–76.