Relationships proceed in different ways. Some people feel intense attraction from the first date and know right away they want to put their energy into building a relationship.
Others experience more of a dull flicker than an igniting spark. Still, they have enough interest to pursue a few dates and see what happens. This relationship might take longer to get going, but once it does, it burns just as brightly.
What about relationships that seem to die completely, only to reignite again … and again?
On-and-off relationships are actually pretty common. Findings from various studies suggest anywhere from about 30 to 60 percent of dating young adults have some experience with on-and-off relationships, also known as relationship cycling or churning.
On-and-off relationships do work for some people, but more often, this pattern causes plenty of emotional distress. Discovering what fuels the break-up-make-up pattern can help you determine whether you want to address these issues or say goodbye for good.
Why they happen
Breakups aren’t easy, especially when one or both of you don’t feel entirely ready to move on. You might have an even harder time cutting ties if you share a home, children, or resources. As you navigate the breakup, you might decide it’s easier to stay together and try to make things work.
Other common causes of on-and-off relationships include:
- Life challenges. You really care about them but occasionally need to call things off because you find it hard to balance a relationship and the demands of your life. When things get easier, you get back together.
- Incompatibility. You have great chemistry but rarely agree on anything. Regular disagreements around a few major issues push you apart, but your attraction keeps pulling you back.
- Uncertainty around what you want. You have a lot of fun together, but the relationship doesn’t provide everything you need. You call it quits, but that doesn’t seem right either. Time apart emphasizes how much you care for them, so you decide to give it another try.
- The grass wasn’t greener. One or both of you wanted to date more casually or date someone else specifically. When this doesn’t quite go as planned, you conclude you were better off together.
- Communication issues. If either of you struggles with open communication or conflict resolution, it might seem easier to break up than talk through problems as they come up. Absence might make your heart grow fonder and lead you to renew the relationship. It won’t resolve those issues, though, so you might just break up again.
- History. You’ve invested years in each other, sharing experiences, thoughts, and feelings. It’s understandable you don’t want to feel as if you wasted that time. If you feel comfortable together despite your differences, it might seem simpler to renew your relationship than put in the time and effort needed to start over with someone new.
Once you’ve identified what might be behind the on-and-off nature of your relationship, you can get to work on breaking the cycle.
When they can work
On-and-off relationships have something of a bad reputation. It’s certainly true this pattern often develops in toxic or troubled relationships, but this doesn’t always represent a less-than-ideal situation. Sometimes, an on-and-off relationship might be exactly what you want.
Say you spend part of the year in another city for work and don’t want to maintain a long-distance commitment. Or, maybe you have too much happening in your life to sustain a relationship, so you have an understanding with your occasional partner that your relationship is “on” when you have the capacity for romantic involvement.
The chances of an on-off relationship succeeding typically depend on the factors causing the repetition. Cycling that happens as a result of unproductive communication or hurtful behavior probably won’t last long-term or do your emotional health any favors in the meantime.
In short, a continued pattern of on-again off-again can work when it meets the needs of both partners and when it doesn’t cause distress.
If this style only works for one partner and the other goes along because they don’t want to lose them, that’s a different story entirely. This uncommon situation might not end the way either partner hopes.
When they don’t work
The break-up-make-up cycle can cause a lot of distress.
Research suggests people in on-and-off relationships tend to experience:
- less relationship satisfaction
- lower levels of commitment
- less partner validation
- more frequent arguments and conflict
- communication difficulties
- relationship uncertainty
Relationship stress, more often than not, tends to overflow into other areas of your life, like work, social life, or taking care of your own needs.
It may be worth doing some careful consideration of the relationship if you notice the following:
You’re giving up things that matter
Say you break up after a key relationship disagreement, like where to live or when to have kids. After a few weeks apart, you may miss them desperately. You know you want to spend your life with them, so you decide you’d rather make a few sacrifices than lose them altogether.
Healthy relationships often involve some sacrifice and compromise, yes. That said, one person shouldn’t make every sacrifice. Both partners should collaborate to find a good solution. If you’re the only one giving way in order to reconcile, you might end up frustrated and resentful as you realize just how much your sacrifice meant to you.
Most people can work on improving communication or certain habits, like failing to help out with household chores. It’s far more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve relationship satisfaction and happiness by altering or compromising your own needs.
Toxicity or abuse
They were also two times as likely to report physical abuse in the relationship, and 50 percent more likely to report verbal abuse.
Study authors were simply looking for an association between relationship conflict and churning, not suggesting one causes the other. The link between the two, however, does appear significant, though it can suggest a number of scenarios.
Say you’re dating someone who doesn’t treat you very well. When you decide to leave, they don’t seem to want to let you go. They call and send texts, apologizing, explaining how they’ve changed, and assuring you they’ll never make the same mistake again.
You accept their apology and return to the relationship. While they certainly could have changed, it’s also possible this cycle might continue to play out, slowly wearing down your self-esteem and resilience.
