When it comes to on-again/off-again relationships, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton take the cake.
Their passionate relationship – one of the most publicized of all time – failed so often, that after their second marriage, Taylor wrote to Burton:
“Dearest Hubs, How about that! You really are my husband again, and I have news for thee, there bloody will be no more marriages — or divorces, either. Yours truly, Wife.”
Less than a year later the couple divorced once again.
Their tragic persistence is often put on a pedestal, replicated time and time again in popular culture – think Big and Carrie from Sex and the City or Elle Woods and Warner Huntington in Legally Blonde.
But a new study suggests the classic on-off relationship isn’t necessarily something to aspire to.
The latest research found that the uncertainty caused from breaking up and reuniting again and again has its downsides, and it is linked to a higher risk of mental health issues.
“Breaking up and getting back together is not always a bad omen for a couple,” explains co-author Kale Monk, a researcher in human development and family science at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
“In fact, for some couples, breaking up can help partners realize the importance of their relationship, contributing to a healthier, more committed unions,” she adds.
“On the other hand, partners who are routinely breaking up and getting back together could be negatively impacted by the pattern”.
The study gathered together 545 individuals currently in same-sex and different-sex relationships. They quizzed them on their relationship status and also any symptoms of mental health issues.
The findings reveal that couples who break up and reunite more often were more likely to experience depression and anxiety – and that goes for both same-sex and different-sex couples.
This study obviously isn’t conclusive. The authors acknowledge that this link likely goes both ways. In other words, breaking up can cause mental anguish, but on the flip side, mental anguish may also prompt more break ups. So it’s a link that needs to be investigated further.
But it’s an important study, because today, on-off relationships are quite common, even outside of popular culture.
It’s currently estimated that 60 percent of adults have been involved in on-off relationships, and more than a third of couples living together have broken up and later reconciled.
People break up for all sorts of reasons, and Monk says it’s important to consider these when getting back together.
Because while these break ups don’t necessarily spell the end, the consequences can be dire if they aren’t handled properly.
Previous studies have shown that on-off relationships can lead to higher rates of abuse, poor communication and lower levels of commitment.
Now we could be able to add psychological turmoil to that list, too.
Not only can getting out of a relationship cause mental distress, the new research suggests that getting into a relationship without deliberation and dedication can lead to similar emotional turmoil.
So instead of pulling an Elle Woods and following your ex to law school to prove that you’re worth it, it’s probably a better idea to confront the underlying issues that led to your break up in the first place.
Like, maybe don’t date someone who breaks up with you cause they think you’re too ‘blonde’.
“The findings suggest that people who find themselves regularly breaking up and getting back together with their partners need to ‘look under the hood’ of their relationships to determine what’s going on,” Monk says.
Monk says that former partners should only get back together if the decision is based on dedication and not obligation.
Having a long history with someone is not a good enough reason to stay with them. It’s what economists refer to as a “sunk cost” – a decision that has already been made and that should not be used to determine future choices.
Monk says that refusing to accept the end of a relationship because it’s convenient leads down a path of continual distress and can doom any chance at the relationship succeeding in the future.
Instead, it’s far better to put your grown-up clothes on and have an explicit conversation with your partner, or even with a couple’s therapist.
And if, after all that work, the relationship is just too toxic to fix, you should not feel guilty about breaking up with someone to protect your mental and physical health. That should always come first.
“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,” says Monk.
The authors of the paper hope that future research will explore what factors lead people to continually reunite with their exes.
The study has been published in Family Relations.