Updated 10/13/2019

An On Again Off Again Relationship: The Mental Health Risks

Have you ever seen an on again off again relationship up close?

These are couples that have dramatic breakups only to reconcile and reunite a few days later. The typical drama-saturated on again off again relationship is emotionally chaotic and rarely endures.

According to several studies, on again off again relationships are pretty common. Somewhere between 30% to 50% of adult daters reporting breaking up and getting back together with their current partner and over 60% reporting a similar pattern in a previous relationship that finally remained in the “off” position.

All aggravation aside, new research tells us that on again off again relationships directly impact mental and physical health. According to a recent study, on again off again relationships are distressing to the nervous system and can promote serious mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

This type of on and off relationship is hard on the nervous system because they are correlated with high rates of emotional abuse, low commitment, and chronically poor communication.

The On Again Off Again Relationship is it a Healthy One-Off… or Chronic Pattern?

on-again-off-again-relationshipSome couples go through a break-up and reunite with a more robust commitment.

In these cases, a single event on again off again experience can be beneficial and is not necessarily an indication of a serious underlying problem.

For many couples, breaking up precedes a period of reflection and post-traumatic growth.

The couple may realize the importance of their intimate bond. This contributes to a “healthier, more committed union,” says lead researcher Kale Monk, Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri in the US.

“On the other hand”,  warns Monk, “partners who are routinely breaking up and getting back together could be negatively impacted by the pattern.”

The Perils of the On Again Off Again Relationship

Patterns of the on again off again relationship are hard on the nervous system because these couples are not able to emotionally regulate themselves, or help to co-regulate with their partner. They don’t typically employ softened start-ups or make regular repair attempts. They also tend to reject what few repair attempts are made.

This emotional roller-coaster increases adrenaline and cortisol levels in the brain.

Monk’s research shows that couples who are trapped in a chronic on again off again relationship may experience higher levels of anxiety and depression, which in turn, reinforces the very negativity which fuels the on again off again dynamic.

It’s a vicious circle of negativity and reactivity.

Pragmatism Over Passion

Monk’s study noticed that the on again off again dynamic was often more driven by pragmatic concerns that re-commitment to the on again off again relationship.

The lack of commitment and the tendency to be open to a “better deal” with a different partner also fuels discontent.

Often, couples remain together for purely financial reasons. Some partners also report that they feel that they have invested far too much time and energy in the relationship to give it up permanently.

Monk suggests that during the off-again phase, partners should reflect on their degree of commitment and less on selfish, pragmatic advantages. “Why do we keep doing this? is a good question for these couples to work on together.

“If partners are honest about the pattern, they can take the necessary steps to maintain their relationships or safely end them. This is vital for preserving their well-being,” Monk advises.

3 Practical Steps to Curb the Health Risks of Your On-Again-Off-Again Relationship

on again off again relationship

Emotional dysregulation and chronic bickering are bad for your physical and mental health. The research suggests that these partners should ponder the reasons they keep breaking up. Are there consistent or persistent issues impacting the on again off again relationship that never get addressed?

Here are 3 Practical steps:

  • Have a Generative Conversation about these stubborn, reoccurring issues that predictably feed the on again off again dynamic. Why do we keep breaking up? Ask questions. Don’t interrupt. Allow your partner to speak in paragraphs. Take notes. Do this for 20 minutes and then reverse roles.

(The only exception here is a pattern of domestic violence. Having a conversation with a violent perpetrator on intimate terrorism can lead to safety concerns. Get appropriate help from support-services, and have a safety plan).

  • Also, have a generative conversation about the positive aspects of your relationship? Are you returning because of an intimate bond with your partner or simply because it’s convenient? Why do we keep coming back? Ask questions. Don’t interrupt. Allow your partner to speak in paragraphs. Take notes. Do this for 20 minutes and then reverse roles.

Remember that it is always okay to end a dangerous or emotionally abusive relationship. If you’re in a non-violent but “unfixable” relationship, have a conversation with your partner about what you need and why. Ask yourself…what’s my bottom line?

Here’s two final thoughts that the research brought up:

  • Consider science-based couples therapy. Couples in on again off again relationships often come from similar families of origin where parents had a low commitment, high volatility, and poor staying power.
  • Couples therapy can help you to understand how to regulate your emotional reactivity, and teach you the art and science of fighting fair.

Get Coaching So You Want to Decide Once And For All…



The study was published in the journal Family Relations J. Kale Monk Brian G. Ogolsky Ramona F. Oswald

First published: 30 July 2018 https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12336

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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