It’s never okay for a partner to:
- make all the decisions in the relationship
- control your words and behavior
- keep you from going to work, spending time with loved ones, or seeing your healthcare provider
- threaten pets and children
- destroy belongings
- blame you for their behavior
- take or control your money
- pressure you to have sex
- go through your phone and computer without permission
It’s best to talk to a therapist or advocate right away if your partner does any of these things, or you:
- feel generally uneasy and unsafe
- find yourself altering your behavior to keep them happy
- believe they might hurt you if you don’t do what they ask
Our domestic violence resource guide can help you take the first step.
Making the decision to stay or go
Matters of the heart are often hard to resolve. You want to believe your feelings for someone will help you overcome any relationship challenges, but this doesn’t always happen.
These tips can help as you consider the best path forward, whether that’s giving the relationship another chance or ending the cycle for good.
Get clear on what you really want
One benefit of on-and-off relationships? They often provide clarity on what you need.
Maybe the “off” phase allows you to realize the type of relationship you want. Does your partner generally come through on these needs, or do you just enjoy the rush of emotions you get when you reconnect?
It can help to start by making a list. This doesn’t need to be specific pros and cons about them, but instead, it can be of qualities you’re seeking and behaviors you won’t accept. This exploration can help you identify some areas for growth and lead to a productive conversation.
If the only real issue fueling your breakups is a desire to see other people, it’s worth considering you may not want a long-term monogamous relationship.
In a polyamorous, or non-monogamous relationship, you might maintain a primary relationship with one partner while pursuing a few more casual relationships. Non-monogamy may not work for your current partner, but a conversation is still a great place to start.
Make sure you’re both on the same page
It’s not uncommon to fall head over heels for someone and start a relationship before you fully know each other. Somewhere down the line, you might start to realize you have different goals, hobbies, core values, or schedules.
These issues aren’t always impossible to overcome, but they can lead to conflict unless you talk them through. Prefer to avoid conflict? That’s another key ingredient in the recipe for an on-off cycle.
A conversation can shed some light on whether your personal values and hopes for the future align. If they don’t match up, moving on may be a better option than investing more time and effort into a relationship that won’t satisfy you long-term.
Identify key issues
Not all relationship issues can be resolved. Even when you love someone, incompatibility can still prohibit the possibility of a successful long-term relationship.
Maybe you have different emotional needs, hobbies that keep you from spending time together, or vastly different sexual needs. You might not want to make changes in these areas, even if you could.
When you find yourself revising your core identity to make a relationship work, it’s usually more helpful to consider whether that relationship is really best for you.
Relationship cycling doesn’t always stem from problems within the relationship, either. Mental health concerns can prompt this pattern, like:
- relationship anxiety
- bipolar disorder
- the emotional turmoil that occurs with some personality disorders, including borderline personality disorder
When you feel distressed, you might crave the comfort a romantic partner provides. At the same time, you feel overwhelmed, stifled, or guilty because distress keeps you from reciprocating this emotional support.
As a result, you might push them away, triggering a breakup you don’t actually want. Maybe you don’t want to be alone, but you aren’t in the right space for a relationship, either.
If you want to stay together
Don’t care for the back-and-forth? You can take steps to stabilize your relationship, but this will likely require some dedicated effort.
You and your partner can tackle some of the work on your own. After identifying key issues to work through, a good next step might involve setting clear boundaries for conversations and communication.
- Avoid shouting.
- Take breaks in separate rooms when you feel upset or the conversation becomes unproductive.
- Avoid having serious discussions when tired or stressed.
- Use I-statements instead of casting blame.
- Keep it honest.
- Share emotions openly.
If you’ve already tried to resolve your issues and didn’t make much headway, it may be time to add a couple’s counselor to your team.
A therapist is trained to help you identify problems, set and respect relationship boundaries, and build healthy communication skills. Therapy also offers a safe space to practice these strategies.
If you want to break the cycle
A closer look at your relationship might lead to the conclusion that leaving it “off” is the right choice for you.
These tips can help you stick with your decision to end things and move forward.
- Go no-contact. Nothing says you can’t have a good friendship in the future, but it’s wise to spend time apart for now. Skip the texts, calls, and hangouts when you feel lonely. Reconnecting when you still miss them and feel vulnerable is a surefire way to kick the cycle off again.
- Take a short break from dating. Getting back out there might seem like a great way to get your ex out of your system, but you may want to avoid pursuing anything serious until you know you’re really over them. If you’re not quite ready, you might find no one feels right.
- Work with a therapist. Therapy can help you recover from any serious breakup, but it can be particularly beneficial for healing distress associated with a turbulent cycle of breaking up and getting back together.
The bottom line
People renew relationships with ex-partners for many reasons. Maybe you worry you won’t find anyone else, or you want the time you’ve invested in the relationship to mean something.
However, maintaining a relationship on these grounds isn’t fair to either of you. Instead of thinking about the years of the relationship as “wasted time,” try to reframe them as an experience that taught you more about what you need from a relationship, gave you some great memories, and helped you grow as a person.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.