With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, it’s easy to get sucked into all the hype about romance.
As someone who studies relationships and communication, I can say one trend that’s growing is the on-again/off-again relationship between partners, especially among millennials.
It seems we all know people who are one day “on” with their significant other, and the next day they are “off.” Researchers define it as relationships that break up and renew one or more times.
In fact, the numbers suggest that on-off relationships might be becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Statistics show that two-thirds of us experience at least one on-again/off-again dating relationship. And about one-third of the people reading this right now are currently in, or their most recent relationship was, an on-off relationship. Even a third of marriages had an on-off nature during courtship, and the instability can be carried forward into the marriage.
Given that on-off partners consistently report lower relational quality, this type of relationship is exactly what some couples might want to avoid.
I don’t want to give the impression that all on-off relationships are bad or unhealthy. For some, the breakups and renewals offer opportunities to improve the relationship, especially when changes are made early on. But for most on-off couples, the cycling pattern turns into a downward spiral, and it’s difficult to get the relationship on a more positive — and stable — track.
What couples need to keep in mind this Valentine’s Day is that when it comes to these types of relationships, the more renewals, the less satisfying the relationship becomes. Those who have experienced more breakups and renewals report less satisfaction, more conflict, more uncertainty about the relationship, less support for the relationship from their friends and family, and more physical aggression.
In comparison, on-off partners who report fewer renewals are more likely to say that the on-off nature of the relationship helped improve the relationship — the breakups or renewals gave them a chance to work on themselves or the relationship.
This says some couples resolve problems earlier in the relationship and stop the cycle of breaking up and renewing. So if you find that the relationship falls back into its old patterns every time you reconcile, chances are the relationship won’t get better.
Another issue is couples trying to be “just friends” or “friends with benefits” after breakups. That simply does not work for many. Trying to be friends after breakups can create a lot of uncertainties: How much should we see each other? Am I allowed to date other people? What activities are off-limits now that we are no longer dating?
Although it is difficult to lose the friendship as well as the romantic relationship, trying to be friends after breakups complicates the dissolution process and prevents people from moving on.
Our research suggests some on-off partners aren’t necessarily distressed by the ups and downs of an on-off relationship. The breakups, and especially the renewals, can offer excitement, novelty, or mystery in the relationship. But the risks of continually cycling are not yet clear.
One topic many couples avoid talking about is ending the relationship permanently. We often avoid this conversation because it seems cruel, it’s uncomfortable, or we want to leave the door open.
But if you truly want to end the cycle, don’t leave the status of the relationship ambiguous or hint at a potential reconciliation. Dating other people can also decrease the chance of renewing. And stop talking to them on social media. Keeping in contact with the ex-partner hinders you from re-establishing your identity outside of that relationship.
In the end, this Valentine’s Day more couples need to take stock of what they want out of their relationships and decide whether to be “on,” “off,” or take another ride on the roller coaster.
Rene Dailey is an associate professor of communication studies in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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