Have you ever been in a relationship where you have been with your partner, then broken up, and then gotten back together? Have you both done this more than once? If you have, you are experiencing something called “relationship cycling,” also known as an “on and off” relationship. Previously on this blog we have explored how on-again/off-again romantic relationships can be harmful to your future. Throughout this post, I will discuss the definition of a cycling relationship, the five types of cycling relationships, how cycling relationships differ from other relationships, and things you can do to avoid getting stuck in a cycling relationship and stay committed to your partner.
What are Cycling/“On and Off” Relationships?
The experience of one or more breakups and reconciliations with one’s romantic partner is called relationship cycling. This type of relationship is associated with psychological stress, such as anxiety and depression. A study by Vennum & Johnson (2014) showed that cyclical couples exhibited worse adjustment than noncyclical couples on various relationship indicators at the entrance to marriage and were more likely to experience a trial separation over the first five years. It is important to remember that cycling doesn’t just occur in dating relationships, it can also happen in marriages.
The Five Types of Cycling Relationships
Daily et al. (2013) identified five different types of cycling relationships through their research. In a study of 65 participants, 36 college students and 29 community members from a southwestern city were currently in or had been in an on-off relationship. Participants defined this as a committed relationship that had broken up and renewed at least once. If you are experiencing a cycling relationship, it may be helpful to reference the definitions below by Dailey et al. (2013) to be able to identify what type of cycling relationship you are in if you are in one:
- Habitual On-Off Relationships
This cycling relationship consists of breaking up and renewing without partners extensively processing the transitions, either internally or explicitly. These couples fall back into the same patterns of the relationship quickly, and some show apathy about the transitions. Participants in this pattern tended to note that either one or both partners merely wanted companionship, they had not dated anyone else after breakups and wanted to be in a relationship, or they returned to the relationship because it was convenient.
This cycling relationship included partners having different desires, being enthusiastic about or committed to the relationship at different times, or being at different life stages. One participant in the study stated, “He stopped telling me he loved me and stopped doing things with me that we really enjoyed”. Later the same participant said, ‘‘He fought so hard to get me back and made me feel so wonderful’’ Overall, partners in these relationships had difficulty in synchronizing their desires for the relationship, their personalities, their schedules, or their future plans. Often the transition negotiations reflected unequal involvement in the relationship. For example, one partner withdrew from the relationship at one time but showed a resurgence or renewed energy for the relationship at another time.
In this cycling relationship, partners sometimes strategically use transitions (often breakups) as a means of managing problems or to get the other partner to change. One participant expressed, ‘‘I think it was mainly because we needed to figure out what we had …. And I think the time apart and just going through it, we realized we really do need each other. And we really do love each other”. For other couples of this type, one or both partners tested the relationship. This is sometimes manifested in individuals testing their own commitment, the partner’s commitment, or whether the relationship was right for them. Overall, whether the partners strategically took breaks in the relationship or whether the times apart changed the partners or the dynamics of the relationship, this category represents couples in which the on-off nature facilitated a positive change in the relationship.
- Gradual Separators
In this cycling relationship, participants reported transitions that showed a pattern in which partners gradually drifted apart or had less interest in the relationship with each subsequent transition These couples moved toward more clarity in understanding the relationship was not going to last. Some partners realized their relationship was better off in a different way (For example: as just friends). For example, in describing the last breakup, one noted, ‘‘We were just like, let’s not bring up the relationship and the past and just try to hang out and have a cool time. Because we know each other pretty well, we just want to be friends and see what’s going on.” In this type of cycling relationship, the relationship gradually came to a more defined ending with more finality and closure. Partners eventually realized the relationship was not going to work or they were no longer interested in continuing the relationship.
In this pattern of cycling relationships, one partner tended to have more control over the progression of the relationship or was persistent in continuing the relationship. One participant described how he had to become more aggressive with each breakup because his partner was persistent in attempting a renewal. For example, regarding the couple’s third breakup, he stated, “I was very ugly to her. I said that I felt she was manipulative in the past. I kind of pointed out that she wanted a healthy relationship and to work it out again, but everything that she did ultimately was serving to create an unhealthy environment for her and for me. In discussing the general progression, he stated, ‘‘The next time, I’d have to one-up the previous time to prove that I was more serious this time’’. The transition negotiations within this type of cycling relationship reflect partners’ use of manipulation or persistence to control the progression of the relationship. The use of control tactics distinguishes this category from partners who were mismatched in their desires or commitment to the relationship and connotes a certain dysfunction in these relationships.
