What keeps partners coming back?
This question, a question posed by researchers in a 2011 study published in The Journal of Social Psychology, forces social scientists – and myself, quite honestly – to dive into a phenomenon that persists across the dating spectrum, a phenomenon that is both interesting and frustrating: interesting because it sheds light on human desire, and frustrating because on-off relationships inhibit those who are “sort of” with someone from moving on.
According to the research, common themes of on-off relationships include:
• On-off partners report more uncertainty about their relationship.
• On-off partners are intentionally vague about their break-up strategy.
• On-off partners are less certain they are no longer dating following their first breakup.
Almost half the 2011 study’s participants admitted to missing their partner, still loving their partner, and feeling that they could not be without their partner. My own experience confirms this too because, when I ask people why they keep coming back, they often cite one or more of the abovementioned reasons.
Aside from lingering feelings, others claim, “I am afraid to be alone” (companionship), “It was comfortable” (familiarity), and “I knew he was the one for me” (partner is “the one”).
Popular culture has satirized the on-off phenomenon.
In the 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld,” for instance, Jerry Seinfeld, the lead character in the show, hit the proverbial nail on the head when he admitted, “Ending a relationship is like knocking over a soda machine. You can’t do it in one push. You gotta rock it back-and-forth, and then it falls over.”
From this angle, relationships are like soda machines, but – unlike soda – they are a lot less sweet.
Other studies have demonstrated that the majority of break-ups are not mutual.
Fifteen percent of on-again/off-again partners report a mutual break-up compared to 43 percent of standard couples. In other words, mutual break-ups are less likely among on-off couples. Chances are that some poor sap, either the guy or the girl, will end up on the break-up receiving end, alone.
But it’s not all bad.
Interestingly, positive outcomes related to breakups have not been widely reported, but a 2003 study in journal of Personal Relationships did, in fact, point out some positive things about on-off relationships. For example, some people report “gaining wisdom” and “experiencing positive emotions” after a break-up. Though interesting, more research needs to be done, however, regarding the positive outcomes of break-ups.
Like the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, couples that constantly renew, pushing their relationship rock up a hill, only to let it roll down and up again, are doing themselves a disservice, in my opinion, and ought to just end it. Finally, as the science suggests, if you are the person to end the relationship the first time, the odds are that you will be the person to end it again… and again… and again… ad infinitum.