If you’re caught in an on-again, off-again relationship, a new study says it may be time to break the cycle for good.
“A pattern of breaking up and getting back together with the same partner — what we refer to as ‘relationship cycling’ — was associated with increased symptoms of depression and anxiety,” says study co-author Kale Monk, an assistant professor of human development and family science at the University of Missouri, in an email to TIME. “We know that breakups are upsetting in-and-of themselves, but this distress is considered normal and is often temporary. However, a tumultuous pattern of stressful transitions in and out of the same relationship might have more pervasive implications for our well-being.”
For the study, which was published in the journal Family Relations, researchers surveyed 545 people in romantic relationships about their levels of anxiety and depression, as well as whether (and how often) they had ever broken up and gotten back together with a partner.
About a third of people admitted to relationship cycling, with similar rates among couples of different sexual orientations. That behavior, the researchers found, was correlated with increases in psychological distress, even after accounting for other factors that can influence mental health, such as demographic information, marital and family status, sexual orientation and related stressors. The more on-off cycles a person reported, Monk says, the larger the increases in depression and anxiety seemed to be.
There are some caveats to the findings. It’s possible that people who are already prone to depression and anxiety may also have more volatile relationships, though Monk says relationship cycling seems to be associated with distress above and beyond other mental health symptoms. The researchers also found overlap between people in on-again, off-again relationships and those who said they experienced relationship violence, which could also contribute to psychological distress — but here, too, Monk says the data supports a separate effect for relationship cycling alone.
Monk stresses that people who have experienced violence or abuse in a partnership should take steps to safely leave the relationship for good, seeking out support services if necessary. And every couple should think seriously about the reasons for rekindling a relationship before doing so, he says.
A breakup can offer perspective and help couples realize how much they value each other. But all too often, Monk says, people fall back into toxic relationships because of habit, convenience or obligation, none of which bode well for relationship quality. Even reconciling because of breakup distress may hamper whatever personal growth comes from the end of a relationship, research has found.
“I recommend partners think about the reasons they broke up when considering rekindling a relationship. Will things really be different this time?” Monk says. “Then, it can be helpful to have an explicit conversation about issues that led to the breakups, especially if particular issues are likely to reoccur. This can help partners get on the same page about what needs to be improved or repaired.”
If those conversations don’t go well (or even if they do), Monk says there’s no shame in calling in quits — for good.
“It is okay to end a toxic relationship. If your relationship is beyond repair, do not feel guilty leaving for your mental or physical well-being,” Monk says. “Therapy or counseling might be a good option for people struggling with the decision to either work to repair and stabilize their relationship, or permanently leave, safely.”
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