On-Again, Off-Again Relationships: Can They Work?

“This is exhausting,” exclaims Taylor Swift in her chart-topping single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. And if the song title isn’t enough, Swift lyrically vents the frustrations of on-again, off-again relationships throughout the whole rest of the song. Her feelings in the song are reflective of that of many collegiettes who believe that romance recycling, unfortunately, is a hopeless cause. And yet, another rising teen pop singer, Cher Lloyd, sings the contradictory feeling of the aching desire to get back together again in “Want U Back”. Like Swift’s song, the title speaks for itself.

So who’s right? If you find yourself in an on-again, off-again relationship, can you expect it to work out in the long run, or are you just wasting your time? The answer, unfortunately, is just about as indeterminate as these relationships themselves. There is no clear-cut path to take that works for everyone, ultimately dependent upon numerous different factors and your individual situation.

If you find yourself stuck in this kind of a roller-coaster relationship, Her Campus is here to help you decide if it’s worth the ride or if it’s time to get off.

Defining an on-again, off-again relationship

According to Amber Vennum, assistant professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University, a “cyclical relationship” is the official term for these kinds of relationships where a couple “breaks up and gets back together.” According to her, about 40 percent of college students today are currently involved in such a relationship, so the issue is definitely a prevalent one. Here are the common signs and characteristics of on-again, off-again relationships:

  • You’ve broken up and gotten back together in the past.
  • Your relationship feels emotionally bipolar. One minute you’re ready to get married and the next you can’t stand the sight of him.
  • At least one of you has insecurities about commitment.
  • You find that there are irresolvable differences between you two.
  • At least one of you seems to feel overwhelmed by the idea of maintaining the relationship along with other priorities at the moment.
  • There is an imbalance of attachment. One of you may feel clingy or like you just “just need space.”
  • You have a hard time envisioning the future of your relationship.

The key characteristic of an on-again, off-again relationship is the fact that the relationship ended and came back together again at least once, if not multiple times. If you find yourself experiencing the other signs, you’ve begun to identify the causes and problems of why the relationship went “off” in the first place. Now, it’s time to figure out whether or not you and your guy can reconcile these differences in the long-term or whether it’s time to just let him go now.

Making the decision: “Should I stay or should I go?”

Caird Urquhart, founder of Newroad Coaching and author of 30 Ways to Better Days: How to Rally After You’ve Been Dumped, believes that most on-again, off-again relationships don’t work out, although there are a few exceptions.

Taking a break

Some couples mutually choose to take breaks in their relationships. Key word: mutually. “Taking breaks can sometimes be healthy,” Caird says. “It really depends if both parties are willing to talk out the logistics of it and come to an agreement on the conditions of the break. There are legitimate reasons for taking a break such as school, work, or other priorities. It really depends on what’s going on in your lives at the moment.”

The key here is that both of you are okay with the fact that you are technically engaging in an on-again, off-again relationship. Perhaps one of you needs to focus on your studies or one of you just wants time to re-evaluate what you want in life and to possibly see other people. As long as both of you are okay with this and come to an agreement about the terms of the break, this relationship can be very successful. “You have to remember that you’re taking a risk by doing this,” Caird adds. “I once was in a 5-year relationship during college, and we decided to take a break. When he came back around a second time, I had new interests. Under no circumstance should you ever expect a person to have to ‘wait’ for you.”

Rania*, a sophomore at New York University says that these type of breaks can work out. “I know so many friends who break up and get back together and break up and get back together because of college,” Rania says. “College is just so time-consuming. Everyone’s just so busy. Sometimes you don’t have the time to commit to them on a relationship level, so you want to focus on friendship in the times in between.”

If you and your guy are both okay with a break for what you both see as legitimate reasons, Caird advises that you guys sit down and really talk through it with each other. She emphasizes that it’s important that you guys agree to the terms and conditions of the break and also to acknowledge the risk both of them are taking. These “terms and conditions” are different for everyone since every relationship is different, so they will have to be established on an individual basis. Caird adds that you both have to ask yourselves, “Can I handle this? (‘this’ being the terms of the break)?” And if the answer is yes, then carry on with both your lives. She emphasizes the importance of focusing on yourself and remembering you are separate from your guy during the break. If one or both of you feel like it’s time to come back together or re-evaluate your relationship during a later time, both of you should be okay with that. Then, a mutual decision can be made at that point.

The fact that two people can mutually agree to put each others’ needs first shows that the relationships is mature, which is definitely a sign that it has the possibility to work out in the end. The truth of the matter though is that most people aren’t okay with uncertainty and the possibility of a “break” turning into an “end.”

Samantha*, a sophomore at Rutgers University, expressed similar feelings. “My boyfriend and I had a talk about this,” she said. “For me, I want stability. I want someone who is not going to be unpredictable. It’s more than a want—I need a rock. I don’t see the trust or commitment, the effort or passion, in a relationship that stands on a fulcrum. One false step and you are on eggshells again.”

Caird stresses the idea that if a break is to be successful, it needs to be mutual. “If one of you is desperately hurt or doesn’t want it, it’s not an agreed break-up or mutual decision,” she says. “If you guys can’t come to a compromise or understanding, it’s probably going to end. It’s extremely difficult for any relationship to work out if there’s no compromise.” It’s a matter of clashing wants and desires. Ultimately, it just won’t work out if you both want different things that are irreconcilable.