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On and Off Relationship: What It Is, 37 Yo-Yo Signs & Why It’s So Bad For You

You’re together one moment, broken up the next. Then you get back together– and the cycle repeats. You’re in an on-off relationship, and you need to get out.

on and off relationship

Being with someone takes dedication and passion. Whether you spent two weeks or two years living in blissful monogamy, it can be very hard to let go of someone you love, even if you know that doing so will improve your overall well-being. But what’s worse than everything else is finding yourself stuck in an on-off relationship, playing a loop of love and hate.

It’s normal to be stubborn and for the “fight rather than flight” instinct to kick in when deciding whether to give a relationship with someone you love another go.

However, being in an on-again, off-again relationship is not just about fighting for your love. At some point, you have to fight for yourself. Why bother behaving like a boomerang when you can be a straight-shooting arrow?

Maybe you’re in the off-period, wondering whether to give your ex another go. Or maybe you’re noticing a toxic pattern in your relationship.

Either way, you’re here for the details on on-and-off relationships, why they’re so bad, and how to get out for good—luckily we’ve got all that for you. [Read: Yo-yo relationships and why they never work out]

What Is an On-and-Off Relationship?

Before we dig deeper into on and off relationships, let’s define what they actually are. In an on-and-off relationship, the two people keep getting back together after they break up. They get together, then break up. Then get back together again, then break up… you get the picture. 

How long it takes to get back together in between breakups really varies for every couple. But whether they spend a week apart or a couple of months, it is not good for either person’s mental health. [Read: Still attached to your ex – 26 signs, why it happens, and how to break free]

Sure, it feels great to get back together. Each and every time, it’s like a reliving of the honeymoon phase—all bad blood is put behind them, and the time apart only reinvigorates the passion and excitement.

But once the honeymoon phase naturally disappears again, all those cracks in the relationship start showing themselves, and they’re reminded of all the reasons they broke up in the first place. [Read: The honeymoon phase and 53 signs to know exactly how long it’ll last for you]

So, they break up. And the cycle continues.

And while each couple is different, these kinds of on-and-off relationships are toxic by nature.

The Psychology of On and Off Relationships

The scientific theories behind these yo-yo relationships might seem complicated, but trust us, they’re more relatable than you think.

They’re like the DNA of why we just can’t quit that back-and-forth relationship, and understanding them can help you to understand why you just keep going back.

1. Attachment theory

First up, let’s talk about attachment theory. Think about that friend who can’t let go of an ex, always yearning for another chance even when it’s clear they should move on.

What’s likely at play here is an anxious attachment style, one that’s quick to form deep emotional bonds and is fearful of losing them.

This anxious attachment can often be the glue that keeps an on-and-off relationship going, as it fosters an environment where one or both parties hold onto the relationship despite its clear instability. [Read: Attachment styles theory – the 4 types and 19 ways you attach to others]

2. Intermittent reinforcement

Have you ever noticed how those brief moments of happiness in a troubled relationship make all the hard times seem worth it? It’s like getting a small win on a slot machine; it keeps you pulling the lever, hoping for a jackpot.

In psychology, this is known as intermittent reinforcement. It explains why the small joys in an on-and-off relationship can make it hard to leave, even when you know you probably should.

3. Cognitive dissonance

Imagine you’ve spent years investing in a relationship. You’ve fought, made up, broken up, and made up again.

The inconsistency of the relationship bothers you, but you find yourself rationalizing why it’s worth sticking around for. This is cognitive dissonance at work.

It means that the conflict you feel about the relationship can actually make you try harder to resolve that conflict by convincing yourself of the relationship’s merits.

The BIG Signs You’re in an On and Off Relationship

With all that out of the way, let’s get into the nitty-gritty details of recognizing an on-and-off relationship.

1. Inconsistent communication

One day you’re sharing jokes and planning dates, and the next, your texts are met with a wall of silence. Inconsistent communication is a hallmark sign of an on-and-off relationship.

If you feel like you’re constantly navigating through communication landmines, it’s a sign you’re not on stable ground. [Read: Ghosting – what it is, 63 signs, reasons to ghost, and how it affects both people]

2. Emotional whiplash

In a stable relationship, your emotional state doesn’t resemble a roller coaster. But in an on-and-off relationship, feelings can swing from euphoria to despair quicker than you can say “breakup.”

In psychology, this dramatic emotional flux is linked to the pleasure-pain principle—basically, your emotional pendulum swings drastically, making the relationship feel all the more intense.

3. Never fully broken up

Here’s a big red flag—you break up but never really sever ties. It’s like you’re caught in this eternal loop of “It’s over, but not really.”

If you find yourself repeatedly drifting back together without ever fully cutting the cord, it’s a classic sign of a yo-yo relationship.

4. Social media ping-pong

If your relationship status changes more often than your Instagram filters, you’re probably in an on-and-off relationship.

Friends may start commenting or even betting on how long your “single” status will last this time. [Read: Social media and relationships – 47 rules, etiquette, and where couples go wrong]

5. Friends and family are confused

Speaking of friends, when your inner circle starts losing track of your relationship’s status, that’s another telling sign.

