Can you survive an on-off relationship?
Ross and Rachel had one. Rob Gordon and Laura had one. Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big definitely had one.
They're called cyclical relationships; any romantic relationship where the couple has broken up and gotten back together at least once. And Amber Vennum, assistant professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University, has been studying them.
Vennum's findings show that when real-life couples yo-yo between break-ups and make-ups, the results are rarely as romantic as they are onscreen.
"In general, premarital cyclical partners tend to report less conscious decision-making in their relationships and are more uncertain about the status of the relationship," says Vennum.
Uncertainty, eh? Remember when Ross thought he and Rachel were on a break?
Couples within cyclical relationships also report lower belief in their ability to make a romantic relationship last, less constructive communication and lower satisfaction with the relationship overall.
Sonja, a 27-year-old artist, yo-yoed with an ex over the course of a couple of years.
"There's a period of relationship euphoria right after you get back together," she says. "You feel a bit vulnerable, but mostly you're relieved and you let yourself start to hope again. (Eventually) you level off, and usually the same issues rear their ugly heads. After the second break-up, you realize that you've become one of those on-again-off-again couples that you despise."
So why keep rekindling things with someone when you know you have major problems being with them romantically?
"It's a mixture of loneliness, missing your partner, and an unwillingness to let go of your investment," says Sonja. "Once you've put a certain amount of time into someone, letting go of that time seems terrifying. There's a fear that you will have failed, that there is something defective about you, that you've wasted those years, all of which can be harder to bear than mere loneliness."
According to former yo-yoer Kate, it can also be a matter of that one particular person being a hard habit to break.
"I think people feel compelled to get back together because it's comfortable," says Kate. "It's easy to fall back into a past relationship rather than start a brand new one. At one point in time you cared about that person, saw something good in them and were happy. I think it's normal to want to recreate that feeling."
It's tricky to recreate the first flush of love when a relationship is old hat. Especially if it's old hat with patches all over and a fair amount of wear and tear.
"The second time, dating (him) was actually much worse," says Adriana, a 31-year-old editor. "I think there's a lot of pressure to recreate exactly what you had the first time around, when things are exciting and new. But because you already know each other, some of that excitement is missing. There was a burst of excitement at the beginning and then it devolved into something resembling a friendship or brother-sister relationship."
Vennum stresses that breaking up and getting back together aren't necessarily the kiss of death for a relationship, but "it may take more work to clarify the status of the relationship, heal past wounds, and build confidence in the future of the relationship in addition to the normal hard work it takes to make a relationship grow and function long term."
Adriana says that if she ever considers dating an ex again, she'll be far more cautious.
"I would even consider proposing something like going to therapy together to make sure that we didn't repeat the same behaviours that led to the problems in the first relationship. There would be a lot more talking and rational thinking, not just getting caught up in the excitement of the reunion."