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A qualitative analysis of on-again/off-again romantic relationships: “It’s up and down, all around”



Although relational research predominantly conceptualizes romantic relationships as either together or apart, some relationships break up and renew (i.e., on-again/off-again relationships). Partners’ accounts of on-again/off-again relational experiences were qualitatively analyzed to explore both reasons for breakups and reasons for renewals. Themes were interpreted within an interdependence framework to explain why partners dissolved as well as renewed their relationships. The themes in combination suggest renewals occurred due to dissatisfying experiences with alternative relationship partners and an increase in outcomes (i.e., rewards minus costs) after breakups. Partners’ post-dissolution contact and their uncertainty about relational status may have further facilitated renewals. More generally, the themes suggest, for on-again/ off-again partners, breakups did not indicate the end of interdependence but rather a redefinition of the relationship.
Journal of Social and Personal
The online version of this article can be found at:
DOI: 10.1177/0265407509351035
2009 26: 443Journal of Social and Personal Relationships
René M. Dailey, Kelly R. Rossetto, Abigail Pfiester and Catherine A. Surra
and down, all around''
A qualitative analysis of on-again/off-again romantic relationships: ''It's up
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A qualitative analysis of
on-again/off-again romantic
relationships: “It’s up and down,
all around”
René M. Dailey
University of Texas at Austin
Kelly R. Rossetto
Boston College
Abigail Pfiester
Concordia University
Catherine A. Surra
University of Texas at Austin
Although relational research predominantly conceptualizes
romantic relationships as either together or apart, some rela-
tionships break up and renew (i.e., on-again/off-again rela-
tionships). Partners’ accounts of on-again/off-again relational
experiences were qualitatively analyzed to explore both reasons
for breakups and reasons for renewals. Themes were inter-
preted within an interdependence framework to explain why
partners dissolved as well as renewed their relationships. The
themes in combination suggest renewals occurred due to dis-
satisfying experiences with alternative relationship partners
and an increase in outcomes (i.e., rewards minus costs) after
breakups. Partners’ post-dissolution contact and their un-
certainty about relational status may have further facilitated
Journal of Social and Personal Relationships Copyright © 2009 SAGE Publications
(, Vol. 26(4): 443–466. DOI: 10.1177/0265407509351035
Preparation of this paper was supported by a grant to the fourth author from the National
Institute of Mental Health (R01 MH47975). A previous version of this paper was presented
at the 2007 International Communication Association Convention, San Francisco, CA.Address
correspondence to René M. Dailey, Department of Communication Studies, University of
Texas at Austin, 1 University Station A1105, Austin, TX 78712–0115, USA [e-mail: rdailey@]. Larry Erbert was the Action Editor on this article.
at BOSTON COLLEGE on March 13, 2011spr.sagepub.comDownloaded from
renewals. More generally, the themes suggest, for on-again/
off-again partners, breakups did not indicate the end of inter-
dependence but rather a redefinition of the relationship.
KEY WORDS: dating relationships • interdependence, on-again/
off-again relationships • reconciliation • relational dissolution •
relational stability
Research across disciplines has provided a great deal of knowledge about
the progression of romantic relationships from courtship to long-term
stability (for recent reviews, see Surra, Gray, Boettcher, Cottle, & West,
2006; Surra, Gray, Cottle, & Boettcher, 2004). For example, research has
shown that dating relationships are more stable (i.e., more likely to remain
intact) when partners have fewer fluctuations in satisfaction (Arriaga, 2001),
enact more positive behaviors (Fitzpatrick & Sollie,1999), have greater simi-
larity in activities (Surra & Longstreth, 1990), and have lower quality alter-
natives (Felmlee, Sprecher, & Bassin, 1990; Sprecher, 2001).
Relational stability, however,may be more complex than currently defined.
Stability is predominantly conceptualized and operationalized dichoto-
mously as either as intact or terminated (Karney, Bradbury, & Johnson, 1999;
see also Agnew,Arriaga, & Goodfriend, 2006). Yet, many couples terminate
their relationships only to later reconcile,perhaps cycling through the break-
up and renewal process several times.Several studies provide evidence that
these relationships,popularly referred to as on-again/off-again relationships,
do occur (e.g., Cupach & Metts, 2002; Davis, Ace, & Andra, 2000; Koenig
Kellas,Bean, Cunningham,& Cheng, 2008;Langhinrichsen-Rohling Palarea,
Cohen, & Rohling, 2000). The cyclical nature of relational status in these
relationships,however, has yet to be incorporated into research and theories
of relational stability.
The purpose of this study is to gain an initial understanding of the break-
ups and renewals in on-again/off-again (hereafter on-off) relationships.
Because little is known about these relationships, we employed a general
theory of relationships – interdependence theory (Kelley, 1979; Kelley &
Thibaut, 1978; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959) – for this initial exploration. Because
components of interdependence theory predict relational stability, it provides
a useful framework from which to investigate the changes in relational status
in on-off relationships.
Interdependence theory
Interdependence theory suggests relationships involve ongoing interactions
in which partners’ outcomes are interdependent, and behaviors are coordin-
ated to achieve mutually rewarding outcomes (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959).
This theory also offers an explanation for relationship stability, or why rela-
tionships are maintained or terminated. Interdependence theory argues
individuals evaluate their overall outcomes (i.e., rewards minus costs) in
relation to two standards: i) what they expect in relationships (i.e., com-
parison level), and ii) what they perceive as alternatives (i.e., comparison
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level of alternatives). Specifically, the more partners’ outcomes exceed their
expectations, the greater their satisfaction or attraction to the relationship.
In addition, the more their outcomes exceed the perceived outcomes offered
by alternatives (e.g., other romantic partners, independence), the more
dependence they have on the relationship. In other words, greater depen-
dence indicates that partners have less power because they have more to
lose if the relationship dissolves.
Partners’ comparison level of alternatives theoretically plays a direct role
in stability: individuals will stay in relationships in which their outcomes
exceed their perceived quality of alternatives, even if dissatisfied, but will
dissolve relationships in which their perceived quality of alternatives exceeds
their outcomes. Research employing interdependence as well as other
theories has found that quality of alternatives is indeed related to stability;
partners are more likely to break up if they perceive better alternatives or
believe it will be easy to find another partner (e.g., Attridge, Berscheid, &
Simpson, 1995; Felmlee et al., 1990; Sprecher, 2001).