In psychology, the term social proof is often used to describe how our relationships are judged or supported by our immediate community. If those around you are as baffled as you are, it’s time to reassess.

6. Commitment phobia

One moment you’re talking about future plans and the next, you’re avoiding any topic that goes beyond the weekend. If the level of commitment keeps oscillating, consider this another telltale sign.

7. Lack of conflict resolution

Disagreements are normal in any relationship, but if you find yourselves breaking up instead of solving issues, it’s a sign of an on-and-off relationship. A stable relationship aims to resolve conflict, not reset it. [Read: Relationship arguments – 38 tips and ways to fight fair and grow closer in love]

8. Limited intimacy

You’ll notice in an on-and-off relationship that the level of emotional and sometimes even physical intimacy can vary wildly.

One day, you’re sharing your deepest fears; the next, you’re practically strangers. If your relationship keeps resetting, it’s hard to build that emotional closeness that’s integral for a lasting relationship.

9. Walking on eggshells

Ever get the feeling that one wrong move could send your relationship into a tailspin? That’s a hallmark sign right there.

This feeling often results from a lack of security and stability in the relationship, making you hyper-aware of your actions and words. [Read: Walking on eggshells in a relationship? 18 signs and how to fix it]

10. Constantly seeking external validation

If you find yourself repeatedly asking friends and family what they think of your relationship, it might be because you’re looking for external validation to justify staying in it.

Psychology buffs might point to the concept of external locus of control, which suggests that you’re seeking external sources to make decisions that should primarily come from within.

11. Avoidance of serious topics

A trend of avoiding hard conversations—like where the relationship is heading or how you truly feel—can indicate that you’re in a yo-yo relationship.

It’s as if you’re afraid that discussing anything serious will pop the fragile bubble you’re both living in. [Read: 34 secrets to get a man to open up, communicate, and understand you better]

12. No defined boundaries

The flip-flopping nature of an on-and-off relationship often means that boundaries are either not set or are constantly shifting.

And hey, a relationship without boundaries is like a ship without a compass—pretty much directionless. [Read: Boundaries in a relationship and 43 dating rules you must set very early on]

13. The “just one more time” syndrome

This is a little tricky but oh-so-telling. If you or your partner find yourselves frequently saying, “Let’s try one more time,” you’re pretty much hitting the replay button on your on-and-off relationship.

But let’s face the truth, has anything really changed since last time?

The Impact on Emotional Well-being

Emotional well-being is the golden chalice we’re all trying to keep full despite the many holes poked into it by life’s challenges.

On and off relationships can be like a drill to that chalice. So let’s discuss how these rollercoaster relationships can impact your emotional well-being.

1. Emotional volatility

Imagine your emotions as a seesaw. Normally, there are ups and downs, but in an on-and-off relationship, it feels more like you’re on a seesaw perched on a mountain edge—you’re either soaring to euphoric heights or plummeting into despair.

The emotional turmoil isn’t just draining; it has long-term effects too. According to psychology, emotional volatility can lead to conditions like anxiety or depression over time.

So, yeah, it’s not just your relationship that’s on a rollercoaster; it’s your mental health, too.

2. Low self-esteem

When you’re in a relationship that’s as consistent as a faulty Wi-Fi signal, your self-esteem takes a hit.

Think about it: every cycle of breaking up and getting back together can make you question your worthiness or capability as a partner.

This is detrimental to your self-esteem and can permeate other areas of your life. Before you know it, you might start doubting your abilities, not just in your relationship but in your career or friendships too. [Read: 34 life-changing steps to fall in love with yourself all over again]

3. Impact on other relationships

Oh boy, the ripple effects of an on-and-off relationship can reach far and wide. Ever notice how your friendships strain when you’re constantly embroiled in your relationship drama?

Plus, the fluctuating emotional state can also make you a less-than-ideal friend, family member, or even coworker.

In psychology, there’s the idea of emotional contagion where your emotions and related behaviors can spread quickly among your social circle. When you’re emotionally unstable, it’s not just you who’s affected; it’s everyone around you.

4. Decision-making impairment

When you’re constantly unsure about the status of your relationship, it can bleed into your ability to make other important decisions in life.

The constant state of flux makes it hard to focus, affecting your judgment in various aspects.

5. Mental fatigue

The emotional exhaustion from the highs and lows of this kind of relationship can cause mental fatigue.

Over time, this can affect performance in work, school, or even everyday tasks, making everything seem more overwhelming than it actually is. [Read: Love or career – how to choose or make sure you’re not left feeling bitter]

6. Increased risk of substance abuse

Some people may turn to substances like alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism for the emotional strain. This not only compounds emotional issues but also introduces the potential for substance dependency.

7. Emotional numbness

Continual emotional stress can lead to emotional numbness or apathy. It’s a state where you no longer feel the highs or the lows; instead, you feel an overwhelming sense of emotional flatness.

8. Negative impact on physical health

Chronic emotional stress is well-documented to have detrimental effects on physical health. It can lead to sleep disturbances, a weakened immune system, and even digestive issues.

