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Why Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

What we know about chronic on-and-off relationships.

You probably know someone – maybe it’s even you – who has gone in and out of relationships frequently. First it’s on, then it’s off; again and again. It may be with serial partners – first, a really positive connection; then suddenly uncertain, and a pulling back; and then, more back and forth. Or, the pattern may be with the same partner: breaking up, then returning. As in the lyrics of Neil Sedaka’s classic song, they may lament, “Think of all that we’ve been through…breaking up is hard to do!”

There are many reasons for chronic relationship indecision. Therapy can help when or if someone wants to delve into what they’ve been doing in their relationships and learn what can help them create a more lasting connection with a partner. That’s important, because we know from clinical experience that on-and-off relationships can harm your mental and physical health. Some recent research provides empirical evidence for that, and other studies indicate reasons why some remain locked in that repeated pattern.

Once in It, Keep Going

A joint study from the University of Toronto and Western University found that when a relationship isn’t going well, some will tend to just stay with it, despite any negative thoughts and feelings about it. As lead researcher Samantha Joel described the findings, “when people are faced with a relational fork in the road, the path that leads to a long-term relationship seems easier than the path that leads to singlehood.”

In other words, there can be a pull toward settling for the relative comfort or convenience of a continuing relationship, even when it’s not working well, and even when they know it’s not the person they want to be with, or want to stay with. One man in this 40s who consulted me remarked that even as he was walking down the aisle, years ago, his inner voice was telling him, “I don’t want to be here.”

According to this study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, it can just feel too difficult for some to leave. We see this in therapy: A man or woman who continues in a relationship that’s long since entered the dead zone, or was never fully “alive” to begin with. Facing that, or simply realizing that it’s best for both parties to end it, can arouse feelings of guilt, anger toward oneself, or fear. All of which inhibits acting upon what they know to be true. They may stay, in deepening unhappiness. But as a sage wrote, “Sometimes one must choose between a life of imaginary comfort…or a life of truth.”

The Mental Health Impact

Those who chronically toggle between being “in” and “out” of a relationship experience greater levels of anxiety and depression, as well as increased vulnerability to physical illness. I’ve posted about that here, but it’s helpful to see empirical evidence as well. For example, a study from the University of Missouri found that an on-again, off-again relationship has increasingly negative mental-health consequences. The negative impacts can linger for more than a year, and include a range of anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as poorer communication and less life satisfaction overall.

These mental health consequences are understandable, especially when the person doesn’t confront and learn from what he or she is doing that fuels their pattern. Doing so would include learning more about what they seek in a relationship, and the kind of partners they gravitate toward.

There's a mind-body connection here as well: Back-and-forth relationships are related to higher levels of inflammation – a risk factor for physical illness and increased mortality. One study from Denmark focused on middle-aged men who were living alone and had had several relationship breakdowns. Though limited to men, these research findings link with an overall pattern among both men and women: Repeated back-and-forth is damaging to both mental and physical health.

Steps Toward a Healthy Relationship

The key is increasing your self-awareness and self-knowledge about how and why you seek the relationships you do. I’ve written about the value of doing a “relationship inventory.” That can help you awaken to past relationship failures, what you need to learn from them, and what you need to aim for — or avoid — going forward. Therapy can help, of course. But it takes work to examine your emotional drivers, fears, traumas, and other experiences that you might want to ignore or avoid.

We all have a tendency to avoid unpleasant truths about ourselves. But for some, the latter becomes an increasingly rigid shield. Relevant, here, is some research from the University of Antwerp, which looked at ways in which people can deceive themselves. The study found that people use several strategies to engage in self-deception in everyday situations. The researchers described the variety of ways in which people try to preserve and protect their self-image, and their sense of who they want to believe they are. In short, you can fool yourself, or shield yourself from any truth or insight about yourself that’s threatening or that scares you into thinking that the self-image you need or want to keep afloat may crumble. Hiding from yourself will contribute to relationship conflict and dissatisfaction in general, not just chronic indecisiveness about being “in” or “out.” And then you continue along the same path, avoiding or denying any information or experience that might disrupt your self-image. Yet such disruption is necessary to learn and grow self-awareness, and that’s the basis of building a healthy, sustainable relationship and greater well-being overall.

Copyright 2022 Douglas LaBier.

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