Dissatisfaction can also contribute to, or set the stage for, dissolution as
those who are dissatisfied may be more vigilant in evaluating negative events
in their relationships (Adams & Spain, 1999; Levinger, 1979). Individuals
become more focused on their own outcomes, and less on their partner’s,
when evaluating costs and rewards in times of decreased relational quality.
Research does show that lower relational satisfaction is linked with an
increased likelihood of dissolution in both cross-sectional and longitudinal
research (e.g., Attridge et al. 1995; Simpson, 1987; Sprecher, 1999).
Although interdependence theory assumes partners become independent,
or have no further influence on each other, after relational dissolution
(Thibaut & Kelley, 1959), the components of the theory may be used to
explain why partners renew their previously terminated relationships. For
example, research on relationships between former dating partners suggests
that these partners exhibit a certain level of interdependence as they
continue to weigh costs and rewards in their post-dissolution relationships
(e.g., Busboom, Collins, Givertz, & Levin, 2002; Schneider & Kenny, 2000).
Hence, after breakups, on-off partners likely continue assessing the out-
comes in their relationships and perhaps renew their romantic relationship
due to experiencing increases in rewards and/or decreases in costs (i.e.,
increased satisfaction) in their post-dissolution relationships. In addition,
the terminated relationship may become the attractive alternative. In other
words, individuals’ experiences with other partners or being alone may
change their comparison levels, comparison level of alternatives, or the
recollection of their outcomes while dating, which may increase their attrac-
tion to the former partner. The current analysis thus employs an interdepen-
dence framework to understand what leads to changes in the stability in
on-off relationships.
Relational transitions in on-again/off-again relationships
On-off relationships by their very nature have multiple relational transitions.
Although all relationships have an initial development phase and many are
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terminated, what is unique about on-off relationships is the occurrence of
a renewal, and for some, subsequent breakups and renewals. Because we
are focused on breakups and renewals, rather than how these relationships
were initially formed, we begin our review with relational dissolution.
Relational dissolution. Research has assessed, using both objective and sub-
jective methods,reasons why people dissolve their relationships (e.g., Cupach
& Metts, 1986; Hill, Rubin, & Peplau, 1976; Sorenson, Russell, Harkness,
& Harvey, 1993; Sprecher, 1994). Predominant factors leading to dissolu-
tion include negative attributions about self or partner, communication
problems, cohesion problems, and external forces. Although most of these
assessments did not employ an interdependence framework, these reasons
provide a more specific understanding of what may lead to changes in
stability. For example, other themes or reasons previously found include
negative attributions about their partner’s behavior or qualities (e.g.,Cupach
& Metts, 1986; Sorensen et al., 1993), costs or changes of role enactment
(Cupach & Metts, 1986), or not enough time spent together (Felmlee et al.,
1990), which imply an increase in costs and/or decrease in rewards, and
thus, a likely decrease in satisfaction. In addition, all studies noted above
found themes or factors related to interest in other partners or a need for
greater independence, which are related to the component of quality of
Taken together, previous research provides an overview of the reasons
partners dissolve their relationships. Unknown, however, is whether on-off
partners report similar reasons for relational dissolutions. The current
analysis thus explores whether the reasons on-off partners provide regard-
ing their relationship dissolutions are similar to reasons found in previous
research as well as how they may be related to the interdependence com-
ponents used to predict stability. Thus, our first research question was:
RQ1: What reasons do on-again/off-again partners report for
dissolution(s) in their relationships?
Relational reconciliation. The few studies specifically examining reconcilia-
tion or renewals (i.e., Bevan, Cameron, & Dillow, 2003; Patterson & O’Hair,
1992) focus on how, rather than why, partners renewed their relationships.
Hence, no prior evidence exists regarding why on-off partners renew pre-
viously terminated relationships. If employing interdependence theory to
explain why partners renew, partners would likely need to experience a
change in either their outcomes or in the standards by which their outcomes
are evaluated (i.e., comparison level or comparison level of alternatives). In
other words, partners’ outcomes would need to again exceed their percep-
tions of other alternatives and/or what they expect in relationships. How-
ever, the specific reasons related to these changes are unknown. Hence, the
following research question was posed:
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RQ2: What reasons do on-again/off-again partners report for
renewal(s) in their relationships?
Additional features of on-again/off-again relationships. Bevan et al. (2003)
and Patterson and O’Hair (1992) suggest that the process of reconciliation
is a unique relational experience due to previous relational history. Sup-
porting the impact of relational history on post-dissolution relationships
(i.e.,relationships of former romantic partners), Schneider and Kenny (2000)
also found that post-dissolution friendships are qualitatively different than
friendships without a romantic history. Further, post-dissolution relation-
ships may be more difficult to navigate as there are different types of post-
dissolution relationships (Koenig Kellas et al., 2008) and fewer scripts exist
for these relationships (Foley & Fraser, 1998).As such, on-off partners likely
confront challenges that are more predominant or unique to this type of
relationship such as maintaining the relationship after declaring a breakup,
negotiating renewals, and explaining multiple transitions to their social
networks.Thus, in addition to investigating reasons on-off partners have for
breakups and renewals, exploring other characteristics on-off relationships
may exhibit would be beneficial in identifying additional theoretical factors,
both regarding interdependence theory and relational research in general.
Because these features may be unique to on-off relationships, this final
research question takes a broader focus and pertains to identifying features
that may increase understanding of on-off relationships.
RQ3: What additional characteristics do on-again/off-again
relationships exhibit that help explain their occurrence?
Accounts. Employing objective assessments is necessary to understand the
nature and processes of on-off relationships, yet it is also important to
obtain the subjective interpretations of individuals who experience them.
Although Kelley and Thibaut (1978) outlined mathematical calculations
regarding outcomes,they also acknowledged that the mathematical analyses
may not capture the theoretical components as partners actually experi-
ence them. Because partners pay closer attention (Adams & Spain, 1999;
Levinger, 1979;Sprecher, 2001) and make more attributions regarding their
costs and rewards in times of relational instability (Fletcher, Fincham,
Cramer, & Heron, 1987; Johnson, 1982; Surra & Bohman, 1991), on-off
partners’ subjective interpretations of their relational transitions should
reveal more specific reasons for breakups and renewals as compared to
general levels of satisfaction and quality of alternatives.