9. Sense of isolation

The consuming nature of an on-and-off relationship can make you feel disconnected from others.

You might withdraw from friends and family, feeling that no one can understand what you’re going through, which adds another layer of emotional distress. [Read: Emotionally manipulative boyfriend – 24 big signs and reasons to leave this man]

How to Navigate an On and Off Relationship

So you find yourself stuck in the loop of an on-and-off relationship, like a song stuck on repeat. You’re not alone, and it’s not hopeless. The psychological roots of why this keeps happening can be complex, but the tools to deal with it are accessible.

What follows is a roadmap for those in on-and-off relationships who are looking for a way to either stabilize the ride or find the nearest exit.

From communication to professional help, these strategies are your toolkit for handling the intricacies of an unstable relationship.

1. Communication

Communication is your best friend in any relationship, but especially in an on-and-off one. It’s important to keep the lines open for discussing feelings, expectations, and concerns.

Clear dialogue can sometimes be the first step in breaking the yo-yo cycle, offering both parties a chance to really understand what’s going on.

2. Boundaries

Setting boundaries isn’t just a self-help buzzword; it’s essential for maintaining a sense of self in a relationship that can be emotionally disorienting.

Boundaries can include anything from how often you communicate to how you want to be treated during “off” periods. This provides structure in something that inherently lacks stability. [Read: 23 secrets to set personal boundaries and guide others to respect them]

3. Professional help

There’s absolutely no shame in seeking help when navigating a difficult relationship.

A psychologist can offer expert insights into why the on-and-off dynamics are happening and provide strategies for either fixing the relationship or helping you find the strength to leave it.

4. Self-assessment

Before each “on” cycle, it’s crucial to take a step back and ask yourself why you’re getting back together. Is it because the issues have been resolved, or are you acting on impulse? Self-awareness can prevent a repeated cycle by forcing you to confront the real reasons behind the relationship’s instability.

[Read: 19 truths to respect yourself in a relationship and stop being a pushover]

5. Social support

Don’t underestimate the power of a strong social network. Friends and family can offer an external perspective that you might be too emotionally involved to see. They can also provide emotional support, which is vital when you’re going through repeated breakups and reconciliations.

6. Time management

Engaging in activities and pursuits outside the relationship can provide emotional balance and perspective.

Plus, it has the added benefit of making you less reliant on the relationship for emotional fulfillment, making it easier to assess its true value in your life. [Read: 15 ways to give space in a relationship and feel closer than ever before]

When to Call it Quits

Sometimes knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em is the toughest part of the game. So, let’s dive into the heart-wrenching but necessary topic: when to call it quits in an on-and-off relationship.

1. The sunk-cost fallacy

We’ve all been there, clinging to a relationship because of the time and emotional energy invested. It’s a common psychological trap known as the sunk cost fallacy.

Recognizing that past investment should not dictate your future with the relationship is crucial for making a rational decision.

2. Red flags

Sometimes your gut is the first to know when something isn’t right.

This could be a consistent lack of respect, a pattern of emotional manipulation, or even just a perpetual feeling of unhappiness. These are signs that it’s time to consider a permanent “off” switch.

3. Healthy relationships as a contrast

Every now and then, it’s helpful to step back and ask, “What does a healthy relationship even look like?” Knowing what you should be aiming for can provide a stark contrast to what you’re currently experiencing, serving as a wake-up call that you might be settling for less. [Read: 38 signs and traits of a happy, healthy relationship and what it should look like]

4. Emotional detachment

If you find that your emotional involvement in the relationship has diminished or that you’re no longer looking forward to the “on” phases, it could be a sign that you’re emotionally detaching and that the relationship has run its course.

5. Diminishing returns

In economic terms, this is when the emotional or psychological benefits you gain from being in the relationship are decreasing over time, even though your investment remains the same or even increases. If you’re getting less and less of what you need, it’s a signal to reassess.

6. Family and friends’ concern

It’s easy to brush off one concerned friend or family member as not understanding your relationship.

But if multiple people in your life are expressing concern, that’s not just social proof; it’s a choir singing a message you might need to hear. [Read: True friendship – 37 real friend traits and what it takes to be a good, loyal one]

It Can Be Emotionally Draining and Psychologically Complex

The dynamics of an on-and-off relationship can be emotionally draining and psychologically complex.

Based on the psychological principle of intermittent reinforcement, this relationship style can be incredibly hard to break free from. But it’s crucial to remember that relationships should add value to your life, not deplete your emotional resources.

If you find that the relationship is more taxing than rewarding, it might be worth examining whether this is the kind of love story you want to be a part of.

[Read: How to break up with someone who loves you and not hurt them more]

How many more cycles do you want to go through before you let go of this on-off relationship? When you finally realize that you want it to be over for good, you may look back and kick yourself in the head for wasting time with someone who’s just going to drag you back into a vicious relationship cycle!

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Preeti Tewari Serai
Preeti Serai
Preeti, the founder of LovePanky, is an eternal optimist and believer in the beauty of love and life. With an exhaustive experience in love, relationships, and ...