Why Are On-Again–Off-Again Relationships So Common?

3 min read

Romantic breakups are pretty much always characterised by grief, sadness, and a hit to one’s self-esteem. Yet for many couples, breakups are actually part of their relational pattern—they fight, break up, make up, and repeat. They believe “This time will be different”—and hey, sometimes they’re right—but mostly they’re only kidding themselves. And deep down they often know that, too.

Psychologists call this type of a relationship a cyclical relationship, and it’s certainly something I’ve heard about a lot over my years as a matchmaker working with countless clients—so today I thought I’d delve a little deeper into what’s really going on here.

On, off, repeat

A 2018 study found that no fewer than one third of couples have at one time or another broken up only to get back together. It’s puzzling for sure, especially if it’s not something you’ve experienced yourself. Why would someone return to a relationship when from an outsider’s perspective it’s clearly not working? Is there something magnetic about their partner only they can see? Does it speak to some deep psychological flaw in the person who keeps going back? Or is there another factor altogether, such as structural forces that inadvertently or otherwise discourage or disincentivise people from breaking up?

What does the research say?

A 2017 study confirmed that lower-quality relationships (as quantified by the couples themselves) are more likely to be cyclical. Of course, the question then is, Is the relationship low-quality because it’s cyclical, or does it become cyclical because the dynamic between the couple is just inherently low-quality?

The same study also found that lingering emotions are often enough to reignite the romance, depending on how the relationship ended. If feelings of love, nostalgia, and concern for one’s partner stick around, they’re more likely to get back in touch and try to make it work.

Again perhaps obviously, cyclical relationships are less fulfilling, worse than non-cyclical relationships at meeting people’s needs, be they sexual or emotional. Maybe more surprising is the fact that attachment anxiety is not a predictor of on–off relationships—but a person’s proclivity to loneliness does play a role, with people who are more fearful about the prospective aloneness of singledom more likely to go back to their ex.

Finally—and maybe most interestingly of all—the 2017 study found that people in cyclical relationships place a higher value on the sexual aspect of their relationships than people who don’t periodically break up and make up. Yet strangely, the researchers also found that cyclical relationships are worse at fulfilling a couple’s sexual needs than non-cyclical.

It doesn’t have to be this way

There’s still so much more research needed into the differences between on-again–off-again relationships and those without a history of breakups, including into why some people seem predisposed to finding themselves in such relationships. According to the two studies we’ve looked at today, certainly the reasons don’t appear to rest on individual differences in relationship expectations—so then maybe more research is needed into what happens to these people post-breakup. If people in cyclical relationships reported lingering feelings or a need for companionship as reasons for going back to their exes, maybe we’d find that those people were experiencing breakups in some fundamentally different ways. Alternatively, perhaps they ended up in those situations because they were psychologically less equipped to deal with rejection or navigate loneliness. Maybe it’s better (or rather, easier) for some people to stay in low-quality relationships than face the reality of singledom.

Whatever someone’s reasons for getting mired in a seemingly neverending cycle of break up–make up–repeat, it can be hard to quit a partner you may increasingly feel you’re simply ‘destined’ to be with, no matter the hardship of the relationship or how awful it actually feels to live that reality. But whether you yourself are trying to escape this unhealthy pattern or have been single a while and are ready to meet someone new—we can help.

Maclynn International is a boutique, multi-award-winning introductions agency with offices in New York, New Jersey, California, and London. We’re world-renowned for bringing together highly compatible singles within our vast network of attractive, intelligent professionals, and our matchmakers are relationship experts in their own right. Get in touch today!

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About the Author

Rachel Vida MacLynn

Founder & CEO

In 2011, Rachel took a leap of faith. Following a series of serendipitous events, she founded Vida (now known as Maclynn) in London and never looked back. Rachel is a Chartered Member and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and holds a Master’s degree in Occupational Psychology. Her own values around integrity, delivering the highest standards, inclusion, and self-empowerment are at the core of Maclynn’s unique matchmaking model. Described by clients as calm, compassionate, warm and wise, she continues to be fully immersed in the business, working with a select number of VIP clients. In recent years, Rachel’s personal life has focused on raising her two young sons with her partner, Jamie. Rachel has also achieved her personal goals of running the New York Marathon and reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro.

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