One method of obtaining individuals’ subjective experiences is accounts,
which provide insight on individuals’ meanings that other methods may
overlook (Orbuch, Veroff, & Homberg, 1993). Accounts are ways people
organize views of themselves,others,and their social world; they are a means
of understanding the richness and complexity, including the uncertainties
and ambiguities, of events (Orbuch, 1997). Weber, Harvey, and Orbuch
(1992) described accounts as typically including “explanations, descriptions,
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predictions about relevant future events, recollections, justifications, and
emotions,” and they “are likely to be formulated or resurrected when indi-
viduals are troubled by stressors or surprises, especially unpleasant ones”
(p. 263). As such, accounts may be particularly helpful in understanding how
on-off partners perceive their various relational transitions. For example,
accounts are frequently used in understanding partners’ sense-making
following relational dissolution (e.g.,Cupach & Metts, 1986; Sorenson et al.,
1993; Weiss, 1975). Moreover, partners may also perceive renewals as
troubling in that they are returning to relationships they have previously
labeled as unsuccessful. On-off partners may thus feel the need to explain
to others as well as themselves this reversal of relational status. In sum, the
use of accounts in the current study provides individuals’ own interpretation
of their relationships rather than being constrained by variables predeter-
mined by the researchers (see also Surra, Hughes, & Jacquet, 1999).
Overall, the current work offers several contributions to the literature on
dating relationships.This is the one of the first analyses to assess on-off rela-
tionships, which provides a preliminary understanding of these relation-
ships as well as insights on relational stability more generally. In addition,
the current analysis expands on interdependence theory in two ways. First,
whereas quantitative measures of satisfaction and alternatives at several
points in time may show changes in stability and commitment, the use of
partners’ accounts offers specific reasons behind these changes. Second,
although interdependence and social exchange theories are often employed
to explain when partners will stay in or leave relationships, the current
analysis suggests that the theoretical components may possibly be used to
explain renewals as well.
Data collection procedures
Data for the current project were obtained from a larger, longitudinal study
on the development of commitment in heterosexual dating relationships.
Participants were recruited by means of a random-digit dialing of listed
phone numbers in a large Southwestern city. Eligible participants were
between the ages of 19 and 35 years, never married, currently in a romantic
relationship with a partner also willing to participate, and able to partici-
pate across nine months.This procedure resulted in an initial sample of 464
individuals (i.e., 232 couples).
In the larger study, participants were asked to report reasons for increases
or decreases in commitment across the progression of their relationships.
(See Surra & Gray, 2000, for further description regarding the data collec-
tion procedure.) Various conceptualizations of commitment exist and many
overlap with factors that predict commitment such as satisfaction and quality
of alternatives (Kelley, 1983; Surra et al., 1999). Hence, to isolate partners’
perceptions of their relational stability, commitment was assessed as the
chance of marriage. When changes in commitment included breakups and
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renewals, participants’ reasons for these transitions are relevant to the
present investigation.
Data from these couples were gathered in three phases. During Phase 1,
participants constructed a graph and provided accounts detailing the changes
in the chance of marriage from the inception of the relationship to the Phase
1 interview. Phase 2 continued this process through seven monthly inter-
views regarding individuals’ current estimates of their chance of marriage
and reasons for any such changes since the immediately preceding interview.
Phase 3 included one final interview about the previous month (i.e.,an eighth
monthly interview) as well as a replication of the first phase asking partici-
pants to recount their relationship from the beginning up to the final inter-
view. Over the course of the study, if individuals reported breaking up with
their original partner, they were allowed to report on the post-dissolution
relationship with their original partner, or, if they entered a new relation-
ship, were allowed to report on this new romantic partner in subsequent
interviews (Surra & Gray, 2000).
For the current analyses, we focused on the monthly interviews from
Phases 2 and 3 as these provided the most contemporaneous accounts.
During these interviews, individuals charted changes in their chance of
marriage on a graph. Fluctuations included upturns (e.g., 10% to 40%) and
downturns (e.g., 70% to 50%). Interviewers asked participants to explain
the reasons for these fluctuations by stating: “Tell me, in as specific terms
as possible, what happened here from [date] to [date] that made the chance
of marriage go [up/down] by [X]%.” To gain a more complete account,
interviewers followed with “Is there anything else that happened?” until
participants provided no further reasons.
Having participants construct a visual, chronological graph of the up-
turns and downturns maximized participants’ recall of changes in chance
of marriage. If participants missed an interview, they were asked to re-
count their relationship from the previous completed interview to ensure
a maximally-continuous relational account. In addition, the longitudinal
data were likely less subject to recall bias, and they allowed us to clearly
identify on-off relationships. A common limitation of past research is that
relationship status is assessed only once, precluding the detection of a re-
newal or multiple breakups and renewals.
Identifying the sample
Identifying the subset of participants who reported at least one breakup
and renewal was a multi-step process. We first inspected a coding scheme
originally applied to the data that identified all negative changes in partners’
stage of involvement (e.g., from being engaged to casually dating, moving
from seriously dating to being broken up). Hence, our preliminary sample
included participants who were coded as having one or more negative
changes in stage of involvement (n= 67).These participants’ interview tran-
scripts were then inspected to identify negative changes in involvement that
included an actual breakup. If participants indicated a breakup, we further
screened their transcripts to determine if they reported a renewal at any
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time over the course of the nine months.Although participants were explic-
itly asked at each interview whether they were currently dating their partner
or were broken up, we used the accounts to identify breakups and renewals
as some couples may have experienced breakups and reunions between
interviews. Participants were included in the sample if it was clear in the
transcripts that they experienced a breakup (e.g.,“we broke up”) as well as
a renewal (e.g., “we got back together”) on one or more occasion.
A total of 43 individuals were identified as having an on-off relationship.
Of these, 28 were from couples in which both partners indicated breaking
up and renewing.The other 15 individuals had partners who did not clearly
indicate a breakup during Phase 2 of the study (n= 10) or did not complete
any portion of Phase 2 (n= 5).Although a substantial portion of the sample
consisted of coupled partners,we considered participants’ accounts individ-
ually. In eight of the 14 couples, one partner dropped out part way through
the study. In addition, partners’ accounts often differed regarding the occur-
rence of breakups and renewals (e.g., one partner labeled an event in their
relationship as a breakup whereas the other did not); hence, reflecting the
subjective nature of breakups and renewals, partners’ data within couples
did not always provide a unified account. Most importantly, although
partners’ data within couples may be interdependent, the purpose of this
study was to assess individuals’ experiences in on-off relationships; as such,
assessing the 43 individuals’ accounts separately was more appropriate for
the purposes of this study.
