A friend, Jim, recently asked me for advice about his relationship. He said his girlfriend broke up with him because she perceived him as too controlling. After putting in some work to try and better himself, he and his girlfriend have decided to try and make it work again. She agreed that he has clearly demonstrated growth and has made an effort to improve, and has decided to give him that second chance.
Jim asked me a question that a lot of have faced in the past: “What’s the likelihood that this relationship will last?”
This kind of relationship is called an on-again/off-again relationship, also known as a cyclical relationship. This is when a couple has broken up at least once before and then gets back together. Cyclical relationships are fairly common, with nearly two-thirds of adults in one study indicating that they have experienced an on-again/off-again relationship at least once in their lifetime.
What do we know about on-again/off-again relationships?
The quality of cyclical relationships generally tend to be lower than noncyclical relationships. What does that mean, exactly? People in cyclical relationships report having more conflict and experiencing more aggression from their partner, while also experiencing less validation and understanding from their partner. They also report experiencing less love, sexual satisfaction, and satisfaction of needs like companionship or emotional involvement from their partner. If these couples decide to get married, the lower satisfaction tends to carry over into the marriage as well.
Break-up periods in cyclical relationships (“off-again”) tend to last an average of 1-2 months. When couples are off-again, partners take fewer measures to maintain their relationship when compared to couples who break up and don’t get back together, even though partners in cyclical relationships are more likely to keep in touch.
As off-again couples get closer to becoming on-again, they ramp up efforts to renew and maintain the relationship to ensure that they get back together.
6 ways on-again/off-again relationships stress us out
There are six specific stressors that couples in on-again/off-again relationships report dealing with.
Doubts and disappointment: Couples get hopeful that it’s going to work this time around, but the reality is that, for the majority of cyclical couples, it’s not. The buildup of hope comes crashing down when things don’t work out.
Emotional frustration: There’s a lot of ups and downs in a cyclical relationship, with perceptions of commitment and satisfaction changing all the time. These fluctuations can be really draining. Instability is a hallmark of these kinds of relationships, and it brings with it a lot of really bad feelings.
Uncertainty about your relationship status: When cyclical couples break up, many partners report being unsure whether they are actually broken up, or just on a temporary break (Ross and Rachel style).
Ambivalence or mixed feelings: There is a lot of inconsistency. The fluctuations in emotions and relationship quality lead to moments where you’re really into each other and moments when you’re sick of each other.
Judgement from your social network: When you break up once, you tell your family and friends about it. They form opinions about your partner and will have opinions about you getting back together. Some will be more likely to express those opinions to your face than others.
Unbalanced expectations: Partners may have different perceptions of the relationship. This may lead to dissatisfying moments for one person when their partner doesn’t live up to their expectations.
While couples in on-again/off-again relationships generally report being less happy and satisfied in their relationships, it seems that people in these relationships are more tolerant of these fluctuating experiences. While noncyclical relationship partners find change to be uncomfortable, change is comforting or exciting to cyclical partners.
Why do broken-up couples get back together?
One study asked cyclical couples why they decided to get back together after they broke up, and people gave many distinct reasons.
The most common reason was that they had lingering feelings for their partner. When couples break up but both still have feelings for each other, it can be hard to move on and they may feel compelled to start their relationship back up.
Next was for companionship—after breaking up, partners felt like being together was better than being alone. Similarly, they may have broken up but realized that the alternatives weren’t any better than their former partner. There is also a comfort in being with someone familiar, so instead of finding someone new and getting through that difficult initiation period, they got back with their partner again.
A partner may also feel like they’ve put so much into the relationship that they owe it to the relationship to give it another try. Another reason is feeling like their partner was “the one” and the person they ultimately wanted to marry, so breaking up was just a temporary setback.
Partners may also feel like they wanted to make it work and that ultimately their problems could be worked through if they would just get back together. Sometimes one partner isn’t coping with the breakup particularly well, and that makes the other person feel bad for them, compelling them to try and make it work.
Someone may feel like their partner changed and put in the effort to fix issues that made them break up in the first place. They may also have changed their perceptions of any relationship issue(s) that made them break up, or about the relationship as a whole. This may also lead them to feel like breaking up was a mistake in the first place.
Sometimes breaking up was just a function of a couple’s circumstances at a time, like living far apart, and now that barriers have been removed, they can continue in their relationship.
Should you get back together?
Some of the reasons given above feel like pretty decent reasons to get back together. Your partner may deserve a second chance if they’ve worked on themselves or have made a substantial effort to improve. Maybe the timing of your relationship was just not right, like needing to move for school or work. Rekindling a relationship that ended for external reasons can be a good idea.
But some of those reasons… are less great. Feelings aren’t the only thing that should be driving the decision to stay together. Sometimes, you just aren’t compatible! A relationship is more than just feelings and attraction, and it’s important to be logical about your chances of relationship success when that’s all you have going for it.
Breaking up is really hard when you both still care about and love each other. But this is a moment when you need to rely on your support system to help you get through it and not let you turn back.
Giving your relationship an extra shot is probably okay—second chances may be successful, or they may just provide the closure you need to move on for good. But if you’re going back for a third or fourth time, you may want to rethink that choice—even if you do end up staying together, your relationship satisfaction may be low compared to what you’d find in a noncyclical relationship. Sometimes it just isn’t meant to be!
Renee Dailey, Brittani Crook, Nicholas Brody, and Leah Lefebvre, Fluctuation in on?again/off?again romantic relationships: Foreboding or functional?. Personal Relationships. 2017
Renee Dailey, Alexa Hampel, and James Roberts, Relational maintenance in on-again/off-again relationships: An assessment of how relational maintenance, uncertainty, and commitment vary by relationship type and status. Communication Monographs. 2010
Renee Dailey, Abigail Pfiester, Borae Jin, Gary Beck, and Gretchen Clark, On?again/off?again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships? Personal Relationships. 2009
Renee Dailey, Kelly Rossetto, Abigail Pfiester, and Catherine Surra, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2009
Renee Dailey and Alexander Powell, Love, sex, and satisfaction in on-again/off-again relationships: Exploring what might make these relationships alluring. Journal of Relationships Research. 2017
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.