Are On-Again, Off-Again Relationships Healthy? 4 Signs Yours Is Toxic

When two people fall in love, there are seemingly only a couple clear-cut paths that their relationship could take — they could stay together forever, or at some point, break up. But what about those who break up, then make up, only to break up, and then get back together soon after? As it turns out, the on-again, off-again relationship is an incredibly common phenomenon: A 2009 study published in Personal Relationships, which revealed that nearly two-thirds of participants have experienced one.

We've watched friends, celebrities (looking at you, Liam and Miley), and fictional couples go through it (shoutout to Ross and Rachel). Additionally, many of us have fallen into these cycles of on-again, off-again relationships ourselves. It makes sense: Renewing a former romance can provide familiarity and comfort right from the get-go. If you’re convinced you’re still in love with someone, it can feel nearly impossible to let them go for good. Furthermore, as Nicole Richardson, licensed counselor and therapist, explains, “It can be good for two people to take some space, reassess, discuss and try again."

But these perks can come at a price. Sometimes, an on-again, off-again relationship can turn into an emotional rollercoaster that wreaks havoc on one or both partners’ well-being. In other words: on-again, off-again relationships can become downright toxic. In fact, the same 2009 study found that on-and-off partners were less likely to report positive relationship characteristics, such as receiving love and understanding from their SOs. Individuals engaging in this type of relationship were also more likely report the negative aspects of their relationships, such as uncertainty about the future and communication problems, than partners in consistent, longterm relationships.

"If a relationship is undergoing the cycle of on-again, off-again, then there are some additional underlying issues that need to be addressed but have been avoided by breaking up and rekindling the relationship when the smoke clears,” says relationship expert and author Alexis Nicole White.

So, how do you know if your on-again, off-again romance is toxic? I asked two experts, and here's what they had to say.

One person is uncertain about the future.

Lucas Ottone/Stocksy

If your partner sees wedding bells somewhere down the line, but you like to dodge the subject of marriage entirely, you may need to reassess how healthy your on-again, off-again relationship is.

As Richardson explains, "The key is to communicate and have each person’s best interest as a focus. Often, the on-and-off is due to ambivalence from at least one person."

Ideally, both people in a relationship should be equally invested and committed. So, if your relationship keeps ending because you can't get on the same page about the future, that could be a sign that it’s veering towards toxic territory.

Nothing has changed.

Alexey Kuzma/Stocksy

It goes a little something like this: You break up because of X, and promptly get back together. But then, after the euphoric haze of the makeup sex clears, X continues to be the source of all your arguments. The pattern continues. That’s why Richardson advises asking yourself, “What is different this time around?” before rekindling the relationship.

"If there has been no discussion of why the relationship is on-and-off, and what both parties can do to change the cycle, it is likely to happen again,” she says.

As the famous Einstein saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. So if you want a different outcome for your relationship this time around (as in, no breakup), something has to be adjusted.

“That may mean that you need to set boundaries, or talk about your needs and expectations and then follow through if the other person is not willing or able to step up and meet your needs,” says Richardson. “But waiting around for the other person to change is likely just going to cause you to feel more pain.”

It feels like a safety net.

Thais Ramos Varela/Stocksy

Sometimes, people get back together with an ex simply because they feel dependent on that person. Or as White puts it, they may be “utilizing the relationship as a manipulation tactic to get their needs met.”

Research shows that this is actually an extremely common reason for relationship cycling. A 2011 study published in The Journal of Social Psychology assessed why people decided to renew their relationships, and many participants cited continued attachment, dissatisfaction with alternative partners, missing the general companionship provided by a partner, and desire for the familiarity the relationship provided, as main reasons for getting back together.

It’s completely normal to miss the companionship of your SO after splitting. However, if you’re only resuming a relationship because you’re afraid of being alone (or suspect the other person is), then there’s a chance your romance is becoming toxic.

You're the only person with things to work on.

GIC/Stocksy

The reality is, it’s very unlikely that only one person is to blame for the ending of a relationship. So if you decide to rekindle your romance, it’s crucial that both you and your partner take responsibility for what each of you needs to improve on or adjust, in order to make the relationship work. When it starts to feel like all of your relationship problems are your own fault, it’s probably time to take a step back and evaluate how healthy your connection may be.

Pay attention to how often you have thoughts patterns like, “If only I could just _, we could make this work." According to Richardson, a relationship may be becoming toxic if whenever you're off-again, you're constantly driven to feel bad about yourself or are left wondering what you did wrong. We're all working on our personal growth, but the pressure to make the relationship succeed should never solely fall on one person.

On-again, off-again relationships can range vastly in nature — but for the most part, they can be categorized in one of two ways: a couple that continually repeats a particular pattern without making any significant changes, or a pair that uses the time that they’re separated to address any holes or cracks in their foundational bond. According to White, it's the former type of relationship that can potentially be considered toxic. So, what should you do if you want your on-again, off-again relationship to succeed? White recommends seeking counseling, as individuals can work through any outstanding issues in a safe, open environment with an unbiased third party to lead and navigate difficult discussions.

Ultimately, each relationship is unique, and none of the aforementioned aspects is a surefire sign that yours is toxic. Still, it’s important to evaluate the pros and cons of your romance, and highlight what changes need to be made, before reigniting a former flame — that way, you can determine if your relationship calls for a clean break, or carries the potential for happily ever after.

Don't forget that communication is the key to success in any relationship. Once you're on-again, keep the line continually open so that you're both clear on each other's needs, desires, and concerns. A healthy dialogue will ensure you a shot at the fairytale ending that you deserve.

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