The sample consisted of 25 females (58.1%) and 18 males (41.9%) and
ranged in age from 19 to 33 (M= 22.53, SD = 3.09).The majority was Anglo
(n= 28, 65.1%); nine (20.9%) indicated they were Hispanic, five (11.6%)
indicated they were African-American, and one (2.3%) indicated being
Native American. In terms of education, 10 (23.2%) reported having com-
pleted junior high or high school, 23 (53.5%) reported having completed
one to three years of college, eight (18.6%) reported having earned a
Bachelor’s degree, and two (4.7%) reported having one to two years of
post-graduate education. Twenty-five of the participants (58.1%) were em-
ployed, and the other 18 (41.9%) reported being students (undergraduate
or graduate). Only two participants reported having children. In terms of
income, 14 (32.6%) reported less than $5,000, 22 (51.2%) reported $5,000
to $20,000, six (14.1%) reported $20,000 to $40,000, and one (2.3%) indi-
cated greater than $50,000.
The average length of participants’ relationship at Phase 1 was 18.85
months (SD = 13.12) with a range of 1.25 to 53.75 months. Participants
completed an average of 3.81 (SD = 1.87, ranging from one to eight) of the
eight monthly interviews. Most of participants’ transcripts indicated one
breakup and renewal, but seven participants’ transcripts (16.3%) indicated
two more breakups and renewals.
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Data analysis
The qualitative data analysis was an inductive process using a constant-
comparative approach (see Glaser, 1965).The first stage of analysis involved
the creation of themes extrapolated from the data (see Lindlof & Taylor,
2002; Strauss, 1987). Because participants’ accounts reflected multiple ideas,
the data were analyzed for themes rather than classifying them into
mutually exclusive categories. This process is “concerned with generating
and plausibly suggesting (not provisionally testing) many properties and
hypotheses about a general phenomenon” (Glaser, 1965, p. 438). Three
authors independently conducted an initial analysis; each researcher
examined the first third of the sample’s transcripts and discovered, named,
and described themes that occurred repeatedly. In the second stage, the
same researchers discussed their respective, and largely similar, themes to
integrate and collapse them into more inclusive and manageable themes
(see Strauss & Corbin, 1990).
Following this initial analysis and production of themes, the researchers
examined all the data as a team. The combined effort of multiple investi-
gators provided researcher triangulation of the data, corroborating the
results and strengthening the credibility (Baxter & Eyles, 1997). Partici-
pants’ accounts at the turning points surrounding breakups and renewals
were considered the unit of analysis.The data were discussed until the three
researchers came to agreement about which themes were reflected in the
accounts. Because the purpose of the current analysis was to focus on
partners’ subjective experiences, we allowed any themes to emerge and did
not constrain them to the theoretical components of interdependence theory
(e.g., satisfaction, quality of alternatives, dependence, etc.). These themes
are first described separately and subsequently discussed within an inter-
dependence framework.
Across the individuals’ accounts, six themes emerged regarding reasons for
breakups (RQ1), seven themes for reasons for renewals (RQ2), and three
themes pertaining to additional features in these on-off relationships
(RQ3). Each theme is discussed below and illustrated with examples. The
number of participants noting each theme is also provided. Because all
participants’ relationships were heterosexual, participant sex is noted only
when participant or partner sex is not implied in the quotes.
Reasons for breakups
One of the predominant themes regarding breakups was the presence of
conflict in the relationship (n= 26). Many participants attributed their
decreases in commitment to fights or arguments.For example,some partici-
pants noted a major fight led to a breakup: “We got in a large argument
and ended the relationship. He said he would never want to talk to me
again,”and “We got into a big argument, and it escalated through the whole
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week . . . and some things were said that were too mean” (female). Other
participants were affected by an accumulation of smaller arguments: “We
separated. . .because of the arguing . . . to her and to me, it was arguing.”
Participants also often attributed the breakups to characteristics about the
partner or the self (n= 21). Thirteen of these 21 participants specifically
discussed negative characteristics or behaviors of their partners, such as
their partners being distant, defensive, insensitive to their needs,or untrust-
worthy. Examples of this include:
He showed some controlling behavior that I can’t deal with in a perma-
nent situation like marriage for the rest of my life. Not only did he show
the controlling aspects more than I’d ever, ever, ever seen before, but also
the jealousy had just peaked out.
He always complains about money too. So it’s the fact that he wouldn’t get
a job because he was gonna focus on school, but dropped almost all his
classes . . . And when I mentioned getting a job, he gets real defensive .. .
and it just really bothered me too much.
Nine of the 21 participants also discussed how their own characteristics
(e.g., behaviors, cognitions) led to the dissolutions. For example, a female
participant explained, “Everything was irritating to me and I was just kind
of on the defensive a lot.” Another commented, “I think I myself have
changed in the fact that I just don’t feel like I want to get married at all
right now . . . my personal chance of marriage has gone down, not just
specifically [for] him.” Other participants explained they were no longer
attracted to their partner or were behaving badly towards the partner as
reasons for dissolutions.
Dissatisfaction with time spent together was another reason for breakups
(n= 7). For example, breakups occurred because one person was not getting
enough time with the partner or, conversely, because one person wanted to
spend more time outside of the relationship. As one participant described:
She wanted me to be with her and it really pissed her off . . . she felt that
I was neglecting her . . . and that I was wanting to spend more time [with
friends] . . . She was saying I didn’t want to be with her as much....That’s
like a real major part of why we broke up,‘cause she said I was putting my
friends before her.
Another male participant similarly noted, “We started spending too much
time with each other again, and I just wanted to hang out with my friends.”
Overall, this theme reflects that some breakups occurred because partners
had different desires about the time they spent together.
Many participants noted breakups occurred because they or their partner
wanted to pursue alternatives (n= 12). For example, participants commented,
“I started having an interest in another person and that definitely had a
big impact” (female), and “I wanted my freedom, I wanted to go out. I’d
realized that I didn’t want to be with just one person for this long” (female).