How are Cycling Relationships Different from Other Dating Relationships?
During an analysis of open-ended responses about relationship experiences, evidence was shown that on-off partners were less likely to report positives and more likely to report negatives than partners who had not broken up and renewed (Dailey et al. 2009). In a study published in 2022 study by Monk and colleagues, in their sample approximately 46% of men and 49% of women stated they had cycled with their partner. Of those cycling, men and women generally reported cycling approximately twice in their relationship. Of those whose decision it was to divorce or separate, women who cycled reported lower psychological distress, wheres men who cycled reported greater psychological distress (Monk et al., 2022). Also, while this blog mainly focuses on different-sex relationships, it is important to acknowledge that compared with individuals in same-sex relationships are more often more similar than different. However, it is also known that 34% of individuals in same-sex relationships and 33% of individuals in different-sex relationships reported a history of cycling (Monk et al., 2022).
One factor that may be related to renewals is the strategy used to dissolve the relationship. Perhaps on-off partners use more indirect strategies such as pseudo-de-escalation, a strategy that proposes reducing the intimacy in the relationship (Such as saying something along the lines of ‘‘Let’s just be friends’’, ‘‘Let’s take a break’’, etc.) (Dailey et al., 2009). Partners may employ strategies such as this when they fully intend to terminate the relationship or when they truly want to take a break and leave the possibility of renewing open.
There are different types of dissolution strategies that may be used to terminate the relationship. Below you can find the several dissolution strategies found by Dailey et al. (2009) that they found in their study:
- Direct Dump – The receiving partner has no chance to negotiate or repair the relationship
- Justifications – The partner that leaves provides an explanation for the relational dissolution
- Negotiated Farewell – Partners mutually realize the relationship should end; no blaming involved
- Pseudo De-escalation – One partner suggests taking a break, perhaps intending to terminate the relationship
- Blame Game – Partners blame each other; the relationship ends in conflict
- Cheating – Infidelity or physical contact with another person by the participant, partner, or both
- Relationship Had Run Its Course – The relationship had naturally come to an end; both knew the relationship would not work
- Trust Issues – Insecurity about the relationship; distrusting of the partner
- Lying – The participant or partner lied or gave a false impression of themselves
Throughout my undergraduate degree, I heard about all types of dissolution. Ranging from “It was his/her fault!” to “Yeah, we just decided to be friends” to “I think we just need space.” I have dealt with direct dumping, pseudo-de-escalation, and justifications. Being dumped by someone is certainly not easy. According to Sprecher et al. (1998), the breakup of a close relationship can be one of life’s most emotional experiences. This can cause a lot of distress, especially for anxiously attached individuals, who may not know the proper coping techniques (such as getting help from a therapist or close family member) during a crisis. If we put that into a cycling context, studies found that relationship transitions are associated with impaired mental health functioning. For example, dissolution is a relationship transition where the relationship is coming to an end. Dissolution alone is related to depression and distress (Monk et al., 2018). This could lead to a physical toll on your body as well, such as a lowered immune system or feeling constant fight or flight, both of which I have dealt with in the past with breakups. Take, for example, from Kross et al. (2011), when you look at pictures of your former romantic partner, a person with whom you recently experienced an unwanted breakup; as you view each photo, you feel rejected and experience “pain.” Experiencing social rejection can “hurt,” which can also resemble physical pain. Kross et al. (2011) also showed new insight into how rejection experiences may lead to various physical pain disorders (such as somatoform pain, which is physical pain for which no physical cause can be determined).
I hope you know you are not alone and you will get through a breakup, even if it feels like you never will. My past two breakups were a great way to find myself, focus on my family, and discover new things I enjoyed. I did find those of my friends who ended up cycling their relationships came back to me later saying they went back due to loneliness. The relationships they went back to were not as fulfilling as they thought they would be, usually, the other partner would mention they could not commit to them in the same way they did pre-breakup (that is, before the first breakup), and this would lead the couple to break up after a few months. We have an excellent blog post about loneliness that I recommend that you look at if you feel this way since the feeling of being lonely can be overcome if you put in the work! It is also important to remember that fluctuations in a relationship are perfectly normal. We have another blog post you can look into as well that talks about fluctuations in relationships.
