Of all the toxic patterns in romantic relationships, the on-again-off-again relationship is possibly the hardest to put an end to. The cycle of breaking up, craving familiarity and intimacy, going back for more, and realizing why you broke up in the first place can be hard to overcome.
Despite its many flaws, the allure of an on/off relationship can be difficult to resist. This is because it can feel like the perfect combination of predictable familiarity and thrilling uncertainty. However, the psychological costs of such a relationship are, most of the time, not worth it.
A study published in Personal Relationships found that people in on/off relationships are far more likely to report negatives about their relationship (like communication problems and uncertainty) and less likely to report positives (like love and understanding from their partner), highlighting the overall impact of this volatile relationship arrangement.
If the thought of breaking off your on/off relationship has crossed your mind, here are two obstacles you might need to overcome in order to fully break free.
1. Your On/Off Relationship Is Fulfilling a Hidden Need for You
An interesting point about on/off relationships discussed in a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personal and Social Relationships is that, even though relational stress and uncertainty tend to be the most common features of these types of relationships, most people also report positive feelings about their on/off relationship.
This could mean that an on/off relationship might be serving a purpose for both members involved, no matter how unhealthy. For instance, an on/off relationship held together by a codependent bond could be extremely difficult to unravel.
A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction outlines the core nature and characteristics of codependency, which include:
A lack of a clear sense of self
Patterns of extreme emotional, relational, and occupational imbalance
We can see how an on/off relationship could enable codependent tendencies, eventually turning into a negative feedback loop wherein neither issue gets resolved and both partners make the problem worse.
If you are looking for an effective exit plan from your on/off relationship, you can begin by identifying the core issues (like codependency or low self worth). Here are some questions to get you started:
Is there a void in my life that only this relationship fills? What does it look like and is there an alternative way to feel better?
Are there any negative feelings that creep up to the surface when I am not spending time with my on/off again partner?
Is the happiness I receive from this on/off relationship temporary or lasting? When I envision the happiest version of my life, does this relationship feature in it?
Answering these questions with honesty can help you get to the root of the issue. You can also encourage your partner to ask these questions to themselves, giving both of you a chance to grow and learn.
2. You Are Scared of Being Vulnerable All Over Again with Someone New
A 2021 study identifies dating anxiety as one of the biggest obstacles people face when forming new romantic relationships. For someone with severe dating anxiety, an on/off relationship might just ensure that they never have to move on.
The study highlights that, in addition to the fear of rejection, an individual with dating anxiety also fears rejecting potential romantic partners. While being rejected and turning down potential suitors are both necessary and formative dating experiences, dating anxiety can stop you from taking these chances at all, making you vulnerable to loneliness, stagnation, and unhealthy patterns of behavior like on/off relationships.
An on/off relationship can create a familiar and comfortable space in your life where one does not have to face these fears. You know that you can always go back and your partner knows that you will eventually just let them in.
Unsurprisingly, this pattern can quickly turn toxic — curbing growth and robbing you of new experiences and the chance to find someone new.
Consulting a mental health professional who can help you address the core issues informing your dating anxiety and aversion to meeting and getting involved with new people can help you let go of your on/off relationship that might be holding you back.
An on/off again relationship, over time, can create the illusion of stability. However, the people in the relationship are always aware of the instability and lack of trust that is necessary to sustain it. Shedding your unhealthy attachments and gaining insight into your needs and wants can help you protect yourself from falling into complacent patterns.