Breaking up and getting back together with a romantic partner is fairly common. Prior research has estimated that more than 60 percent of young adults have been involved in on-off relationships.
But new research suggests that people’s beliefs and attitudes about relationships don’t predict whether they’re more prone to breakups and subsequent renewals in their romantic life. The findings have been published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
“My research teams and I had been investigating ‘on-again/off-again’ (on-off) relationships for almost a decade,” said study author René M. Dailey, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“We had gathered data on personality and had not found many differences—those in on-off relationships had similar personality characteristics as those who had not experienced breakups and renewals in their relationship. But many academics and non-academics suggested there must be personality differences.
“So, to formally investigate this more, we assessed what we refer to as relationship dispositions — individual or personality differences that are about how we view relationships. Specifically, we assessed anxious (general fear of being abandoned) and avoidant (general fear of intimacy in relationships) attachment orientations, communal orientation (a ‘we’ approach to relationship), and growth (relationships can be improved with work) and destiny (relationships are either destined to work or not) beliefs,” Dailey explained.
For their study, the researchers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to survey 211 adults about their relationships. About half of the participants indicated that they were in a relationship that had broken up and renewed at least once. Among these on-off participants, the average number of relationship renewals was 2.66.
Dailey and her colleagues found that participants in on-off relationships tended to report lower levels of relationship satisfaction, and higher commitment uncertainty and disillusionment. But when it came to relationship dispositions, there was no significant difference between those in on-off relationships and those in non-cyclical relationships.
“We did not find many differences in how on-off partners approach relationships as compared to those who don’t break up and renew. On-off partners are no more insecure about being in a relationship, they do not have any more or less ‘we’ orientation to their relationship, and they do not have any greater or lesser beliefs about whether partners are destined to be together or not,” Dailey told PsyPost.
“In other words, we are not finding that there are particular ‘types’ of people who get into on-off relationships.”
But on-off relationships did appear to have some influence on the links between relationship dispositions and relationship qualities.
“The few differences that we found were that these approaches to relationships were sometimes more weakly associated relational quality for on-off partners as compared to non-cyclical partners (those that had not broken up and renewed),” Dailey explained.
“For example, the more that partners, in general, believe relationships can get better with work, the less they are disillusioned with their relationship. And this makes sense — if you think you can work to improve your relationship, you aren’t as disappointed or frustrated by small bumps in the relationship.”
“But this association was much weaker for on-off partners. In other words, on-off partners’ beliefs about relationships (e.g., relationships can improve with work, how much independence they prefer) are less associated with how satisfied they are in the relationship as compared to non-cyclical partners. This likely means that there are other relational dynamics (e.g., conflict) that play a bigger role in on-off partners’ satisfaction rather than these relatively stable individual characteristics,” Dailey said.
“What still needs to be addressed are combinations of the two partners’ beliefs or approaches to relationships. We only assessed one partner in the couple, and it could be that the pairing of personalities or dispositions better explain who is in an on-off relationship as compared to who is not.”
The study, “Investigating relationship dispositions as explanations for on-again/off-again relationships“, was authored by René M. Dailey, Lingzi Zhong, Rudy Pett, Darby Scott, and Colton Krawietz.