Research shows that most young adults in relationships will experience an on-and-off relationship and that these relationships can be damaging to a person’s mental health.

An on-and-off relationship is a type of relationship where two young adults break up and get back together repeatedly. Individuals in on-and-off relationships face many emotional distresses, which may affect one or both partners.

This article discusses on and off relationships, causes, signs, and strategies to break the cycle.

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Yurii Shevchenko/Stocksy United

An on-and-off relationship is a type of relationship between two people involving a repetitive cycle of break-ups and reconciliations. Around 60% of young adults in a relationship experience these relationships. Individuals in on-and-off relationships typically experience emotional and psychological distress.

On-and-off relationship signs typically vary. The following are some common signs of these relationships:

  • Frequent break-ups: Typically, The constant cycle of breaking up and reuniting indicates an on-and-off relationship.
  • Inadequate trust: Trust typically declines in on-and-off relationships.
  • Irregular communication: The break-up and reunite cycle of on-and-off relationships can interrupt effective communication, especially if partners remain silent when they break up.
  • Emotional instability: Emotional highs and lows are typical of on-and-off relationships.

Multiple factors can cause on-and-off relationships. Here are some of the common ones:

  • Incompatibility in values and goals: Partners with significant variations in their values or goals risk breaking up the relationship.
  • Inability to handle conflicts: Inadequate conflict resolution skills between partners raise the risks of having multiple disagreements, which can adversely affect the relationship.
  • Commitment issues: A partner may fear committing to a relationship, which can contribute to the break-up and reunite cycle of on-and-off relationships.
  • Issues with stress coping skills: Partners who have difficulty coping with stressful events, such as financial or work stress, may experience relationship challenges and break up eventually.
  • Previous traumatic relationships: Individuals with unresolved past relationship traumas may not commit fully to their partners.

To prevent breaking up, seeking the assistance of a relationship counselor can benefit partners experiencing these factors.

On-and-off relationships can work, but they require a strong commitment and determination from partners. Additionally, strategies, such as seeking therapy, continuous personal growth, and open and honest communication, are positive ways to make the relationship work.

When it works

An older 2011 study found that participants reported being interested in on-and-off relationships. This means that some individuals may prefer them because of personal circumstances. For example, a person may not be willing to commit to the demands of a long-distance relationship if their work requires frequent travel.

Individuals who travel a lot and do not want to commit may choose to break up and reunite with different partners each time they travel.

For partners who want their on-and-off relationships to work, it requires some effort from all individuals. Here are some ideas to help them:

  • Identify the root cause: This is a fundamental step to resolving repetitive break-up cycles. Generally, accurately identifying the problem is a positive way to make progress in making the relationship work.
  • Set expectations: Setting clear expectations and responsibilities for individuals in a relationship reduces misunderstandings and conflicts.
  • Commitment to personal improvement: Continuous personal growth can help partners acquire essential coping skills and resolve stressful life events.

When it does not work

Generally, on-and-off relationships that do not work have some common characteristics. Here are some of the reasons why they might not work:

  • Unresolved differences: Partners who are uncommitted to resolving their differences tend to break up easily.
  • Emotional distress: The breaking up and getting back cycle can lead to emotional and mental strain on the relationship.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Disappointments due to unrealistic relationship expectations may lead to a break-up.
  • Toxic behaviors: Some partners in on-and-off relationships may exhibit toxic behaviors, such as physical or emotional abuse, which can affect the relationship.
  • External interference: Close family and friends may interfere in a relationship and contribute to a break-up.

Decisiveness is a critical ingredient that could strengthen a relationship. The following tips can help a person become more decisive:

  • practice open and honest communication
  • become self-aware and make decisions based on personal values
  • avoid rushing when making tough decisions
  • consider the consequences of any decision
  • seek counsel from a trusted expert

Breaking the cycle in an on-and-off relationship takes commitment and patience from both partners. Individuals in a relationship have to be dedicated and willing to do whatever it takes to avoid breaking up. For instance, they have to willingly decide to seek help from a relationship therapist if they cannot handle issues alone.

By cultivating positive behaviors, such as mutual respect and open communication, partners are less likely to break up.

Partners in on-and-off relationships typically need help navigating many challenges they face.

With the appropriate support, these partners can overcome most of the obstacles they encounter.

Here are some examples of support they might need:

  • quality counsel from a professional or trusted friend
  • encouragement on the need to build trust
  • assistance in improving patience and empathy toward each other

Partners willing to work together can build a solid relationship support that helps them during challenging times.

Most young adults experience on-and-off relationships at some point. Repetitive cycles of break-ups and reconciliation characterize these relationships. Partners in on-and-off relationships typically experience emotional and psychological distress. On-and-off relationships are typically more common when partners are incompatible, do not communicate openly, and lack the skills to handle challenges.

Partners can reduce the cycle of on-and-off relationships when they seek help from relationship professionals, communicate their feelings, and build trust and mutual respect.