Rekindling a past romance might seem like a good idea. But couples in on-again/off-again relationships are usually headed for heartache, according to new research from Kansas State University. Psychologists call them “cyclical relationships”—those up-and-down dating odysseys that many of us have been through.
People in cyclical relationships tend to feel less satisfied, have lower self-esteem, and have more doubts about the future of their relationship than more stable couples, explains study author Amber Vennum, Ph.D., an assistant professor of family studies at Kansas State. These couples are also more likely to experience marital woes and trial separations down the road, her research found.
The big problems with cyclical relationships are usually poor communication and a lack of defined commitment, Vennum says. People in these partnerships tend to be more ambiguous about both their status as a couple and their future together. As a result, that ambiguity leads to relationship stress and instability, she says.
To make matters worse, these couples also tend to be more impulsive when it comes to major relationship decisions. They move in together, have kids, or marry in an attempt to strengthen their bond or solve conflicts, a ploy that only makes it more difficult to end the flawed relationship, Vennum adds. (Having kids to solve conflicts? Wha?)
Fortunately, this problem has a simple solution: Don’t get back together with her. Vennum cites multiple studies that show your chances of making it work the second (or third, or fourth) time around are slim. If it didn’t work the first time, save yourself the headache and cut bait, she says. (Find out if hooking up with an ex is one of the 19 temptations you should resist or indulge.)
But if you still insist that you’re meant to be with a former love, here are a few tips to improve your odds on the second go-round:
1. See eye to eye. You need to talk to your girlfriend about what you both want out of the relationship, Vennum says. If you’re just in it for sex and a good time, but she’s dreaming about engagement rings, fights are going to happen. Be honest with yourself and with her, and admit it when your expectations change. You’ll save yourself a lot of strife, she adds.
2. Avoid always and never. When you generalize your gripes—“You always make me take out the trash” or “We never have morning sex”—your arguments lose all credibility, says Karen Sherman, Ph.D., a psychologist and coauthor of Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It, and Make It Last. Talk specifics—“I would love it if we could have sex in the morning once a week”—and she’ll be a lot more likely to oblige, Sherman advises.
3. More I, less you. When discussing problems, focus on yourself, not on what she does or doesn’t do that pisses you off, recommends Tina Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. If you focus on her behavior—“You’re always in a crappy mood after work”—she’s going to get defensive. But if you stick to your own feelings—“I wish we didn’t argue so much at night”—she’ll pay attention, Tessina says. (Learn more relationship-saving communication tips.)
4. Sleep on it. Don’t be afraid to go to bed angry, Sherman says. “You’re not going to resolve anything when you’re tired and emotionally charged.” Research has found that sleep can actually strengthen and clarify your memories, meaning you’ll have a better grasp of the problem if you give it a good night’s rest.