This Is How You Get Stuck in an on-Again, Off-Again Relationship—and How to Break the Cycle

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I am the product of a rare on-again, off-again relationship gone right. My parents, who fell in love in an age without dating apps, hook-up culture, and the paradox of choice, broke up three times over the course of six years before deciding that yep, what they had was the real deal. Cut to me, spending 12 years of dating thinking my endless on-again, off-again continuums are "healthy."

Whether the cycle is healthy or not, getting back together with an ex is... actually a pretty standard move. This continues even into relationships that involve real estate and wedding rings: a 2013 study by the University of Kansas suggests that "over one-third of cohabiters and one-fifth of spouses have experienced a breakup and renewal in their current relationship." But on the flip side, rapid cycling in a relationship typically led to more cycling, greater uncertainty in their relationship’s future, and lower satisfaction.

To wit: We cling to the dream of the Jim and Pam endgame when most of these arrangements are actually Ryan and Kelly toxic.  But if you find yourself drawn, twin-flame-style, to a person over and over and over again, does that necessarily predict doom? Is it straight radioactive incompatibility, or just bad timing?

According to relationship expert Susan Winter, attempted break-ups are sometimes our slow-burn way of letting go. "For some couples, breaking up requires a series of attempts before they're able to leave each other," she says. "It's a process. You're weaning yourself from you partner. Whether your relationship was good or bad, it was your reality. And humans don't like change."

Fair point. That doesn't always mean that breaking with someone means it's automatically the end, because sometimes, growing apart is a necessary step in growing together later. (Put that on a crocheted pillow!) Taking a break, for some, might mean separating, which can be caused by the need for re-evaluation, for therapy, for introspection," says sex and relationship expert Tammy Nelson, PhD. "It takes space, at times, to miss someone, to appreciate what you have, to remember that you love your partner. Sometimes separation happens before you remember to say you’re sorry."

"Whether your relationship was good or bad, it was your reality. And humans don't like change." —Susan Winter, relationship coach

So how can you tell whether you're getting back together again and again and again for the wrong reasons? Well, let's examine how, exactly, people get locked into an on-again, off-again relationship.

One big factor comes down to the hormones responsible for creating sexual chemistry. Dopamine, often called the "happy hormone," is released when we do things that feel good, like spending time with our crush or having sex. As your relationship develops, vasopressin and oxytocin (aka "the cuddle hormone") kick in, causing you to form an attachment to the person. (First comes attraction, then attachment.) These same hormones are associated with other bonding activities, like breastfeeding and childbirth. When you break up, and your daily hits of feel-good dopamine that come from spending time with your loved one disappear, you go through something similar to withdrawal. This neurochemical process makes us scream for the other person, culminating in that first "u up" text. And the reunion, oh, it's so gratifying. A reward, even.

But don’t mistake a reward for a fix.

"If you find you have to break up repeatedly just to find the spark you lost, or to have great makeup sex, maybe think about what you actually want," Dr. Nelson says. "Are you breaking up to make up?"

Sometimes, though, the forces driving a breakup loop have to do with the psychological comfort of being with someone we’re familiar with. “The fear of being alone is a huge factor in couples staying together, even unhappily so,” Winter says. “They may want to break up, try to do so, and then reunite out of desperation. What if there's no one better? What if they leave this mate, only to discover it's hard to find someone new? This cycle of repetition is based on fear.”

And honestly, it’s also usually based on habit. According to Winter, we’re accustomed to our environment as-is, and this includes our selection of mate. “We know their routine, and we know the type of life we have with them,” she continues. “Entering 'the new' is scary. What if what's new isn't better?” And that leads us back to feeeeear!

Essentially, if you want to end a toxic relationship—or at least break the pattern of being on-again—the best thing you can do post-breakup is allow for a neurochemical detox and cut off contact. >And if you *sigh* STILL want to get back with your ex after breaking it off for the millionth time? The best thing is STILL to allow for a neurochemical detox and cut off contact. That way, you’re thinking more with your head and less with your hormones.

Still wading through the ex-files? This 3-step checklist can help you determine if it's ever worthwhile to be friends with an ex. And if you want to fight fair going forward, 4 relationship experts agree on what you shouldn't say in an argument.  

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