Relationships

Why So Many People Fall into On-Again, Off-Again Relationships

Research reveals the pull of cyclical relationships—and who's at risk.

Posted Jul 23, 2019

LightField Studios/Shutterstock
Source: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

Romantic break-ups are typically replete with grief, misery, and self-negativity (Boelen & Reijntjes, 2009). Yet for some couples, breaking-up is part of their relational pattern. They get together, time passes, things aren't working, they break-up...and then they try again. Maybe it'll be different this time—and maybe it is!—but it's often not. On-again, off-again, on-again, off-again. Relationships with a history of breaking-up and getting back together are what relationship scientists call cyclical relationships.

On-Off, On-Off, and Repeat

Cyclical relationships are fairly frequent. Recent data obtained in a survey of 279 same-sex and 266 different-sex couples suggests that about one-third of lesbian, gay, and heterosexual relationships have at some point broken-up and renewed their relationship (Monk, Ogolsky, & Oswald, 2018).

It's puzzling. Why do people repeatedly return to the same relationship when it doesn't seem to be working? Is it something magnetic about the relationship? Is it something about certain people? Or is it something altogether different, like structural forces that might encourage people to be together and prevent them from easily leaving?

What's the Pull?

A growing body of research has tried to figure out why people renew their relationships after breaking up. Here's what we know:

  • It's not because of their relationship quality. Relationships with a break-up history are not of higher quality than non-cyclical relationships (Dailey & Powell, 2017). It's a logical hypothesis: maybe the love, emotional connection, and general satisfaction experienced in some relationships compel people to keep going back to them. This doesn't seem to be the case; in fact, consistent evidence shows that relationships with a cycling history are of lower quality than non-cyclical relationships (Dailey & Powell, 2017).
  • Lingering feelings re-start relationships. Even if the intimacy, passion, and love while dating isn't as strong as non-cyclical relationships (Dailey & Powell, 2017), what happens when a couple breaks up could be the reason they stay together. After a break-up, feelings of love, nostalgia, and concern for a former partner can continue. For some people, these lingering feelings are enough to try and renew the relationship (Dailey, Jin, Pfiester, & Beck, 2011)
  • Cyclical relationships aren't more fulfilling. People aren't in cyclical relationships because they fulfill more psychological and relational needs than relationships with no cycling history (Dailey & Powell, 2017). Quite the contrary: The evidence suggests that cyclical relationships are less effective at meeting people's intimacy, emotional, sexual, and companionship needs, compared to relationships with no break-up history.
  • Attachment anxiety is not a risk factor. A study of approximately 200 people in relationships (half of whom were in cyclical relationships) showed no evidence that people were more or less likely to be in an on-again/off-again relationship as a function of their attachment style (Dailey et al., 2019). More tests of these hypotheses are needed, but this initial finding suggests there are features other than attachment style that explain involvement in cyclical relationships.
  • Loneliness is a motivator. Leaving a relationship often means entering a phase with less ready companionship. For some people, the desire not to be alone is motivation to return to a former partner (Dailey et al., 2011).
  • How people view sex could be part of the story. Some evidence suggests that people in cyclical relationships place a higher value on the passion and the sexual component of their relationship than people in non-cyclical relationships (Dailey & Powell, 2017). Evaluations of passion and how well a relationship meets physical needs also appear to be stronger predictors of relationship satisfaction for people in cyclical versus non-cyclical relationships (Dailey & Powell, 2017). The odd thing? These findings were observed even as cyclical relationships tend to be worse at fulfilling sexual and physical needs than non-cyclical relationships.
  • Believing in "soul mates" isn't a factor. Some people approach relationships as a search for "the one" (i.e., they hold destiny beliefs) while others believe that relationships develop with work (i.e., growth beliefs). Contrary to expectations, a recent study showed no difference in destiny or growth beliefs between people involved in cyclical versus relationships with no break-up history (Dailey et al., 2019). In other words, how you think about love—as fate or as work—doesn't appear to predict involvement in a cyclical relationship.

In sum, as much as we know about the quality differences between on-again/off-again relationships and relationships with no break-up history, we still know very little about the reasons people are involved in cyclical relationships. The reasons do not seem to rest on individual differences in relationship expectations, given no observed differences in attachment orientations and destiny and growth beliefs (Dailey et al., 2019), but it could be worth focusing on what happens after a break-up. If lingering feelings and need for companionship are reported reasons for why people renew, maybe some people experience break-ups differently than others. Could individual differences in managing rejection or navigating loneliness help explain on-again/off-again relationships? Could it be better or easier for some people to stay in not-so-great relationships than have to be alone, even for a little while?

Also of interest, and requiring empirical attention, is the broader context of on-again/off-again relationships versus those that break up and end for good (and those that have no history of a break-up). Could friends, family, or simply proximity forces (e.g., maybe you see each other regularly at work; you live in the same neighborhood) keep some couples renewing, while others have an easier time saying goodbye?

References

Boelen, P. A., & Reijntjes, A. (2009). Negative cognitions in emotional problems following romantic relationship break‐ups. Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 25, 11-19.

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., & Powell, A. (2017). Love, sex, and satisfaction in on-again/off-again relationships: Exploring what might make these relationships alluring. Journal of Relationships Research, 8.

Dailey, R. M., Zhong, L., Pett, R., Scott, D., & Krawietz, C. (2019). Investigating relationship dispositions as explanations for on-again/off-again relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Advanced online publication.

Monk, J. K., Ogolsky, B. G., & Oswald, R. F. (2018). Coming out and getting back in: Relationship cycling and distress in same‐and different‐sex relationships. Family Relations, 67, 523-538.