On-again, off-again relationships

You’ve been here before: You’ve recently broken up with your partner, but you’re not sure it’s over. You try being friends, but it always leads back to dating. Each time you get back together, you try to make it work and you still have feelings for your partner, but you wonder if a better relationship out there for you. Here are a few things that my research team and I have found about on-again/off-again relationships that may help you decide whether to keep trying or whether it’s time to move on — permanently.

Couple back to back

When to stay “on” and when to get “off”

Trying to be friends after breakups


Some partners try to be friends after breaking up. Some may be friends because they hope for a renewal; others may be leery to completely close the door on the relationship in case they can’t find better partners. Many of those who try to be friends after breakups find it difficult to define the new relationship, though. A lot of uncertainties go along with this. For example, some partners wonder how much they should see each other, whether they are allowed to date other people, and what activities are off-limits now that they are no longer dating. Although losing the friendship as well as the romantic relationship is difficult, trying to be friends after the breakup may complicate the breakup process.

The more renewals, the less satisfying the relationship

Those who have experienced more breakups and renewals report less satisfaction, more conflict, more uncertainty about the relationship and less support for the relationship from friends and family. The on-off partners who do report more satisfaction say that the on-off nature of the relationship helped improve the relationship; the breakups and renewals gave them a chance to work on themselves or the relationship. These partners also report fewer renewals. Hence, these couples resolved their problems earlier in the relationship and stopped the cycle of breaking up and renewing. So if you’ve tried to make it work but the relationship seems to take a step backward each time you renew (or at least not improve), chances are the relationship probably won’t get better.

Making the relationship more stable

Even if your relationship has gone through several renewals, the lessons from those who have stopped the cycle of breaking up and renewing may still apply. Change something about the relationship. Discuss new rules and norms. Talk about how to resolve issues that led to the breakups or how to improve the relationship. Don’t just hope that the relationship will be better the next time around.

Ending the relationship… permanently

If you’ve decided that you want to move on:

  • Explicitly discuss terminating the relationship with your partner. Don’t leave the status of the relationship ambiguous or hint at a potential reconciliation.
  • Find closure. Renewals are less likely to occur if both partners initiate the breakup — in other words, if both partners want the relationship to end.
  • Date other people. Renewals are less likely if partners date other people after breaking up with their on-off partners.
  • Stop contact if possible. Sometimes, you have to remain in contact with your ex-partner — for example, if you work together or you are in the same group of friends. Minimizing this contact, however, may help with all of the above.

In sum, our research suggests that on-off relationships are not always unhealthy. For many couples, the cycling pattern turns into a downward spiral. But for some, the breakups and renewals offer opportunities to improve the relationship. Still, if this doesn’t occur within the first couple of breakups/renewals, getting the relationship on a more positive, and stable, track may prove difficult — and ultimately, impossible.

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