Are On-and-Off Relationships Ever a Good Idea?

Are On-and-Off Relationships Ever a Good Idea?

By Kate Mooney 

It’s possible that you’ve found yourself in an on-and-off relationship before: one minute, you and your sometimes-squeeze are dating, the next you’re breaking up, then you’re back together again, and the cycle repeats. For some reason, you two haven’t quite hit your stride, but aren’t ready to give up on the connection either. It’s not always obvious whether you’re stuck in an unproductive situation, or if the timing isn’t right but the relationship is still worth fighting for. 

So are on-and-off relationships ever a good idea? Well, it depends. Here’s what the experts have to say.

Get on the Same Page About What You Want 

On-and-off relationships aren’t always doomed to fail. However, relationship coach Marisa T. Cohen notes that these kinds of relationships can lead to psychological distress when both of you want different things but aren’t upfront about it. “Unless both people are on the same page about the status of the relationship and why things are ending and coming back together, one person is likely to get hurt, if not both,” she says.

If one of you doesn’t see a future while the other does, that’s a recipe for emotional turmoil. In order to avoid all that, try being explicit with your on-and-off partner about what you’re looking for. If you both don’t want the same thing, that’s a good indicator that the relationship won’t work in the long run. 

Use Time Apart Constructively 

Splitting up and getting back together again can actually be helpful for a relationship, says psychotherapist and relationship expert Rachel A. Sussman. “Sometimes a couple needs to break up,” she says. “Sometimes they’re stuck and they can’t fix whatever’s broken; maybe they’re not ready to fix it. [But] there’s something about space plus time that can really cause certain people to reflect—and if that space and time is used well, they can then have a really great conversation, which can either lead to closure or to getting back together.”  

Once a couple talks through the issues and decides to give the relationship another go, Dr. Sussman suggests they come up with rules that establish each person’s commitment to doing the work and making the relationship last. However, there’s a caveat to all of this: Dr. Sussman recommends only breaking up and getting back together once. 

Don’t Get Back Together Out of Habit

All of that said, if you and a partner are constantly breaking up, getting back together, and not making an effort to change that pattern, that dynamic can be harmful to your relationship and “a huge emotional energy drain,” says Samantha Burns, millennial love expert and author of Breaking Up and Bouncing Back. 

Rather than taking the time to figure out what you want and need when you’re apart as Dr. Sussman recommends, you might just be getting back together out of habit. If that’s the case, “this pattern just leads to hurt feelings, and the inevitable more permanent breakup,” says Burns. It also can lead to trust issues and compromise your ability to effectively work through conflict, because the cycle seems doomed to repeat itself. 

If this sounds like your situation, Burns recommends “a firm breakup where each partner focuses on themselves to grow individually”—and no hooking up. After that, you can better evaluate whether you should get back together. 

Don’t Close Yourself Off to Meeting Someone New

This may sound obvious, but being wrapped up in an on-again, off-again relationship isn’t a good idea if you’re looking for a new partner. Dr. Cohen points out that these kinds of on-and-off entanglements could hinder you from forming more lasting connections: “If you have that person in the background, are you ever fully devoting yourself to looking for others and fully jumping into other relationships with two feet?” she says. You want to make sure a casual “situationship” doesn’t get in the way of finding someone you could see yourself with long-term. 

Overall, on-and-off relationships don’t have to mean constant chaos and emotional rollercoasters. Making sure you’re both honest about your needs and considerate of each other’s feelings can help you build a healthy, trusting dynamic—whether or not it leads to something that lasts.