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'On-Again, Off-Again' Relationships May Be More Trouble Than They're Worth

couple embracing

TUESDAY, Sept. 4, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Ross and Rachel from "Friends" did it. So did Carrie and Mr. Big from "Sex and the City."

But couples who break up and then make up repeatedly -- in what's known as "relationship cycling" -- may be setting themselves up for a heap of emotional turmoil, new research shows.

These on-again, off-again couplings can lead to greater depression and anxiety, researchers say. And they're not just confined to sitcom characters: An estimated 60 percent of American adults have been involved in one or more of these entanglements.

"There are a lot of misleading media messages in popular songs and TV shows, as well as famous narratives saying things like, 'If you love someone, let them go. If they come back to you, then you know it was meant to be,' " said study author Kale Monk.

"Although breaking up and getting back together isn't always a bad omen, on average we find that a continued pattern can impair personal and relational well-being," Monk added. He's an assistant professor of human development and family science at the University of Missouri.

Monk and his colleagues analyzed data from 545 adults in opposite-sex and same-sex relationships to investigate the link between relationship cycling and emotional distress.

One-third reported they had broken up and renewed relationships with the same partner -- some as many as eight times.

Participants reported how often in the prior two weeks they experienced feelings like anxiety, uncontrolled worry, hopelessness and/or little interest or pleasure in activities.

While the study only found an association, symptoms of distress were higher in participants with on-again, off-again relationships even after factors such as age, type and length of relationship, and whether couples had children were taken into account.

"Breakups alone are upsetting, but this distress is considered normal and is often temporary," Monk said. "A tumultuous pattern of breakup and renewal, however, might have more pervasive implications for our well-being."

People engage in relationship cycling for various reasons, Monk said.

Mainly, they get back together after a breakup because they have lingering feelings for their former partners. Others are driven by more practical considerations, such as legal obligations like shared property or finances. "They feel like they have to or need to," Monk said.

He said dedication, not obligation, should drive the decision.

"People who find themselves regularly breaking up and getting back together with their partners need to 'look under the hood' of their relationships to determine what's going on," Monk said.

Other research has also established that factors such as violence, verbal abuse, poor communication or lack of commitment may lead people to cycle in and out of relationships, said Beverly Palmer, a retired psychology professor at California State University in Dominguez Hills.

"The difficulty with this [new] study is you don't really know if it's the person who's leaving or the one who's left who's in the most psychological distress," said Palmer, who wasn't involved in the research.

But, she added, "the study does make the point that usually there's one who's leaving and one who is left, and it's not a mutual decision. Then the person who left comes back. That's what cycling is all about -- it's almost like one person is more active and one is more passive in this relationship."

Sometimes, though, the break-up, make-up cycle can be productive, Monk said.

"Some people say taking a break helped them re-evaluate their relationship and that they realized they did not want to be without their former partner," he said.

"Before making a decision to rekindle a past relationship, it is important to be really conscientious and consider why the relationship ended and if [it] will really be better this time," Monk added.

Thinking about getting back together with a past partner? Monk offered this advice:

  • Remember the reasons you broke up to determine if consistent or persistent relationship issues can be changed for the better.
  • Have a conversation about issues that led to the breakups.
  • If violence or safety concerns were factors, consider seeking support services when it's safe to do so.
  • Remember: It's OK to end a toxic relationship.

"There are skills you can develop and tools you can use, if you're aware of it, to make sure the partner you're with is someone who will continue to grow and foster your growth, and that this relationship has some of those qualities -- empathy, for example -- that put it on solid ground," Palmer said.

The study was published recently in the journal Family Relations.

More information

The American Psychological Association offers tips to keep romantic relationships healthy.

SOURCES: Kale Monk, Ph.D., assistant professor, human development and family science, University of Missouri, Columbia; Beverly Palmer, Ph.D., emeritus professor, psychology, California State University, Dominguez Hills; July 30, 2018, Family Relations
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