Others discussed their partners’ desire to pursue alternatives. For example,
one participant described how her partner was interested in someone who
had been calling him:
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He had never met her before and he wanted to meet her, some strange girl
. . . and I said, “if you go and meet her don’t even bother coming back.”
That girl was interested, wanted more than to just be friends, but he didn’t
see it.
Another noted that even though their relationship was more open, her
partner broke off the relationship because she had dated another:
He and I had agreed that we would date around but not get physical with
anyone else, and I ended up going out with this other guy.And I told him
about it, and he called everything off and was really angry at me.
This theme generally involved participants or their partners ending the
relationship before exploring alternative partners or terminating the rela-
tionship after discovering their partners had frequent contact or sexual
intimacy with another.
A less predominant theme to emerge pertained to relational stagnation
(n= 5). Some participants expressed boredom or loss of interest in their
partner or the relationship.A female participant noted, “It’s just sort of the
same old things occurring over and over, and I sort of have been feeling
like we’re stuck in a rut.”Another female participant noted:
I guess I was realizing [partner] was not what I wanted. I guess I was bored,
or I guess I was bored of the relationship mainly. There was no spontaneity
and we were just real busy and didn’t have time for our relationship. It was
just kind of like it grew cold.
A male participant similarly expressed feeling as though the relationship
was in a standstill:“We weren’t growing, but we weren’t falling apart either.
External factors (n= 6) also played a role for some couples in their on-
off relationships. For some partners, outside influences such as families and
career opportunities led to breakups. For example, one couple broke up
because they both had had a grandmother recently die, which created stress
in their lives, and another couple broke up because both partners’ families
disapproved of their relationship. Another participant broke off the rela-
tionship because his girlfriend was considering moving due to a career
decision: “The main thing is what she wants to do when she finishes school,
which is move to LA. And I don’t see that in my future.” Hence, although
most reasons for dissolution pertained to characteristics of the partners or
the relationship, a few participants reported that factors external to the
relationship facilitated the breakups.
Reasons for renewals
Participants often attributed renewals to communicating more effectively
(n= 24). Some participants generally expressed increased harmony in the
relationship. For example, one noted, “We weren’t getting on each other’s
nerves any more. We’ve just been getting along better, and it’s been a lot
easier” (male). Others more specifically discussed improvement in their
communication: “We started to talk again. . .and we worked through every-
thing that happened . . . and we were just real honest about each other and
about our relationship” (female), and “We communicated a lot better in
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the past few days, we got a lot out in the open, we talked about everything,
we got a lot off our chests. It helped a lot” (male). Overall, participants’
responses in this theme reflected a decrease in arguments or fights and
learning to communicate better.
Renewals were also based on changes in characteristics about the partner
or the self (n= 19). Attributions specifically about partner characteristics
(n= 14) pertained to positive aspects or improvements in partner behaviors
including being more attentive, understanding, or apologetic. For example,
one participant described her boyfriend’s behavior after a death in the
family: “He’s being real supportive and is helping . . . he sees my point of
view . . . and makes me see different points too. Another participant
reported, “He was very sweet .. . I liked the way he treated me, that he
respected me, and that he understood me, and that he listened to me.”
Another expressed that her partner “learned how to handle things .. . he’s
so much more at ease with himself.
Changes in participants’ own characteristics also instigated renewals
(n= 9). For example, a female participant stated, “I was more calm as a
person; I was less stressed about school. Another stated, “I had to get
myself together and treat her a little bit nicer, so once I started taking time
and started to think before I said something, then things started getting
better.”A few participants noted positive characteristics about both them-
selves and their partners. For example:
We each kind of did our own thing and had our own lives. He was
becoming a lot happier with himself and I was doing things that I wanted
to do. I was able to have my freedom and do what I wanted. He was more
attractive to me when he was happier with himself and doing things that
he wanted to do and we weren’t so dependent on each other.
Another reason for renewals pertained to partners’ continued attachment
to each other (n= 10). For example, participants missed their partners and
were unhappy without them: “I missed him so terribly” and “I just realized
that I missed him a whole lot.” This latter participant later noted, “I think
that was my general attitude during that time . . . being scared of not having
him. And I think that was the real motivating factor behind my actions. I
was just really terrified to have him out of my life.” Participants also
expressed not wanting to give up on their partners or having strong feelings
despite breaking up. For example, one participant commented that despite
her general distrust of her partner, “I still love him and I still have a hard
time not thinking we’ll get together, we’ll work things out.” Hence, some
on-off partners had lingering feelings even when their partners made it
difficult to be in the relationship.
Renewed effort by one or both partners was another theme regarding re-
newals (n= 12). One participant described how her boyfriend’s tenacity led
to the renewal: “He was fighting during this period of time [after the
breakup] because he didn’t want to let things go either. And the fact that
he just didn’t let go so easily, probably made my mind up a little bit easier.
Another participant noted,
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[I] was begging him “Just give us one more chance, I want to try it one
more time, we really do have a good friendship and I think we can makes
things work.” And so it was that intense effort on my part I think to just
say, “Look,I promise I won’t do this to you again . . . we’ll be together, we’ll
work things out, we’ll really try to talk about what our differences are and
how we can get around those.
Others stated how both partners realized their relationship would take
effort and wanted to work on the relationship. For example, in one of the
couples in our data, the female partner stated, “We got back together and
decided we were gonna work out things, really gonna make a conscious
effort to do it this time,” and the male partner similarly remarked,“We made
a decision to make a concerted effort to try again.” Hence, after breakups,
an increased effort or interest by one or both partners appears to increase
the chance of renewal.
Perhaps due to this renewed effort, increased time together was also a
factor in renewals (n= 9). For example, participants expressed, “We’ve just
been doing a whole lot of things together, like almost all of our spare time
is spent together” (female), and “[We’ve been] spending a lot of time
together, buying groceries, cooking dinner, going out, eating together, that
type of stuff kinda, I don’t know, re-sparked our flame” (male). Another
commented that “we just made up .. . started spending more time with her
instead of my friends. Although breakups occurred due to partners either
wanting more time together or less time together, only greater time
together seemed to facilitate renewals.
