Relationships give life meaning and can provide us with a great sense of purpose. Indeed, it is well-documented in research that relationships influence our wellbeing. Although relationships can be a great source of exuberant joy, they can also contribute a great deal of distress when they are chaotic or unstable. For example, in one study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers found that distressed couples’ wounds healed at a 60% slower rate than those in better functioning relationships. Moreover, across a multitude of studies, researchers found that social relationships can have stronger effects on our health than other accepted risk factors, such as smoking, pollution, and physical activity.
The end of an intimate relationship alone is associated with distress, particularly for the person who was “left” or “dumped.” However, this distress is considered normal and temporary with reports of upset often being more intense following a breakup than later reports. Given that change and relationship transitions can be stressful even if they are positive — like getting married or starting a new relationship, a tumultuous pattern of transitioning in and out of the same relationship, breaking up and getting back together with the same partner — may create more pervasive symptoms of distress. In a recent cross-sectional study of 545 individuals in relationships, we found that a pattern of breaking up and getting back together, what we refer to as “relationship cycling,” was associated with increased symptoms of depression and anxiety. Although it is likely that psychological distress might also fuel relationship cycling, in a longitudinal follow-up that is still in progress, we are seeing similar effects while accounting for previous reports of distress. Therefore, relationship cycling may have a unique effect on mental health, above and beyond prior symptoms, as well as other stressors including relationship violence.
It is important to note that rekindling a past relationship or being in an “on-again/off-again relationship” is not always setting a couple up for despair. In my current qualitative work, some individuals indicated that they feel “taking a break” gave them much needed perspective and time to re-evaluate their relationship. These people discussed realizing they did not want to be without their partner and that they felt that the time apart made them stronger as a couple. On average, however, we see that relationship cycling is associated with worse relationship quality, including decreased relationship satisfaction and commitment, poor communication, increased conflict and abuse, and a greater likelihood for future instability across a number of studies. This is important considering 30-45% of people report breaking up and getting back together with their current partner and over 60% report having ever cycled in a relationship throughout their history. Likewise, popular songs, TV shows, and movies can portray this relationship pattern as exciting and ideal for entertainment purposes; so insight into the dynamics of this phenomenon is vital.
So what can you do if you find yourself in this situation? As a former couple therapist, I know it is important to make informed decisions during relationship transitions. If you are considering rekindling a relationship that ended or looking to avoid future instability, I recommend partners think about the reasons they broke up to determine if there are consistent or persistent issues impacting the relationship. Will things really be different this time around? Then, it can be helpful to have an explicit conversation with your partner about issues that led to the break up(s), especially if particular issues are likely to reoccur. This can help partners get “on the same page” about what needs to be improved or repaired. If there was ever violence in the relationship, however, or if having a conversation about relationship issues can lead to safety concerns, people should consider seeking support services when it is safe to do so.
Similar to thinking about the reasons the relationship ended, spend some time thinking about the reasons why reconciliation is being considered. Why do you want or feel like you need to get back together? Is the reason rooted in dedication and positive feelings, or more about obligation and convenience? People return to relationships that ended for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, some say they have lingering feelings and they miss their partners. On the other hand, people report feeling obligated due to shared resources (e.g., finances or owning a home together), feeling it is just easier or more convenient to get back together, or feeling like there are no better options available. These latter constraint-focused reasons — having to vs. wanting to — are more likely to lead couples down a path of continual distress.
Last, but certainly not least, it is important to remember that it is okay to end a toxic relationship. For example, if your relationship is beyond repair, do not feel guilty leaving for your mental or physical well-being. Therapy or counseling might be a good option for people struggling with the decision to work to repair and stabilize their relationship, or to permanently leave in a safe way.
Dr. Kale Monk is an Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Science and a State Specialist for Extension at the University of Missouri. Dr. Monk’s research and teaching center on relationship processes across developmental and relational transitions.