How On-again/Off-again Romantic Relationships Can Be Harmful To Your Future

How On-again/Off-again Romantic Relationships Can Be Harmful To Your Future

Have you ever wondered why someone has a pattern of breaking-up and getting back together with their romantic partner? Although rekindling a relationship that you once had may be comfortable and familiar, it also poses detrimental consequences for future relationship stability. In a time where many people turn to dating apps such as Tinder for love, it is not that uncommon to experience relationships that lack commitment. Among emerging adults (18-29 years-old), it is natural to feel uncertain in developing relationships because boundaries are often undefined. Individuals who have experienced relationship cycling, also commonly referred to as on-again/off-again relationships, are more likely to experience lower satisfaction and greater uncertainty than non-cycling relationships. In support of these claims my fellow research team members and I recently read a research study conducted by Dr. Charity E. Clifford and her colleagues entitled Testing the Impact of Sliding versus Deciding in Cyclical and Noncyclical Relationships. This study published in 2017 focused on the correlation between relationship talk avoidance (not defining the relationship) and relationship satisfaction. The results of their study indicated that the more committed you are to your relationship the less likely you are to make quick decisions regarding your relationship future.

Partners that make intentional decisions about their relationship and communicate about their future goals have better outcomes than ones that do not. With that being said, it is important when preparing for our future that we take the time to understand the difference between sliding versus deciding. Sliding versus deciding is essentially the difference between passively making a choice that just seems right at the time and actively choosing to make well informed decisions. To learn about sliding versus deciding you can watch as an excellent 4 minute video. Couples that engage in sliding behavior are more willing to make decisions without thinking about the consequences. For example, moving in with your boyfriend or girlfriend may seem like a good idea at first, however it is a lot harder to get out of that relationship if you have “locked yourself in” by living together. In on-again/off-again relationships you might decide to get back together with an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend without thinking about why you broke up in the first place. Whatever the reason, the relationship ended because it wasn’t functioning in the way one or both partners wanted it to be. Being in an on-again/off-again relationship can feel like riding a roller coaster, and the pattern of breaking up and getting back together creates confusion since each partners commitment to the other frequently wavers.

Partners may choose to slide verses decide when they feel that seeking clarity could be detrimental to their current relationship. For example, one might not seek to define a relationship because it could put pressure on their significant other to make a choice. Instead of seeking clarity in their relationship through communication, they choose to avoid the conversation all together. Like Dr. Amber Vennum at Kansas State University, Dr. Rene M. Dailey at the University of Texas at Austin has published a great deal about on-again/off-again relationships. For example, you can learn more about these types of relationships in a 2009 study published by Daily and her colleagues entitled On-again/off-again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships? This article suggests that instead of ending the relationship completely, some couples choose to lessen their commitment to each other without officially breaking off their relationship. By doing so, their relationship status is even more ambiguous than before. This is very common in cyclical relationships because there lacks a clear beginning and end to the relationship, which means that couples feel more comfortable ending and renewing the same relationship as often as they choose. Clifford and colleagues (2017) explain further:

“Due to the previous ending of their relationship, cyclical partners may be more likely to fear that clarifying their partners’ relationship status expectations and dedication to the relationship will result in a bad outcome” (p. 235).

Instead of speaking up about what they want out of their relationship, partners may choose to avoid talking about their relationship altogether in fear that it might lead to an inevitable break up. By avoiding conversations about where the relationship is headed, it is much easier to slide in and out of that relationship with the familiar partner, this is called relationship talk avoidance.  The avoidance of defining specific goals within a relationship is extremely destructive because it leaves each person unsure of their partners intentions. According to research, partners who avoid relationship talk (defining the relationship) may be at increased risk for being together even when there is a lack of satisfaction in the relationship (Stanley & Rhoades, 2009). The absence of relationship talk can create feelings of uncertainty in whether a partner is in it for the long haul or not. Since they neglect talking to their partner, they remain in a state of limbo about their future.

Marriage and Children

The lasting impact of past on-again/off-again relationships can lead to future problems during marital transitions. Even if the partner who they cyclically dated is not the same as they are marrying, the consequences of sliding in and out of that relationship carries uncertainty into even the biggest of commitments: until death do us part. Whether you or someone you know has been in an on-again/off-again relationship, it is important to know that relationship cycling is detrimental to the future of all relationships that follow. A research study titled The Impact of Premarital Cycling on Early Marriage by Dr. Amber Vennum and Matthew D. Johnson. Like other research studies have highlighted, the decisions that we make in our relationships early on can influence our relationship future later on in life. As explained by Vennum and Johnson (2014):

“Six months after marrying, cyclical partners reported greater conflict and uncertainty and less closeness and satisfaction than newlyweds without a history of cycling and these lower levels of satisfaction were sustained over the first 5 years for cyclical couples. Although premarital cycling does not ‘tell the whole story’ of how satisfied a newlywed couple is in their marriage, cyclical couples tend to be less satisfied than couples without a history of cycling even after accounting for the level of destructive conflict, whether their friends and family approve of their marriage, and depression symptoms.” p. 447

Perhaps even more concerning about couples that frequently break-up and get back together is the impact that this can have on children. The research is clear that instability in the couple relationship (i.e., conflict, separation, divorce) can have a substantial impact on the healthy development of children (e.g. Amato, 2010). It can create great confusion, frustration, and distress for children not knowing the current status of their parent’s (or primary caregivers) relationship. Imagine what that can feel like for a child that overhears their mother or father threatening to leave. Children greatly benefit from the consistency, safety, and security that committed relationships can provide. Not to mention, the way parents choose to behave in their relationships can impact generations. If you have had a child or children with your partner it is especially important to find ways to strengthen the relationship, and to overcome obstacles that you may be facing.

Communication is a key to the success of any relationship. Without it, it is much harder to gain the security you need to build a long lasting connection. Talk to your partner frequently, about anything and everything, so that you create a strong foundation for a long lasting relationship. Research indicates that a couple of the ways that you can strengthen the commitment in your relationship is to focus on the friendship with your partner, and to actively plan for the future to together as a couple (Sibley et al., 2015). As explained in a recent blog post by Stanley (2018):

“Commitment is about making a choice to give up other choices. It’s about deciding. Clear decisions anchor commitments, and the timing of those clear decisions often matters. In contrast, sliding through key moments is letting stuff happen to you, and it can result in losing options before making a choice.”

Perhaps after reading this blog post you recognize that you have personally had a tendency to cycle in your relationships. Be more thoughtful and intentional in the decisions that you make in your relationships. Recognize ways in which you can become a more patient, loving, and supportive partner. Instead of focusing on what is wrong with your relationship, consider emphasizing what is right in your relationship. If you feel that you and your partner are struggling to overcome the problems you facing consider taking a relationship education course, or to attend couples therapy. If your relationship truly is important to you, do what it takes to strengthen it, fortify it, and protect it from the storms of life.


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