How To Avoid Getting Stuck in a Cycling Relationship
Now that we have talked about cycling relationships and how they differ from other relationships. It is best to discuss how to avoid getting stuck in one. Some people may have mixed opinions on this topic. But I think it is important to note that studies have shown that compared to couples who are stably together, couples who end and renew their relationships report lower commitment and satisfaction, poorer communication, greater uncertainty about the future of their relationship, and experience higher levels of verbal abuse and physical violence. It is ultimately up to you to make the decision that is right for you. Here are some ways that Dr. Jill Weber explain on Psychology Today for stopping a cycling relationship:
- Write down everything that troubles you in your relationship. The next time you start to feel angry, upset, or fed up with your relationship, take out a journal and write down exactly what is upsetting you and for how long it has been going on. Over time, take a look back at this journal, and you may be able to see patterns that are repeated from fights and issues triggering the same sets of negative feelings with no real solutions or changes in behavior. Next time you do experience a breakup, look back at the journal and remind yourself of the repetitive issues that happened so they do not happen again in your next committed relationship.
- Build up other aspects of your life. If you have been constantly caught up in the makeup and breakup cycle for a while, you may have been feeling more isolated. It is time you let in some new energy. This means taking time to invest in your friendships, revisit old hobbies, or take on a new interest. The goal is to not let the cycling relationship consume all of your time and energy by carving out space separate from your partner that is yours alone.
- Work on your fear of being alone. There are two things that typically make it hard for people to break up, these are usually the fear of being alone and not knowing how to break up. When in a cycling relationship, you may feel as if your partner is the only person on earth who will ever truly desire you or who can ever fulfill you. People have so many chances to fall in love over the course of their lives! It is okay to take some time away to reflect and be alone before getting into a new committed relationship. It may feel hard at first, but the important thing is to find things that make you feel safe and fulfilled when you are alone. One of the ways I do this is by watching TV or movies, baking, or even working out!
- Let go. The feeling of letting go can be quite scary, but it can also be liberating. Most of us aren’t taught how to let go of a relationship, and that is okay, it is something that can be learned. Learn to create boundaries if you need to. Tell your partner that this time you really mean it and that the relationship is no longer going to continue. Go no contact for a prolonged period of time (such as blocking them on social media), delete old pictures, and learn to move on at your own pace. Keeping in contact with your partner could lead you to rehash old conflicts and have a harder time staying broken up. Remember, healing takes time, and you can come back into the dating world when and if you feel ready.
- 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. 23-47
- Dailey, R. M. McCracken, Jin, B., Rossetto, K.R., & Green, E.W. (2013). Negotiating Breakups and Renewals: Types of On-again/Off-again Dating Relationships. Western Journal of Communication. 77(4), 382-410
- Emamzadeh, A. (2022, May 13). Why On-Again, Off-Again Relationships Are So Stressful. Psychology Today.
- Kross, E., Berman, M.G., Mischel, W., Smith, E.E., Wager, T.D. (2011) Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. National Academy of Sciences. 108(15) 6270-6275
- Lupo, T. (2018). Are fluctuations in commitment normal in romantic relationships. [Blog post]. Decide to Commit.
- Monk, J.K., Ogolsky, B.G., Maniotes, C. (2022) On-Off Relationship Instability and Distress Over Time in Same- and Different- Sex Relationships. Family Process. 71(2). 630-643
- Monk, J.K., Kanter, J.B., Ogan, M.A. (2022). Prior On-Off Relationship Instability and Distress in the Separation and Divorce Transition. Family Process. 61(1), 246-258.
- Monk, J. K., Ogolsky, B.G., Oswald, R.F. (2018). Coming Out and Getting Back In: Relationship Cycling and Distress in Same-and Different-Sex Relationships. Family Relations. 67. 523-538.
- Sprecher, S., Felmlee, D., Metts, S., & Vanni, D. (1998). Factors Associated with Distress Following The Breakup of a Close Relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 15(6), 723-860.
- Terry, B. & Keceli, P. (2023). The impact of loneliness on our relationships. [Blog post]. Decide to Commit.
- Vennum, A. & Johnson, M.D. (2014). The Impact of Premarital Cycling on Early Marriage. Family Relations. (63), 439-452
- Weber, J.P. (2017, March 9). How to Stop the Break Up-Make Up Cycle. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/having-sex-wanting-intimacy/201703/how-to-stop-the-break-up-make-up-cycle
Hello! My name is Breanna Terry. I’m a senior at Northern Illinois University. I am majoring in Human Development and Family Sciences with an emphasis in Family Social Services and a minor in Counseling. I will be graduating in May of 2023 and continuing my education at NIU where I will be getting my Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. I hope to work in a healthcare setting to provide care to children, couples, and families.