Romantic relationship, according to experts, goes through different trajectories of transitions. One of these is on-again-off-again relationships. You might have come across at least one person who you have seen running into their ex’s arms like nothing happened two months back. For some, the break-up is not a transition at all, it is, in fact, a part of their relational pattern.
Some of them are in a relationship, yet disconnected, some of them get separated and completely move on, some of them are ‘not together, but also not really separated’, while the rest of the few is going on and off about a relationship.
Once they believe nothing is really working out, they break up in the hope of finding peace, only to readily find themselves drawn to their exes once again. So they patch things up, with the optimistic view that things will soon brighten up.
No doubt, this time too, the chemistry does not get any better and things go off again. If this scenario seems evocatively familiar to you, then you must have come across an instance of an ‘on-off relationship’, which is sometimes addressed as ’cyclical relationship’ or ‘relationship churning’.
Most of us are of the belief that a relationship can only be either on-going or terminated. No grey areas in between. Couples, however, may go through the repeated process of relational development and dissolution with the same partner.
On-again, off-again and keep looping
Cyclical relationships are gradually coming to the attention of researchers dedicated to gathering knowledge about the nature and progression of a romantic relationship. Research shows that a cyclical relationship is quite frequent.
A survey of 279 same-sex and 266 different-sex couples revealed that about one-third of lesbian, gay, and heterosexual relationships have at some point broken-up and renewed their relationship. (Monk, Ogolsky, & Oswald, 2018).
This type of on-off relationship is typically a pattern of intimate relationships in emerging adulthood.
It is during emerging adulthood that intimate relationships come to be one of the primary bases for emotional attachments in people’s lives, joining or even supplanting relationships with parents and friends. (1)
Unfortunately, the risks associated with relationship cycling during emerging adulthood appear to be enduring in nature, adversely affecting commitment, relationship stability, and quality during later cohabitation and marital life. ( Vennum & Johnson, 2014)
Now, the question is, why couples whose relationship is marked by negativity would be drawn to it once again? Why did they break up in the first place?
Some relationships come to an end, but later lead to reconciliation but those cannot be categorized in on-off relationships. In a reconciled relationship, partners have previous knowledge of each other’s pattern of interaction, these are not characterized by negativity like repeated conflicts, dissatisfaction, lack of commitment, disconnect, etc, which are some salient features of a cyclical relationship.
So, what exactly entails an on-again off-again relationship?
Distinct characteristics of on-again/off-again relationship:
1. Relational uncertainty.
One of the key features of the on-off relationship is uncertainty regarding the relationship and why it led to the break-up. The people who engage in this type of cyclic relationship have confusion regarding the general nature of their relations.
They lack clarity about their relationship’s definition, norms, limits, boundaries, and also its course. Research regarding on-off relationships found that on-off partners report more uncertainty about the general nature of their relationships than do non-cyclical partners. (2)
2. Uncertainty about the relational status.
The partners in such a relationship are also not always certain about when exactly their relationship ended, pertaining to their repeated break-ups.
Uncertainty about the situational status of the relationship can also result from the partner’s ambivalent feelings regarding the dissolution of the relationship or one partner’s vague break-up interaction to leave open chances of a reunion. (Dailey, Rossetto, et al., 2009)
People who had previously experienced an on-again/off-again relationship confessed:
“A big major stressor was the uncertainty. I wasn’t even sure myself if we were really broken up or not.”
“Not knowing whether we were completely not dating if it was okay to date someone else at that time.”
“The not being in control, the unknown of what was going to happen.”
Hence, it is understandable that the higher the indecisiveness regarding the termination of the relationship, the greater are the chances of reuniting once again.