Have you ever seen an on again off again relationship up close?
These are couples that have dramatic breakups only to reconcile and reunite a few days later. The typical drama-saturated on again off again relationship is emotionally chaotic and rarely endures.
According to several studies, on again off again relationships are pretty common. Somewhere between 30% to 50% of adult daters reporting breaking up and getting back together with their current partner and over 60% reporting a similar pattern in a previous relationship that finally remained in the “off” position.
All aggravation aside, new research tells us that on again off again relationships directly impact mental and physical health. According to a recent study, on again off again relationships are distressing to the nervous system and can promote serious mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Some couples go through a break-up and reunite with a more robust commitment.
In these cases, a single event on again off again experience can be beneficial and is not necessarily an indication of a serious underlying problem.
For many couples, breaking up precedes a period of reflection and post-traumatic growth.
The couple may realize the importance of their intimate bond. This contributes to a “healthier, more committed union,” says lead researcher Kale Monk, Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri in the US.
“On the other hand”, warns Monk, “partners who are routinely breaking up and getting back together could be negatively impacted by the pattern.”
Patterns of the on again off again relationship are hard on the nervous system because these couples are not able to emotionally regulate themselves, or help to co-regulate with their partner. They don’t typically employ softened start-ups or make regular repair attempts. They also tend to reject what few repair attempts are made.
This emotional roller-coaster increases adrenaline and cortisol levels in the brain.
Monk’s research shows that couples who are trapped in a chronic on again off again relationship may experience higher levels of anxiety and depression, which in turn, reinforces the very negativity which fuels the on again off again dynamic.
It’s a vicious circle of negativity and reactivity.
Monk’s study noticed that the on again off again dynamic was often more driven by pragmatic concerns that re-commitment to the on again off again relationship.
The lack of commitment and the tendency to be open to a “better deal” with a different partner also fuels discontent.
Often, couples remain together for purely financial reasons. Some partners also report that they feel that they have invested far too much time and energy in the relationship to give it up permanently.
Monk suggests that during the off-again phase, partners should reflect on their degree of commitment and less on selfish, pragmatic advantages. “Why do we keep doing this? is a good question for these couples to work on together.
“If partners are honest about the pattern, they can take the necessary steps to maintain their relationships or safely end them. This is vital for preserving their well-being,” Monk advises.
Emotional dysregulation and chronic bickering are bad for your physical and mental health. The research suggests that these partners should ponder the reasons they keep breaking up. Are there consistent or persistent issues impacting the on again off again relationship that never get addressed?
Here are 3 Practical steps:
(The only exception here is a pattern of domestic violence. Having a conversation with a violent perpetrator on intimate terrorism can lead to safety concerns. Get appropriate help from support-services, and have a safety plan).
Remember that it is always okay to end a dangerous or emotionally abusive relationship. If you’re in a non-violent but “unfixable” relationship, have a conversation with your partner about what you need and why. Ask yourself…what’s my bottom line?
Here’s two final thoughts that the research brought up:
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.
We schedule three double sessions with you in total. You complete an extensive online relationship questionnaire. In that final meeting, we spend almost two hours with you explaining, from a science perspective what's working in your relationship, what's not, and how to fix it.
It's all done online, either week-by-week or over a weekend.