Perhaps related to both renewed effort and an increase in time spent
together, another theme was increased intimacy (n= 6). Renewals were
linked with partners having greater interest in each other, greater emo-
tional connection, getting to know each other better, or finding new things
in common. For example, a male participant noted, “We’ve remained com-
mitted, dating one another exclusively, and in general really just developed
a greater amount of personal intimacy with one another and both of us are
feeling really comfortable with that.” Another expressed, “We did really
love each other and we needed to just work out what was happening
between us, and just kind of talking more and just kind of rebuilding our
relationship . . . just getting to re-know each other” (male).
Another theme to emerge was dissatisfaction with alternative partners
(n= 8). Our analysis showed that exploring alternative partners at times
facilitated renewals. In other words, pursuing alternative partners allowed
individuals to see that their original partners were actually better than
other potential mates. After having dated another partner, one participant
described that this alternative experience made her:
. . . appreciate [original partner] even more and more. Because I thought I
was getting into a better relationship with this second guy, when in fact, it
just wasn’t that way. He [alternative partner] wasn’t willing to spend as
much time with me, he wasn’t willing to be as emotional as I was, he wasn’t
willing to be expressive . . . I didn’t want to go through that, and so I guess
I turned to [original partner] once again.
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A male participant also stated, “We’ve gone out and dated some other
people, and whether that worked out either better or worse, I think that we
decided that we appreciate each other a little bit more. Thus, for some,
pursuing alternative partners prompted renewals with former partners as
the alternative relationships did not provide better experiences than the
original relationships.
Additional features of on-again/off-again relationships
The final research question addresses more general features of on-off rela-
tionships that may help explicate why these relationships occur. A strong
theme in these accounts was relational uncertainty (n= 18). Many stated
they or their partners were uncertain about the status or the direction of
their relationships. One participant commented:
I don’t think [partner] is the guy for me. And if he’s not, we should stop
playing this yo-yo game of “yes, I want to be with you,” “no I don’t,” “yes
I do,” “no I don’t” and just be friends and really just make it clear that
we’re just friends.
Indecisiveness and ambivalence also created feelings of uncertainty. One
participant discussed his girlfriend’s indecisiveness about what she wanted
and his resulting uncertainty:
She’s real confused, and she didn’t really know what she wanted. She said
she thought that she wanted a relationship with me, but that she didn’t
really know, and so she wanted to take time off,to deal with those emotions
. . . So she didn’t say that she wanted to end the relationship completely,
she stated that she still wanted me to be in her life. And I haven’t really
made a decision . . . about how long I can remain in this .. . with her not
knowing what she wants.
Others noted their own ambivalence: “It’s just total I don’t know and
uncertainty . . . and I want to know what’s going on. I don’t want to give up
something if there’s a possibility of something happening, but I don’t want
to keep dragging it on.” A male participant’s statement – “It changes so
much, man, it’s up and down, all around” – summarizes this theme well.
Another theme, perhaps fueling the uncertainty, was the post-dissolution
contact between partners (n= 10). In our sample, several couples still talked
on the phone frequently, did things together, and one couple even lived
together after the breakup. One participant commented, “We were talking,
we starting seeing each other again, and we started going back out to
movies and doing stuff together again” (male). Some also commented that
they tried to remain friends. For example, one participant stated “we kind
of broke it off for a while and then all of a sudden he called me and said
‘we’re just gonna be friends, and maybe we can try and casually date, very
casually.’” Another expressed that:
We’re not saying that we’re back together, but we see each other like we
are . . . He left but then we’d call each other every day and talk to each
other every day, and he’s like “it’s not like we’re not together,” but we
actually aren’t together.
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This explicit dissolution of the relationship combined with continued
contact is summarized by a male participant who said, “We decided that we
weren’t gonna see each other, [but] every day we could still talk to each
other.” Thus, although partners reported a breakup, they often seemed to
be implicitly aware that the relationship was not over.This contact after the
breakup likely plays into the uncertainty about relational status, making it
neither “on” nor “off.” Partners wanted to end, yet simultaneously maintain,
the relationship.
Another theme, how breakups helped the relationship (n= 8), indicates
that the act of breaking up may have preserved many of these relationships.
Given that breakups are typically considered endings to dissatisfying rela-
tionships, the fact that partners often stated that their relationship was
better after the breakup was unexpected. For example, one male participant
noted, “As soon as we broke up, we were like better friends, and it was a
lot better . . . Everything got so much better after we broke up.” Some
participants used metaphors to discuss how the breakup benefited the rela-
tionship. One male participant stated:
I mean it’s kind of like cutting the dead branches on a tree, eventually it
will grow . . . We just decided that once we got rid of a lot of the dead
weight, got rid of a lot of our anger, I think that we had a chance to kind
of rebuild.
Another male participant similarly commented, “I think that we cleared
away a lot of . . . obstacles during that time period . . . We discovered a few
things about each other . ..We were able to clear away ill-conceived notions
about one other.” A female participant also expressed “I needed a rest
period or something. I felt like I needed to rest from the relationship to
look from the outside into the relationship.” In general, participants citing
this theme noted they felt less pressure in the relationship, had a chance to
think about the relationship, and were able to get over the rough spots after
the breakup.
The current study is an initial examination of the reasons for breakups and
renewals, as well as more general features, of on-again/off-again (on-off)
relationships. Participants’ subjective experiences regarding on-off relation-
ships were assessed to understand reasons for breakups and renewals (i.e.,
changes in stability) as reflected in increases or decreases in commitment.
The emergent themes are discussed within an interdependence framework
to explain the dissolutions and, perhaps more importantly, why partners
renewed their previously terminated relationships.
Reasons for breakups
Interdependence theory predicts dissolution is more likely to occur when
individuals perceive their quality of alternatives exceeds their current
outcomes (i.e., rewards in comparison to costs) in a relationship (Thibaut
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& Kelley, 1959). Two of our themes support this proposition. First, several
participants reported their dissolutions were due to their own or their
partner’s desire to pursue alternatives; partners were attracted to, and/or
interested in forming relationships with, other people. Hence, many break-
ups were at least partially the result of perceiving alternative options as
offering greater outcomes than the current relationship. Second, some noted
one or both partners were dissatisfied with time spent together, including
those who desired greater independence (i.e., less time together). Thus, for
some on-off partners, the freedom of independence was more attractive
than having their outcomes tied to their partner’s behavior. These themes
align with much of the research on dissolution that finds a relationship
between alternatives and stability (e.g.,Attridge et al., 1995; Felmlee et al.,
1990; Sprecher, 2001).
