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

Couples who break up and make up repeatedly have less-satisfying relationships.

March 26, 2012 — -- 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.

"While I was appreciating the fact that he was being more 'normal,'" she says, "I was replaying the previous six or seven years, and just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was quite tense. I couldn't sleep because of back pain. I wasn't allowed to talk to him about what went before -- those were things like infidelity."

Then she found condoms, which the two don't use, stuffed inside a sock. "To me, that was a conversation starter," she says. "It almost seemed like he was trying to put something out there -- either he has a dedicated lover on the side ... or he's open to hookups, or sending me a message to back off."

Once they begin, these cyclical patterns can be tough to break, says Roland Hinds, the host of TruVue Relationship Radio in Los Angeles and author of "Are You the Right One for Me?" Although Hinds, 45, counsels others on how to end destructive relationships, he doesn't hesitate to admit he's had his own share of them himself.

"I dated a woman on and off for two years," he says. "Her initial pattern was to become emotional and combative when she became deprived of attention. She always felt she was competing with my clients." So he stopped speaking to her for months. Then came her phone call from out of the blue, and they were back on. "She apologized and assured me things would be different."

Within months of their getting back together, "she returned to default with a vengeance," says Hinds. "It was like working overtime in my relationship. I had to be firm and sever all ties and tell her we shouldn't contact each other again, ever. I think she thought I was joking at first. I told her I would not accept her calls, nor answer any texts."

Texts, Twitter, and Facebook only compound the difficulty of getting an ex out of your life.

"You can pretty much stalk someone by sitting in front of your computer," says Alpert, the New York therapist. "In the old days, you would do a drive-by their house on a Friday night and see if the light is on, oh, they're home. But Facebook has become today's version of a drive-by. You know if they're dating someone, you know if they're out. If they're vacationing you see the pictures. There's just no escaping."

Which only adds to the ambiguity as to whether a couple has actually split up. "They declare a breakup, but then they have continued contact," says University of Texas researcher Dailey, who studies the breakup strategies of the on-offs. "It's this reluctance to stop contact with the person. They strategically kind of leave the door open, whether it's conscious or not."

Sometimes it's a sunk-cost fallacy that keeps the cyclicals from quitting. "Because you've put so many years in, you're afraid to walk away, and you're just going to continue putting years in," Sarah says. "I took him on as a project. He would be a prize when I brushed him off."

But people are only capable of so much "remodeling," something Atlanta native Aimee, 34 -- who also asked to keep her full name out of this -- realizes as she muses on her own seven-year/five-breakup roller coaster ride of a romance that began at a gas station. "Each feels the other needs to change," she says. "He lives in a box. He won't go anywhere. He doesn't have a romantic bone in his body. He's a neat freak," she says of her boyfriend. "Buying me flowers because I complain I never get them? That's not going to work for me. I want flowers without my mentioning that he never does anything romantic," she says.

"I'm tired of being a girlfriend. Unless I'm getting a ring, I don't want to be with him," she says. "It's either a ring or nothing."

Aimee might want to hold off on that marriage ultimatum. Eternal boomerangers who've broken up and renewed a couple of times are more likely to separate, or divorce, say researchers.

"You see that breaking up is an option," says Dailey. "You have the pattern of getting out of the relationship."