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Wellness > Sex + Relationships

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.


Getting back together (again)

Most on-again, off-again relationships are very unpredictable and spontaneous, going “off” due to problems and differences they can’t seem to solve and going “on” again because they think things will work out the second time around.

Samantha*, told her story about her suitemate and her boyfriend that went on and off-again multiple times within a week: “A few days ago, I came home from class and I asked my suitemate if I could borrow something from her boyfriend’s room. She goes, ‘I don’t know; I haven’t spoken to him all day. We broke up.” Commence tears in her eyes. Fast forward a day, they are back together again. Fast forward one more day, they broke up again. And yesterday, yep, they are back together again. All of our friends are actually waiting for them to finally call it off for the final time. They are making it very hard for all of us to hang out peacefully.”

Samantha’s story shows how on-again, off-again relationships can be so unhealthy that it impacts even those around them. When you see that your relationship is doing more damage than good, it’s time to just end it. It’s been said that sometimes relationships are just like broken glass. It’s better to leave them broken rather than continuously hurt yourself in trying to put the pieces back together.

Dr. Faye Barkley, Ph.D., research psychologist in human behavior, notes, “Most [cyclical relationships] eventually fail in time. What the couple needs to look at is what keeps brining them back together? Many times, a couple will bond over their need for punishment of self or another. In other words, their mutual illnesses ‘need’ each other.”

If you find that one or both of you find yourself wanting each other back as a means of resolving guilt or as a way of atoning damage that’s been done, don’t get back together. This is a very negative, unhealthy relationship in which both of you will end up disappointed and unhappy. Both of you should be together because you want to be together, not because you feel like you have to be.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula, professor of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, makes a similar point. “On again/off again relationships may be a sign of fear more than anything,” Durvasula says. “The fear of leaving the comfort of that which is known (albeit probably not working) for the unknown or god forbid—being alone.” If you are simply getting back together because you’re unsure if you’ll find anyone else or that you’re scared of being single and lonely, don’t get back together. This is a co-dependent relationship in which you leach off each other for a sense of self-esteem and worth.


So what is a good reason for getting back together again?

Caird thinks that it’s important to follow your instincts because every situation is so individual. She says, “Ask yourself why they’re coming back and if you think it’s legitimate. There’s a point where you just have to say no. If it’s a constant, continuous rollercoaster, it’s a bad way to live. It can become addicting, so be careful. Be aware. But if you think both of you have really come to a mutual understanding and are willing to make necessary changes and compromise, then it’s up to you to take that risk depending on if you’re ready or not. It’s about trusting yourself, too. You have to be strong enough to handle it if they leave again.”

And if you do decide to get back together again, serious changes need to be made, and you both really need to communicate these changes wth each other. Julie Spira, relationship and dating expert and CEO of CyberDatingExpert.com says, “In order for [an on-again, off-again relationship] to succeed, when the couple gets back together they need to communicate fully and honestly about what changes each will make to help the relationship last. If the goal is for marriage or a long-term exclusive relationship, talking about what didn’t work the previous times and agreeing to a new set of guidelines for success is mandatory. It can work, but only if both partners put ten toes in with the goal of staying together.”

Remember that this can be very difficult. As Caird constantly emphasizes, there needs to be a mutual agreement for any relationship to work out. If you find that neither of you seem to compromise or seem to break compromises made after a short while, it’s time to move on with your life.

Erin Appenzoller, a junior at Emerson College, encourages collegiettes. “If you’re constantly breaking up and getting back together with the same guy, you’re never really allowing yourself to move on and move forward,” Erin says. “Your heart is stuck in one place and you aren’t able to open yourself to new relationships that are probably much healthier than a yo-yo relationship.”

So if inside, you know it’s just not working out, don’t force it. Caird pointed out that you don’t want to lower your bar. “Keep it high in respect to dating, you know?” she says. “The right guy will meet you there.”

*Names have been changed.

Avianne Tan is a senior at New York University studying journalism and English. As a social justice advocate, feminist and mental health advocate, Avianne aspires to use journalism as a platform to raise awareness and incite positive change. Currently, she is an interactive news intern for WABC-TV NY Channel 7 Eyewitness News at 7online.com. Being a news junkie, she also writes for The News Blog here on Her Campus. When she's not reading or writing news, Avianne loves taking spontaneous adventures, eating new food and relaxing with her pets. Catch Avianne Flu by following her on Twitter and Instagram! To learn more about Avianne, please visit her website at www.aviannetan.wix.com/atan.