Fluctuations are often a normal occurrence in romantic relationships. In fact, fluctuation can occur in even the most flourishing and healthy relationships. When a relationship feels flat, this can provide couples with a time to reassess their priorities and find ways to strengthen their relationship. Part of what stabilizes fluctuations in relationships is a concept called constraints. As we have explained previously constraints can be negative or positive. Positive constraints can include building a life together and having children, but many people choose to lock themselves in before making a choice to be dedicated to their relationship. As individuals in relationships become more committed, there are more constraints that may contribute to that couple staying together.
Have you felt that maybe you have experienced periods in your relationship when things were really good, mushy gushy and passionate? But in that same relationship felt like things were a bit more difficult? Breathe, this is fluctuation. We have pondered as a research team how relationships may be affected by relationship fluctuation. We wondered whether relationship fluctuation changed the dynamic of the relationship or if it impacted the satisfaction and/or longevity of the relationship. It is important to understand that fluctuation is not a steady increase or decrease, but what they refer to as “ups and downs” (Knopp et al., 2014).
As a research team, we read an article called Fluctuations in Commitment Over Time and Relationship Outcomes written by Kayla Knopp and her colleagues at the University of Denver. The purpose of this article was to find if fluctuations in relationships lead to a greater likely hood of dissolution in relationship satisfaction and increased the likely hood of break ups. We wonder what factor fluctuation plays in relationship dissolution and the decision to stay or go. This article discussed previous research found on commitment. Research has found that if there was greater fluctuation over time regarding how we view our partners level of commitment this can increase the possibility of breaking up (Knopp et al., 2014). What hadn’t been researched is whether or not one’s own fluctuation of commitment effects relationship outcomes. Essentially this article focuses less on what one may perceive their partners commitment, but the way one views their own fluctuation of commitment. This is the important part, fluctuations in relationships does not predict relationship dissolution.
The study found that if individuals were uncertain about the level of their commitment they were more likely to consider breaking up (Knopp et al., 2014). The study also stated “However, fluctuations in dedication over six time points were not significantly related to the likelihood of actually breaking up over the following year, regardless of whether we controlled for dedication’s linear slope and initial level”
So here is the difference between these findings. If someone is uncertain or wondering if they want to be in the relationship with that other person, leaving that door half open to other potential partners, they are more likely to consider breaking up. Regarding fluctuation, if there are times in the relationship where maybe things are difficult, or it seems like the “bickering” has increased, or decreased, this is not a predictor of relationship dissolution. This is a great point to highlight. Even though there was fluctuation in dedication and commitment to the relationship, it doesn’t necessarily lead to breaking up. A key point to understand is that even though a relationship isn’t always laughing, and smiling, it doesn’t mean the relationship is going to end. Social media and movies do not provide a good portrayal of “real life” relationships and often send the message that if you fight in your relationship, the relationship will not last.
Relationships can be exciting, fun, and euphoric, but it’s important to be realistic that two people cannot always agree. However, disagreements are normal and as long as both partners are committed to making the relationship work, fluctuation doesn’t have to be detrimental to the relationship. Something perhaps even more important than healthy communication is the commitment to making the relationship work. Commitment to another person is the glue that keeps the relationship together.
On and Off Again
Have you been in a relationship that resulted in breaking up and getting back together, perhaps more than once? This is what researchers call on/off again relationships, or cyclical relationships. Research has shown that those who experience an indirect dissolution, perceive the relationship as terminated. Ambiguity can create great confusion in romantic relationships, leaving one partner uncertain about the status of the relationship (Dailey et al., 2009).
It is important to note why these on/off again relationships take place. In a 2009 study by Dailey and her colleagues they found that some of the reasons for on/off again relationships included the following:
- Geographic Distance
- Partners Schedules
- Disapproving Family or Friends
Another important question is why do these individuals get back together? The research has found that when one partner presumably still wants to reconcile a relationship while the other partner doesn’t, they are more likely to be in a cyclical relationship. This idea relates to asymmetrical commitment and being a strong link in your relationship. This article written by Dailey et al. discussed cyclical and non-cyclical relationships and the comparison regarding relationship satisfaction. Research found that those in cyclical relationships with more renewals, were more likely to report lower levels of validation by their partner, less love for their partners and lower satisfaction in the relationship (Dailey et al., 2009). Ultimately couples in cyclical relationships exhibit less dedication to their relationship.
The Difference Between Fluctuation and On/Off Again Relationships
It is important to understand the difference between these two ideas when it comes to romantic relationships. Fluctuation in relationships can be a normal part of a relationship dynamic. When it becomes problematic is when we view our partners level of commitment as fluctuating. It is normal to experience “highs and lows” in a relationship, but the important factor is the intentional commitment and dedication to making the relationship work.
It can be difficult to understand when a relationship is dissolving, so people often jump to conclusions or end the relationship prematurely to lessen the blow of feeling hurt. Clinically I have seen couples view their relational conflict in a very negative way and assume that their relationship cannot improve. I believe what is more important though is to continue to work through those moments and stay committed. I believe this is especially important if the couple has children together.
Regarding on/off again relationships, research indicates that those in on/off again relationships report lower levels of satisfaction and lower levels of commitment in the relationship. Relationships that are on and off (also called cyclical relationships) tend to be a result of comfort and familiarity, but is this the best reason to stay in a relationship? Research indicated that these relationships are likely to continue as a cyclical relationship, so it is important to identify what you feel like you need out of a relationship.
There are certainly valid reasons to end relationships especially when abuse or chronic infidelity is taking place. However, for married couples most divorces are categorized in what researchers have called low-conflict relationships. These are individuals who often report that they have “fallen out of love”, when in reality they have made a conscious decision to stop loving each other. If this applies to you I would encourage you to consider what you and your partner were doing while you were in love, and then make the efforts necessary to being for committed to each other. Fluctuations can happen to any couple, but for couples that want to be together for the long haul they need to remain dedicated to their relationship and find ways to strengthen it.
- Dailey, R. M., Crook, B., Brody, N., & Lefebvre, L. (2017). Fluctuation in on-again/off-again romantic relationships: Foreboding or functional?. Personal Relationships, 24, 4, 748-767.
- Dailey, R. M., Pfiester, A., Jin, B., Beck, G., & Clark, G. (2009). On-again/off-again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships? Personal Relationships, 16(1), 23-47.
- Knopp, K., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S., Owen, J., & Markman, H. (2014). Fluctuations in commitment over time and relationship outcomes. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 3, 4, 220-231.
- Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Kelmer, G., Scott, S. B., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. (2018). Unequally into “us”: Characteristics of individuals in asymmetrically committed relationships. Family Process.
Hi my name is Taylor Lupo. I am a first year graduate student in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at NIU. I love to hang out with my friends and golf in my free time. I also enjoy cooking and learning new dishes to make. I hope to continue to write blog posts, writing on future publications and being involved with future research surveys and focus groups!