Although interdependence theory suggests the comparison level of alter-
natives most directly influences stability (i.e., whether partners maintain or
dissolve their relationship), many on-off partners in this sample noted dis-
solution reasons seemingly unrelated to alternatives.Thus,from participants’
subjective perspectives, breakups were often attributed to reasons more
explicitly related to satisfaction than to alternatives. For example, a pre-
dominant theme that may have contributed to decreases in satisfaction was
the presence of conflict. Although conflict is inevitable in interdependent
relationships, participants here described conflict has having a negative
influence, thus reflecting a cost in the relationship. Braiker and Kelley
(1979) also noted that conflict could be a symptom of dissatisfaction as well
as a cause. In other words, conflict may sometimes be the result of partners
not being able to provide rewards to each other. Regardless of the source,
these on-off partners’ accounts reflect that the presence of conflict appeared
to be more directly related to their (dis)satisfaction levels than to their
perceived alternatives at the time of breakups.
In addition, the theme including attributions about partner characteristics
or behaviors indicates greater costs in the relationship, which likely
decreased, or reflected, their level of satisfaction. Further, wanting more
time together (i.e., the other side of the dissatisfaction with time spent
together theme) appears directly related to partners’ satisfaction levels. For
these partners, time spent with the other may be a reward, and not being
able to experience this reward as frequently as desired may have led to
decreases in satisfaction. The theme of stagnancy also suggests that the
satisfaction related to rewards may have declined over time. For partners
citing this theme, the rewards in their relationship may have become less
potent as the relationship progressed, or their comparison level (i.e., what
they expect in relationships) increased over time making the rewards less
satisfying than before. Overall, these themes seem to reflect more specific
reasons regarding how satisfaction is related to stability (e.g.,Attridge et al.
1995; Simpson, 1987; Sprecher, 1999).
Other themes such as external factors (e.g., disapproving family members)
and self characteristics (e.g., not being ready for marriage) also had impli-
cations for stability in on-off relationships. This is consistent with research
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showing that, in addition to alternatives and satisfaction, determinants of
breakups can derive from a variety of sources such as personal attributes
and social network support (e.g., Felmlee et al., 1990; Fitzpatrick & Sollie,
1999; Sprecher & Felmlee, 1992). Although interdependence theory does
not directly incorporate these factors, it does acknowledge that external
forces or personality characteristics (i.e., exogenous factors, Thibaut &
Kelley, 1959; see also Kelley et al., 1983) influence individuals’ evaluations
of their outcomes. Hence, although factors outside of the relationship may
have impacted how these on-off partners perceived, or what they defined,
as costs and rewards in the relationship, they also explicitly listed these
factors as directly impacting dissolutions.
Overall, although many participants’ reasons for dissolution were related
to their perceived alternatives, others’ reasons focused on the presence of
costs and declines in rewards or characteristics external to the relationship.
For these latter individuals, it could be implied that the alternative of being
single provided greater outcomes than remaining in the relationship. How-
ever, their accounts are important in that individuals’ perceptions of what
leads to relational transitions may not entirely align with theoretical models
of relational stability. For some partners, dissatisfaction or individual char-
acteristics may be more salient in their decision to dissolve the relationship
than their perceived alternatives. In other words, although partners may
implicitly desire independence and the alternative of being single becomes
more attractive than remaining in the relationship, they explicitly attribute
the dissolution to other factors.As such, their own account or sense making
processes regarding breakups may focus on the presence of negatives
rather than the benefits of being independent.
More generally, this analysis also showed that on-off partners reported
similar reasons for dissolving their relationships as found in previous
research (cf.,Cupach & Metts, 1986; Hill et al., 1976;Sprecher, 1994).Hence,
what distinguishes on-off relationships from relationships that do not break
up and renew may be less about why they break up and more about the
nature of the post-dissolution relationship or other characteristics of these
relationships as reflected in the themes from the second and third research
Reasons for renewals
A dearth of research exists regarding reconciliation, but if interdependence
theory is employed to explain renewals,partners would likely need to experi-
ence a change in outcomes or a change in the standards by which their
outcomes are evaluated. More specifically, to desire a renewal, partners may
need to expect or experience a decreased quality of alternatives and/or
increased satisfaction in their relationships.The themes that emerged in our
analysis regarding reasons for renewals, in combination with the themes
regarding more general features of on-off relationships, provide some sup-
port for this proposition.
Although exploring alternatives is typically discussed as a factor leading
to dissolution (e.g., Thibaut & Kelley, 1959), several participants noted
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dissatisfaction with alternatives after experiencing these alternatives as a
reason for renewing. This suggests some partners’ actual experience with
what were perceived as better alternatives may change their perspective of
these alternatives as well as the former relationship. Perhaps, once partners
realized the alternatives were not as profitable as expected, their compari-
son level of alternatives decreased, or alternatively, the former relationship
became the more attractive alternative. Or perhaps, because individuals’
comparison levels can change with new experiences (Thibaut & Kelley,
1959), these partners’ expectations about relationships in general (i.e., com-
parison level) may have lowered making the former relationship appear
more attractive. Overall, the actual experience of alternatives may modify
one or both of the standards by which outcomes are evaluated.
Power or dependence was not explicitly reflected in the themes, yet the
renewal theme of continued attachment may suggest some individuals still
perceived the former partner as providing the greatest outcomes as com-
pared to any alternative. This attachment or lingering feelings may prompt
individuals to attempt reconciliation to regain the outcomes they experi-
enced prior to dissolution, particularly for those who had large degree of
commitment and satisfaction prior to the dissolution (Frazier & Cook, 1993;
Sprecher, Felmle, Metts, Fehr, & Vanni, 1998). Lingering feelings may also
lead to a position of less power and more dependence on the former partner
to obtain greater outcomes.According to the principle of lesser interest, the
former partner’s power may be maximized particularly when their own out-
comes (either through being single or another relationship) are relatively
higher than the individual with lingering feelings. Foley and Fraser (1998)
indeed found that partners in post-dissolution relationships with the least
interest had the most power.
