Love. Disappoint. Fight. Break up. Miss each other. Get back together. Repeat.
Those are the basic instructions for, or rather the pattern of, a couple who engages in an on-again, off-again relationship.
Also known as “relationship cycling,” the predictable, repetitive cycle of breaking up and getting back together again can be dysfunctional, unstable, hurtful and even toxic. So why do so many couples put themselves through such an awful experience?
Debra Alper, a Chicago-based relationship therapist, noted that relationship cycling stems from a number of different places. These include:
- Unhealthy models of attachment we learned during childhood
- Fear of being alone
- Belief that things will change
- Low self-esteem
- Addiction to the habits of the relationship
“Relationship cycling is a psychological dance in which the couple falls in love, they get close, they begin to disappoint each other. (Then) they begin to fight. They begin to find the relationship intolerable, they end the relationship, only to be terrified at the (loneliness) that happens when they break up,” explained Alper, who has been in practice for 19 years. “This then brings them back to each other to try it all over again.”
In Alper's experience, when the couple breaks up, there is temporary relief, but then the fear of loneliness sets in and all they can think about are the good parts. Then, they start to imagine the high they will get when they reconnect.
“The honeymoon phase becomes shorter and shorter with each repeated cycle, and the craving for what were the good times and the fantasy element intensifies,” she said.
How do you break the cycle? Follow these three steps:
1. Recognize there is a pattern.
Alper said an excellent place to start is by doing two things: acknowledging the repetitive pattern and looking at the real underlying issues. She said professional help — going to a couple’s therapist — is a must.
2. Limit your communication with your ex.
Another good tip of advice to avoid repeating the cycle: Block all the outlets you may have into the person’s life, including cell phone, email, social media and mutual friends. Unfollow them on Instagram, block them on Facebook and delete their phone number.
3. Focus on yourself.
Lastly, and possibly most importantly, Alper said the individuals need to learn how to focus on themselves. Spend time doing things YOU want to do. Reinvest your time in friends and family.
“In these relationships, people are so used to giving away their own needs and their own sense of self to someone else as a way of trying to connect to the person,” she said. “You need to learn what it means to take care of yourself. Create or recreate a life that is focused on who you are and what you need, not what someone else can give you.”
According to Alper, there are exceptions, but for the most part, on-again off-again relationships don’t work out. In other words, relationship cycling isn’t like going for a leisurely bike ride in a beautiful park, but rather like traveling a path that is uphill, bumpy, includes lots of detours, and doesn’t really get you anywhere.
Jackie Pilossoph is the creator of the divorce support website, Divorced Girl Smiling.