Let Go: On-Again, Off-Again Relationships Harmful To Mental Health

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Letting go is painful for many people when it comes to relationships, but a study suggests that it may be the safest option when it comes to protecting one’s mental health.

A study by researchers at the University of Missouri found that on-and-off relationships can have toxic psychological consequences, despite being often characterized more playfully by Hollywood (such as Ross and Rachel in the sitcom “Friends”).

Previous research on the vicious cycle of breaking up and getting back together showed that six in ten adults have trudged through on-and-off again relationships. More than a third of cohabitating couples said they broke up and reconciled with their partner at some point in their relationship, according to prior research. The Missouri research team, led by assistant professor of human development Kale Monk, compared abuse rates, communication indicators, and commitment levels of on-off relationships with relationships that don’t follow this pattern and found that on-off relationships are often marred by higher rates of abuse, worse communication, and lower levels of commitment.

“Breaking up and getting back together is not always a bad omen for a couple,” Monk says in a university release. “In fact, for some couples, breaking up can help partners realize the importance of their relationship, contributing to a healthier, more committed unions. On the other hand, partners who are routinely breaking up and getting back together could be negatively impacted by the pattern.”

Researchers analyzed data from more than 500 individuals who said they were currently in a relationship. They found an increase in psychological distress symptoms such as depression and anxiety associated with the frequency of the on-off relationship pattern.

Monk says that partners who split up should only get back together if they’re truly devoted to one another, as opposed to simply giving it another shot for the sake of trying again.

“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,” says Monk. “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.”

Beyond having honest conversations with one another about why a breakup occurred and the reasons that each partner wants to try again, Monk also suggests couples therapy or simply visiting with a counselor for relationship “checkups.” And if a relationship seems beyond repair, a partner should never feel guilty, especially if it means bettering one’s mental and physical health.

The study was published in the journal Family Relations.

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