The Harms of Being In and Out of a Relationship

New research shows what such relationships do emotionally, and what can help.

Posted Aug 30, 2018

MinDof/Shutterstock
Source: MinDof/Shutterstock

Do you have a pattern of breaking up and making up with your partner? If so, you’re not alone: Research finds that 60 percent of adults have experienced on-and-off relationships. No surprise: that’s a frequent storyline of movie and TV relationships.

But have you ever thought about how that pattern affects your mental health? Or, what it may reflect about yourself and the kinds of relationships — or partners — you seek?

If so, what might you need to know about building a sustaining, positive relationship, one that supports mental health and well-being for yourself and your partner?

New research from the University of Missouri sheds some light on these questions. It finds that the back-and-forth relationship pattern has a negative impact on mental health. Specifically, the data from over 500 people in current relationships found that such a pattern was associated with increased anxiety and depression. Moreover, the researchers found that the breaking up-and-reuniting pattern was associated with higher rates of abuse, lower levels of communication, and poorer communication.

Kale Monk, the lead author of the study, published in Family Relations and described here, pointed out correctly that people who recognize themselves in this pattern need to “look under the hood” to figure out what they are doing in their relationships. Doing so, however, can be difficult, even frightening, as most people who seek therapy for themselves or as a couple can attest. And then, what you can actually do to break the pattern and create a lasting relationship is another major challenge.

The authors of the study offer some good advice, such as examining the why’s and how’s that led to breaking up, and emphasizing that you should focus on the positives in the relationship, in order to reconcile permanently. Of course, that assumes the relationship hasn’t become toxic and inherently unhealthy. 

The problem is that following the author’s advice is easier said than done. But there are some ways to engage with a partner with self-awareness and openness that can strengthen the likelihood of a sustainable, positive connection.

For example:

1. Review and learn from what you’ve done in previous relationships. What draws you to partners? What led to the breakup — or reconnection? What have you’ve learned, or haven’t? I call this doing a “relationship inventory.”

2. Practice “forgetting yourself” in the relationship. That means becoming aware that your relationship is a third entity that needs to be served and serviced in its own right. That’s a different perspective and way of relating from serving just your own needs and desires, especially when that triggers domination or submission from either you or your partner.  

3. Learn to be transparent with each other. Show your own — and be receptive to your partner’s — desires, fears, hopes, and vulnerabilities. If you commit to doing that, you’re planting the seeds for growing intimacy and a sustaining relationship — one that becomes stronger over time, rather than a revolving door.