On-Off Couples Should Stop Recycling Romance, and Call It Quits

PHOTO: Sarah says her on-off relationship includes at least 20 breakups and makeups in nine years.
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Sarah has gone back and forth, breaking up and making up with her boyfriend about 20 times in nine years. "Actually, it was probably more," she says.

When the 48-year-old Florida editor talks about this on-again/off-again romance, she describes it more as a series of three-to-six month mini relationships over a near-decade span.

"He did disappearing acts," says Sarah, who prefers to use only her middle name here, of her longtime partner. "But then he'd come back in a big way. For him, the early flush of the relationship was best, so it was repeated again and again. It's like a carrot and a stick. I thought surely we were going to come out into the next cycle, which we did. On and on."

While this ricochet routine might seem extreme, the on-off dynamic is common, says Amber Vennum, an assistant professor of family studies at Kansas State University. Surveying college undergrads, Vennum found that of the 43 percent who said they were in a romantic relationship, 40 percent had broken up and made up at least once. In larger, national follow-up studies that included older couples who were either living together or married, she found a similar on-again/off-again pattern.

"It seems pretty consistent," says Vennum, whose findings echo those of communications professor Rene Dailey at the University of Texas at Austin. "We tended to see two to five renewals as pretty common," says Dailey.

Stressful and dramatic as these push-and-pull liaisons can be, the psychology behind them is quite simple.

"People reach a threshold of tolerance," says Jonathan Alpert, a New York psychotherapist and author of the forthcoming "Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days." "They push each other away, but then they miss the positive aspects of that person while looking the other way at the things that drove them apart. They miss each other. They feel lonely. They seek relief from the void. But it's kind of scary to go out there and meet new people, so they get back together and repeat. It's easier just to go back and sort of recycle their man or their woman."

But when it comes to recycling, they might want to stick to paper.

On-off couples, Vennum finds, experience less satisfaction, more uncertainty and more disillusionment in their relationships than their noncyclical peers. "[Cyclicals] were feeling the relationship was going downhill -- 'my partner is not as wonderful as I thought they were going to be,'" says Vennum. Cyclicals also tend to be more impulsive when making major decisions in the relationship -- and frequently make bad ones, Vennum finds. And they often communicate poorly.

"If there's any chance of the relationship working out, people need to talk and generate some new ideas," says Alpert. "Otherwise, they're just sweeping the problems under the rug, which is what most people do."

Sarah, for example, can't even say why her partner disappears, or returns, but she suspects he cheats on her when he's gone. "He leaves, and he's incommunicado," she says. Two summers ago, she recounts, while the two were in rupture mode, "he came around, and all of a sudden we're back together. He was not disappearing. He was available every day. It was different for about a year, maybe a little less.

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