What I Learned from On-Again Off-Again Relationships

It’s a tale as old as time—boy meets girl, boy and girl date blissfully, boy and girl can’t seem to make it work but also can’t seem to completely walk away from one another so they make up and then break up and so on and so forth ad nauseum.

Luckily it’s not that common of a tale for everyone, but for some of us—raises hand guiltily—the on-again, off-again relationship is all too familiar.

Some experts refer to it as ‘relationship cycling,’ but I just refer to it the True Absolute Worst How Did I Get Here GAHD. I can think of two relationships I’ve been in that had this distinct, addictive push and pull, and besides being exhausting, I look back on this dynamic a wild, epic waste of my time (and his).

So, whether you’ve been through this before (#solidarity), or you’re an on-again/off-again rookie (#saveyourself), here are some truths I gleaned from my experience:

Almost doesn’t count.

I’m not sure if Brandy had this type of relationship-seesaw in mind when she sang these lyrics, but the shoe sure fits.  Noncommittal isn’t really a good color on anyone, and it brings out some really ugly sides in people. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through these experiences it’s that you’re either in or you’re out. Being in the middle, or ping-ponging between the two will eventually drive you insane.

“What is” is way more important than “What could be” 

For me, when I was caught in these make up/break up relationships, a lot of what kept me going was this grandiose idea of what was possible… what we could be. But along with those thoughts is an ever-present “if only,” which, is really not a great way to live. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great quality to see the best in people; to see what their potential—but a common piece of relationship advice is that you’re choosing someone for who they are right now and not your ideal, “someday” version of them. And for me, a common symptom of the “on-again” was convincing myself that someday was right around the corner, every time.

Relationship problems don’t just go away.

So often, the romance and movie-magic of reuniting with your ex can feel so overwhelming that you forget that the things that didn’t work when you broke up are still present (which is usually the case). So if no time or work or therapy or changes have been made, when the fairy dust of reconciliation inevitably settles, you’ll be left with the same broken relationship, the same problems, and usually the same ending.

Love isn’t enough.

Don’t get me wrong, love is important. Both feeling ‘in love’ and truly loving someone are critical to a good relationship. But something that really tripped me up was believing that love was enough even when other important elements were missing (trust, security, priorities, etc.). Yes, it’s extremely hard to let go of someone you love, but those feelings alone do not a strong (or reliable, or fulfilling) relationship make.

There’s ‘getting back together’ and then there’s ‘here we go again.’

To me, there’s a big difference between a one-time reunion (taking time to work on things, or reuniting after years) and the rigamarole of being an on-again/off-again couple. People do end relationships and change their minds (or their ways) and reconcile and it works out, but it seems to me that if you’ve done the break up/make up dance several times, you’re just likely to repeat history again and again. Oh, and That One Friend who dated her boyfriend on and off for years and ended up married to him is likely the exception to the rule.

You can drive yourself insecure.

When I was younger, I doubt that I would’ve listed “stable” or “safe” anywhere on my list of qualities I desired in a partner. I was admittedly seeking high-passion and excitement…and boy did I find it. Unfortunately, alongside the high highs were incredibly low lows. And when you find yourself constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop (he’s going to end it again, or change his mind again, or we’re going to have that same ‘deal-breaking’ fight again) you become a shadow of your old self. At the end of a recent tumultuous relationship, I barely recognized myself. And I know it can feel like someone drove you insecure or insane, but with perspective I can see the many moments and choices where I allowed the relationship dynamic to be what it was and essentially let myself lose myself. Not to sound like an after-school special but you can end the cycle.

Actions > words.

Take it from a writer, words are easy. Action, on the other hand, takes a lot more work and thusly holds a lot more weight. When it comes to relationships, make sure you observe what your partner is actually doing versus what they promise. Reuniting after a breakup can be so heavy on the flowery words and apologies and promises, that you can just assume this person will obviously do what they say (spoiler alert: if they haven’t before, they likely won’t now.)

At the end of the day, whatever keeps being big enough to end your relationship once, will probably continue to be strong enough to end it again (and again). Whether it’s “something missing” or running your heads against the same argument wall, it can be really liberating to just call a spade a spade and fold your hand (a shoddy poker metaphor but just go with it.) Final thoughts: know your worth, don’t settle, and all of those other warm quotes you’ll see on instagram later (but really).

Ok let’s talk: have you been in one of these relationships? What do you think kept you in the cycle? What’s the biggest thing you learned? Hit us with your wisdom.

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