Mental Health

Couples Breaking Up, Making Up Repeatedly Experience More Psychological Distress

From Ross and Rachel to Carrie and Mr. Big, many of us can't help but root for the will-they-won't-they type of romances. But new findings suggest being part of on-again, off-again relationships can have a toxic impact on your mental health.

The study titled "Coming out and getting back in: relationship cycling and distress in same-and-different-sex relationships" was recently published in the journal Family Relations.

"Breaking up and getting back together is not always a bad omen for a couple," said Kale Monk, assistant professor of human development and family science at the University of Missouri. "In fact, for some couples, breaking up can help partners realize the importance of their relationship, contributing to a healthier, more committed unions."

But what about partners who end up in a routine pattern of breaking up and getting back together? While it certainly makes for great television, this kind of cycling is linked to an increased risk of adverse health effects in real life. 

As part of the study, 545 individuals were recruited, among whom 266 were in heterosexual relationships while 279 were in same‐sex relationships. The research team wanted to include the latter as sexual minorities have not been  studied sufficiently when examining the consequences of such relationships.

The more a couple would break up and make up, the more they were associated with an increase in depression, anxiety, and other signs of psychological distress. The occurrence of cycling was largely the same across all types of relationship, the authors stated. However, they did find a higher frequency in male–male relationships compared to female–female and heterosexual relationships.

It can be emotionally exhausting to invest in and lose someone over and over again. Despite knowing this first-hand, many couples fall into the trap anyway. Past research has attempted to outline some of the common reasons with couples reporting how lingering feelings, the comfort of familiarity, and changed perceptions drew them back into the arms of an ex.

Some cases many involve more practical reasons such as financial security, feeling that they have already invested too much in the relationship, or wanting to get back together if a child is involved. According to Monk, former partners who want to reconcile should do so based on dedication, not obligation.

"The findings suggest that people who find themselves regularly breaking up and getting back together with their partners need to ‘look under the hood’ of their relationships to determine what’s going on," he said. "If partners are honest about the pattern, they can take the necessary steps to maintain their relationships or safely end them. This is vital for preserving their well-being."

He also emphasized the importance of communication, noting that couples therapy can encourage explicit conversations about problems that may have been swept under the rug. However, those who are in toxic relationships (i.e. taking a serious toll on their physical or mental health) should not feel guilt about breaking up with someone for the sake of their well-being.