’m generally a decisive person. If I find an apartment I love, I won’t continue to shop around. If I stumble upon a great idea, I’ll pitch a story right away. If there’s a toxic friend in my life, I’ll distance myself as necessary. But when it comes to romantic relationships, I’ve never had a clean break or a clear-cut ending.
I’ve been fascinated by on-again/off-again relationships for years, both for my own sake and because it seems like so many people have trouble with the question, “Should I stay or should I go?” Of my closest five friends, only one of them has not been in an on/off relationship to my knowledge. Breaking up and reconciling feels common.
In my case, I’d hypothesize that my emotional side and logical side are at odds with one another during the breakup process. Historically, I’ve always pulled the plug a little too quickly, well before my emotions have had time to accept the outcome. As a highly logical person, my instincts usually tell me to end a relationship when it’s clear it won’t work out. But as a highly emotional person, “clear” isn’t always 100 percent clear, and I tend to take that teeny, tiny seed of doubt and run with it. I miss my ex! Maybe this was all a mistake! Sympathetic to my emotional side, my logical side starts to concoct ways the relationship could possibly work. Cue a psychological tug of war, days of testing-the-water texts and even possible reconciliation.
In a moment of confusion, I did a little digging into the canon of scientific research on relationships and found that there’s a huge body of research on steady relationships and clear-cut breakups, but there’s surprisingly little about on/off couples and people who might be prone to these kinds of relationships. Eventually, though, I did find one researcher who finds this phenomenon as fascinating as I do: René Dailey, PhD, an associate professor in the department of communication studies at the University of Texas, Austin.
I asked her to please send me all the studies, and she also agreed to chat with me about how many of us were breaking up and making up and why we were doing it. Here’s what I learned.
On-Again/Off-Again Relationships Are Common
According to Dailey’s research, breaking up and getting back together is pretty common. “Based on our population of college students, almost two-thirds had experienced an on-again/off-again relationship at some point,” she says. “Of those who were currently dating someone, 25 percent had been on-again/off-again. When you look at a person’s most recent relationship, the number may be as high as 40 percent.”
When she’s interviewing or surveying young men and women about their rocky relationships, a core question always comes up: Why do you go back? “A lot of times they say they are really drawn to this certain partner,” she says. “We’ve also discovered that they sometimes don’t know how to resolve the central conflict in their relationships, but they’re still attached.”
Dailey has explored the big reasons for this and tested some hypotheses. There doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation with personality, she says. “Those in cyclical relationships might be slightly higher in neuroticism or anxiety about relationships, but it’s not a strong link.” They also don’t seem to cling to the “destiny” hypothesis more than others — a.k.a., the starry-eyed view that you’re “meant to be” with one person in particular, instead of the idea that you could be happy with many potential partners. So, why are these breakups happening?
Explanation #1: Communication Issues
Dailey has found that couples who end up in on-again/off-again relationships don’t have strong conflict resolution skills, so arguments escalate to separation instead of finding a suitable outcome for both parties. In addition, they maintain contact after the breakup, and sometimes these folks report that their relationships actually improve after the romantic split. They’re also more inclined than other people to have sex after the relationship is over and let’s face it, re-stirring oxytocin with an ex confuses just about everyone.
Some of her research even suggests that those prone to on/off cycles might actually maintain their relationships through frequent cycling, viewing breakups as temporary in nature — as in, I’ll go back when this cools off.
Explanation #2: The Grass Isn’t Always Greener
Another reason for the breakup-makeup cycle has to do with alternative options, according to Dailey. For example, someone may think, I can’t wait to date other people after we’re over! or, I can’t wait to hang out with friends and do whatever I want! But upon actually doing those things, he or she may discover the grass isn’t, in fact, greener and may want to get back together with their ex.
Explanation #3: Friends Do Not Approve
Since relationships don’t exist in a bubble, Dailey and her colleagues have also explored whether or not people’s friends have anything to do with breakup and reconciliation patterns. She found a link: On/off folks tend to be more open with their close friends about their relationships (all the good and the bad things), which equates to less support overall for the pairing. Like the Spice Girls once insisted, “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.” On/off partners are less likely to pass that social litmus test.
Explanation #4: Feeling Uncertain About the Whole Thing
Perhaps most interesting, Dailey found in a 2011 study that compared to relationships that remained stable or ended cleanly, on/off relationships often ended with loose ends and uncertainty. Some interviewees in Dailey’s study reported feelings that I’ve also had about my on/off boyfriends: They don’t know where the relationship is going or how invested the other person feels, so they end it. “These people have lower relationship quality, they feel more uncertainty about the relationship, and they have less overall love for their partner,” Dailey explains.
Maybe these couples aren’t waiting long enough to see how things will actually play out. Maybe they cut the cord too quickly, or maybe they have a lowered ability to tolerate uncertainty. In any case, a lot of these breakups come down to self-doubt and not knowing what’s up.
My Personal Takeaways
There’s still a lot to learn in the research world of on-again/off-again relationships. Dailey and I discussed the role of technology in keeping on-again/off-again relationships afloat, as well as longer timelines to commitment and marriage in the modern age, giving a couple more chances to break up and get back together. However, in delving into the existing research, I learned some pretty major personal lessons.
For people like me, peacing out at the first sign of trouble is probably a sign we’re avoiding conflict instead of dealing with it. A breakup is not a resolution to a problem if you just plan on going back. In addition to that, whenever us on/offers are not totally sure how our partners feel about us or where the relationship is headed, it is likely best to wait for some clarity before calling it quits. If these variables are super murky, our brains might convince us that rekindling is worth another try, because the relationship and its outcomes are still ambiguous. But while we can always initiate breakups, we can’t always take ‘em back.
In my experience at least, partners may be less trusting, less emotionally open and less likely to fully invest in the relationship again after a sudden split. Next time, I plan to take five before I decide to cut the cord.
There’s Still Hope
On a more hopeful note, Dailey does note that if a brief split happens, it can still be rectified with intentional work. Dailey told me that the research shows couples who “capitalized on transitions” by being “more explicit in discussing the problems when they got back together” had relationship quality that was on par with those who had not cycled at all. In the end, relationship success is mostly about growth and good communication over the long-term, not about never making mistakes at all.
So, the next time the devil on your shoulder tempts you with tantalizing thoughts of a breakup or a makeup to solve all your problems, pause and think if that’s actually a legitimate solution. The angel might be chilling just inches away on your other shoulder, ready to bring you to your less conflict-avoidant senses.
Collage by Madeline Montoya.