People in on-again, off-again relationships experience more psychological distress

By Emily Reynolds

Some romantic relationships slot into place easily: we meet, we get together, and we stay together, at least for a while. Others are far more tumultuous, as we break up and get back together over and over again — often to the frustration and annoyance of those we confide in.

It’s no surprise that such relationships can cause us distress, and this is the subject of a new study, published in Family Relations. It looks at the impact of on-off relationships, finding not only short-term harm but longer-term implications too.

The team gathered data from 545 participants of various sexualities over the course of 15 months, all of whom were in romantic relationships. In the first wave of the study, participants indicated whether or not they had broken up and got back together with their current partner — and, if so, how many times. At all four waves, participants also reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, and at one or more points completed measures of physical violence within the relationship, how satisfied they were in their relationship, and the extent to which they experienced feelings of uncertainty within the relationship.

Breaking up and getting back together was fairly common: 33.6% of participants reported having done so in their current relationship. Those who experienced more frequent break-ups and reconciliations reported more psychological distress at the start of the study — and a greater increase in distress across the different waves. This remained the case when controlling for other measures such as violence and uncertainty, suggesting a direct link between relationship “cycling” and distress.      

So, not only does relationship cycling seem to be distressing in the short-term, it may also have a longer-term impact. The team suggests that feelings of chaos or turbulence lead to these distressing feelings, increasing a sense of instability that can trigger poor mental health. However, it’s important to note questions of cause and effect: those who felt distressed or chaotic might be re-entering relationships in order to make themselves feel better rather than being distressed by the cycling itself. How mental health or distress affects our decisions in relationships, in other words, is also worth looking at.

There is also evidence that serious issues at the start of relationships can endure, “foreshadowing” later outcomes in the relationship: one study found that premarital relationship cycling could impact on people’s confidence in their choice to get married and on satisfaction within that marriage, as well as making trial separation more likely. Future research could explore the links between relationship cycling and the ultimate outcomes of relationships.

The findings don’t mean that on-again off-again relationships never work out: as lead author Kale Monk puts it: “In some of our other studies, we certainly do hear from partners who report that time apart made them realize how much they valued each other and they were rededicated to making it work.” However, thinking carefully about the links between your mental health and your dating patterns may be a worthwhile part of your wellbeing in relationships.

On–Off Relationship Instability and Distress Over Time in Same- and Different-Sex Relationships

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest