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Relationships research has used typologies and dimensional approaches to characterize relationships. Research has similarly sought to characterize on-off relationships using types, dimensions, and trajectories. Five types of on-off relationships are reviewed; some showing constructive patterns or closure, whereas others exhibit incongruencies, and even coercion and control. On-off relationships also exhibit varying trajectories. For example, despite inherently experiencing multiple breakups and renewals, only half of on-off partners reported fluctuations in their commitment to the relationship. In addition, the different types and trajectories suggest that fluctuations in relationship dynamics might not necessarily be distressing to these partners. Overall, these various characterizations of cyclical relationships show they follow a diversity of paths that entail different dynamics.
Various theories have been used to explain the dynamics of on-off relationships. Despite individual differences being a potential explanation for the occurrence of cycling, research on personality (e.g., the Big 5), attachment dimensions, and self-esteem show few differences have emerged between on-off and non-cyclical partners. In contrast, social exchange theories such as interdependence theory and the investment model appear to operate similarly for on-off and non-cyclical relationships, but perceptions of alternatives might be playing a stronger role in on-off relationships. For example, on-off partners view their current partners and potential alternatives as offering similar outcomes, which could facilitate dissolution to explore alternatives. In general then, although on-off partners consistently report lower relational quality, certain relationship theories can be employed to understand the functioning of these relationships. However, because models or theories of relationship progression do not explicitly incorporate the potential of cycling, theories specific to the unique nature of on-off relationships (e.g., multiple relational transitions) are needed to understand reconciliations and their effects. For example, inertia theory has explored how on-off partners make less conscious decisions regarding their relational transitions. Using theories such as this with longitudinal data offer greater insights on the development and perpetuation of cycling.
On-again/off-again relationships challenge the standard dichotomous definition of relationship stability (i.e., whether the relationship remains intact or dissolves). This chapter reviews the various conceptualizations of stability. Although on-off partners report less relationship stability when using subjective, one-time assessments (e.g., perceived stability, sense of security, or persistence in the relationship), a process-oriented assessment of stability is advocated in which relationship dynamics are measured over time. As argued by chaos theory, fluctuations over time could indicate a stable pattern. For example, research suggests certain fluctuations are associated with greater stability in on-off relationships. A process-oriented perspective could thus provide a more nuanced assessment of relationship stability for both on-off and non-cyclical relationships. Additional considerations for future research are also offered.
The synthesis of the research regarding cyclical relationships presents several avenues of future investigation. From a practical standpoint, the increased occurrence of conflict and aggression needs to be unpacked with an eye towards intervention. In addition, several areas of relationships research offer means of determining whether (ex)partners have more malleable and negative cognitive structures that perpetuate the cyclical nature of these relationships. How on-off partners manage the tension between desiring both certainty and ambiguity should also be explored. Potential positives of these relationships should be investigated as well. Cyclical relationships can provide insights on navigating fluctuations and renegotiating boundaries of relationships. These areas of future research would be best addressed with dyadic and longitudinal data. Ultimately, the study of cyclical relationships offers a more sophisticated delineation of relationship stability.
Much of the research on on-again/off-again relationships shows they are different from non-cyclical relationships. This chapter organizes the differences found into three sections: relationship evaluations, communication dynamics, and structural factors. The first section details how on-off partners have lower levels of love, less satisfaction, and more relational uncertainty, particularly while dating (as compared to when they are in a post-dissolution phase). The second section outlines how on-off partners use less relationship maintenance, engage in more disclosure as well as topic avoidance, and also exhibit more conflict and aggression. The third section focuses on structural, external, or sociological factors. For example, on-off relationships are more likely to be long-distance and are somewhat less likely to garner support from their friends and family. In addition, partners in these cyclical relationships are more likely to have experienced economic and employment hardships; yet, children of cycling parents might gain certain benefits. Overall, the research consistently shows that on-off partners have lower relational quality and experience certain external factors that might either produce or perpetuate their cycling.
The quintessential feature of on-off relationships is the experience of both breakups and renewals. This chapter reviews how breakups and post-dissolution relationships are different for on-off partners as compared to those who have not experienced a renewal. Few differences emerged between the two relationship types in terms of breakup experiences. However, although on-off partners did not report any greater breakup distress, they did report more contact with their former partners, and did so for reasons related to continued attraction, sexual access, and practical reasons (e.g., having children together) more than non-cyclical partners. Using data that tracked ex-partners for several months, this chapter also reports initial findings on what predicts renewals for those with and without a history of relationship cycling. In general, first renewals were predicted by not wanting the breakup and perceiving a lack of alternatives. Renewals by those already with a history of cycling were predicted by problematic dynamics (e.g., aggression) while dating, post-dissolution sex, and having less negative experiences with the partner after the breakup. The collective of findings suggest reconciliations are best predicted by what happens after the breakup rather than by why or how the breakup occurred.
Dating today is nebulous. Whereas courtship used to follow a traditional track (i.e., from initiation to being exclusive to either getting married or breaking up), dating now has very few rules or clear-cut paths.
Two-thirds. That’s where we started. Two-thirds of individuals have experienced a cyclical relationship. Building on this initial finding, other researchers and we have built a foundation of research describing differences between cyclical and non-cyclical relationships, exploring theoretical explanations for the differences, delineating various types and trajectories of cyclical relationships, and predicting renewals and other outcomes.
A first step in understanding on-again/off-again relationships is to describe them. This chapter outlines the definition of these relationships and the collective of descriptive information from the research. Across a variety of college student, community, crowdsourcing, and secondary dataset samples, the research shows that a majority of individuals (approximately two-thirds) experience at least one on-off relationship. These relationships tend to go through two to three renewals on average and last just as long or longer than committed romantic relationships that do not break up and renew. Although the vast majority of breakups are initiated by one partner, about half of the renewals are characterized as mutual. Few sex or sexual orientation differences have emerged thus far, but additional research assessing differences among various age cohorts, cultures, and other demographic factors is needed. This chapter ends with a discussion of why the experience of relationship cycling is likely to continue in today’s dating landscape.
Situating the research regarding cyclical relationships within the larger sphere of relationships research, several practical applications are offered. Recommendations depend on goals partners have for their relationships. For those wanting to maintain the relationship but stop the cycling, partners might need to explicitly negotiate the rules or expectations of their relationships to ensure that the issues that led to the previous breakups are resolved. Given the increased incidence of conflict and aggression, finding more effective conflict management tactics might also aid in gaining a steadier path. For those wanting to redefine their relationship into a friendship, there are few scripts and many challenges. Frequently, at least one partner also desires reconciliation, and these partners might become overly intrusive. Although possible, post-dissolution relationships might require explicit boundary negotiation. Those wanting permanent dissolution should avoid surveilling or contact with the ex-partner, which can lead to rumination and thus exacerbate breakup distress. Additionally, reframing thoughts about the breakup to see potential positives as well as re-establishing one’s identity outside of the relationship can help ex-partners move forward.
In a world where we have an endless number of options to swipe through, why do many of us repeatedly return to previous romantic partners? This book addresses this question by synthesizing the research on relationships that break up and renew (i.e. 'on-again, off-again' relationships) from various disciplines including communication, social psychology, family studies, and sociology. It explicates the various types and trajectories of on-again, off-again relationships, and uncovers how these relationships are different from those that do not split up and reconcile. Because on-again, off-again relationships challenge traditional notions of relationship stability and highlight the fluctuating nature of relationships, alternative conceptualizations of stability are also reviewed. This book is a theoretical and practical resource for researchers, students, and professionals interested in understanding why partners repeatedly reconcile with ex-partners.