There’s nothing uncommon about on-again, off-again relationships. A lot of people find themselves caught in the cycle of a hot and cold love affair. One day you’re madly in love and the next, you’re just mad and calling it quits, only to find your way back to each other just hours, days or weeks later. It’s hard to permanently let go of someone we have deep feelings for, and it’s just as difficult to find a way to make it work. Yet, the yo-yo relationship takes its toll not only on the connection between you but on your own wellbeing and mental health.
Sometimes relationships are hot and cold from the start. You meet, sparks fly and you spend a few weeks in constant contact. Then they get distant. They cancel plans. They don’t return calls or texts. You’re hurt, frustrated, confused and ready to grieve the relationship when they suddenly reappear, usually with a heartfelt apology and an explanation that sounds genuine—family drama, personal problems, fear of commitment. You accept them back into your life and your heart, but their inability to commit persists and yo-yoing continues.
Or maybe you’ve been in a committed, loving relationship for months or years and something changes. You start to fight more. You criticize each other, hurt each other’s feelings, and one of you calls it quits and leaves. But you always return to each other. You apologize, reclaim your love for one another and promise to do better. You tell yourself it’s ok because every relationship has problems and your love is strong enough to overcome it, until it happens all over again.
Every time you break-up, your bond becomes thinner, trust wavers, and people are hurt—sometimes irreparably. So why do we continue in a cycle that causes us pain and heartache? Psychologists say it’s due to a process called intermittent reinforcement. Basically, it occurs when we get a reward sometimes, but not always. We keep returning in the hopes that we’ll get that reward (our lover’s desire and attention, for instance) instead of the punishment. Just like positive reinforcement, we’re in it to get something good, even though in this situation the reward isn’t guaranteed.
Everyone is different. Some people don’t respond to intermittent reinforcement, and others find themselves constantly caught up in it. It takes courage and confidence to walk away from a relationship that isn’t totally working for you, even when it does some of them time. We don’t want to give up. We love our partner and we don’t want to feel the pain of permanent separation so we put up with the pain and uncertainty of the occasional separation, though it can often feel just as bad. But any breakup causes psychological stress and decreased satisfaction with life.
Breaking the cycle of the on-again, off-again relationship means examining why it keeps happening. Are there personality conflicts between you? Do you want different things? Is someone unwilling to fully commit? Relationships require clear, open communication and sometimes that means talking out your problems together with a counsellor or therapist. If you want to make it work, you both need to recognize how your actions, beliefs and behaviors affect the relationship and make a conscious effort to work on the issues that have been problematic in the past. Otherwise, it may be worth it to truly consider if this relationship is really healthy for you or if it’s time to make a clean break once and for all.