In addition to experiences with alternatives or continued attachment,
another factor perhaps contributing to renewals was a change in on-off
partners’ outcome levels (i.e., rewards – costs). Specifically, the outcomes
associated with on-off relationships may increase after breakups. As sug-
gested by the post-dissolution contact theme, many partners continued to
maintain their relationship in some form after the breakup (see also Koenig
Kellas et al., 2008). Many couples may have contact after the breakup if
they work together or have friends in common (see also Foley & Fraser,
1998); however, the contact discussed by the current respondents appeared
to serve the specific purpose of maintaining the relationship. In other words,
although they dissolved the relationship, they remained interdependent.
As such, similar to research on post-dissolution friendships (see Busboom
et al., 2002; Schneider & Kenny, 2000), these on-off partners were likely
continuing to assess their post-dissolution relationships in terms of costs
and rewards.The theme of how breakups improved the relationship further
suggests these partners often perceived fewer costs and/or increased
rewards, and thus greater satisfaction, after the breakup.
Several renewal themes are likely related to this increased satisfaction.
For example, attributions about partner characteristics reflect experiencing
more rewarding behaviors or personality characteristics from their partners.
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Increased time together as well as increased intimacy may also be considered
greater rewards.Additionally, the theme of communicating more effectively
may reflect a reduction of a cost in the relationship as many of the parti-
cipants emphasized that communication had improved or that conflict
had decreased. Alternatively, as noted above, reduced conflict may also be
the result (rather than a cause) of partners providing greater rewards to
each other. The theme regarding renewed effort may also be a product of
increased rewards and decreased costs; if partners are more satisfied, they
may want to work on the relationship to continue increasing their outcomes.
Given these characteristics,on-off couples may be similar to post-dissolution
partners reporting an upward relational progression of commitment after
breakups as they report greater relational quality than other types of post-
dissolution relationships (Koenig Kellas et al., 2008).
Overall, these themes related to increased outcomes suggest that on-off
partners may perceive breakups as a fresh start that provides an oppor-
tunity to redefine the relationship to maximize the rewards and minimize
the costs. In discussing the dynamic nature of relationships, Thibaut and
Kelley (1959) argued that partners adjust their behavior to maintain better
outcomes or avoid poorer ones. For on-off partners, these adjustments may
thus be more dramatic and entail changes in relational status rather than
smaller modification in behavior.
Additional explanations of on-again/off-again relationships
Additional themes, particularly from the third research question, provide
further insights regarding the occurrence of on-off relationships. For
example, as indicated by the prominent relational uncertainty theme, many
participants or their partners had ambivalent feelings about the relation-
ship or did not want the relationship to completely end. This may suggest
that some partners’ perceived outcomes related to alternatives may have
been relatively similar to the outcomes provided by the current (i.e., on-
off) relationship. In other words, alternative partners or independence may
have offered somewhat better outcomes but not enough so that a definitive
breakup was desired, which may have created uncertainty or ambivalence
about the relationship. As suggested by interdependence theory (Thibaut
& Kelley, 1959), partners may dissolve satisfying relationships if better
alternatives are perceived. Thus, some on-off partners may not have been
dissatisfied with their relationships so much as merely interested in other
options at the time of breakups. Further, if ambivalence or uncertainty
about the relationship such as this was combined with a dissatisfying experi-
ence with alternatives (as discussed above), they may attempt a reconcilia-
tion to regain the outcomes previously experienced.
In addition, some individuals may have created uncertainty for their
partners when dissolving the relationship only to leave the possibility of
renewing open. If alternatives are not exceedingly attractive (Miller &
Parks, 1982) or if they are ambivalent about dissolving the relationship
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(Lee, 1984), partners may cautiously or slowly disengage from relationships
in ways that leave ambiguity about relational status. Some individuals may
have also used uncertainty to prevent their partners from pursuing alter-
natives. Kelley and Thibaut (1978) noted that rejected partners tend to
experience uncertainty after dissolution, but that they likely move on to
their alternatives. However, in on-off relationships, the post-dissolution
contact may have served to maintain the relationship (or keep the relation-
ship status blurred) as well as prevent the partner from moving on. Further,
if the rejected partners had lingering feelings (and perhaps greater depen-
dence on the relationship), they may be less likely to perceive or pursue
alternative partners. Given that uncertainty is linked with lower relational
quality (Knobloch, 2008), on-off partners likely experienced uncertainty as
a cost; yet,uncertainty in the minds of one or both partners may have facili-
tated renewals as well.
Overall, this application of interdependence theory provides a useful,
initial explanation of on-off relationships. The themes generally align with
interdependence theory concepts and predictions. Many of these themes
reflect interdependence predictions regarding relational dissolution. In
addition, these same concepts can be applied to renewals.
The present analyses also suggest partners in on-off relationships may
have a different definition of breakups. In many cases, participants did not
characterize breaking up as indicating the end of the relationship, or the
end of interdependence, but rather a redefinition as suggested by their post-
dissolution contact.As Conville (1988) argued, relational transitions provide
opportunities for new relational rules and a change in relational beliefs.
Such changes might explain some participants’ claim that their relationships
improved after a breakup. Hence, on-off partners may make larger, more
sweeping behavioral adaptations (i.e., breakups and renewals) to achieve a
mutually satisfying relationship. Further, these larger changes may, in part,
be fueled by their uncertainty as the relational turbulence model suggests
uncertainty or ambiguity about relationship status increases reactivity to
relational events (Knobloch, 2007).
These themes also provide a more specific understanding of what leads
to changes in relational status in on-off relationships. Quantitative assess-
ments provide general levels of relational characteristics (e.g., satisfaction,
alternatives) as well as changes in these characteristics if measured over
time; the current themes, however, offer specific reasons for changes in
stability. In addition, these findings highlight that partners’ subjective experi-
ences may differ in certain ways from theoretical perspectives of inter-
dependence. Hence, the use of multiple methods will likely provide the
greatest insights into explaining relational stability.
The current study provides several initial insights about individuals’ experi-
ences in on-off relationships; however, several limitations should be noted.
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Although participants were specifically asked to discuss reasons regarding
why their chance of marriage (i.e., commitment) increased or decreased,
they were not specifically asked to discuss what increased or decreased their
satisfaction or quality of alternatives; themes extrapolated from participant
accounts were interpreted within an interdependence framework. In addi-
tion, interdependence theory is general and most anything can be inter-
preted as costs or rewards. Thus, interdependence was employed here as a
guiding framework, but more specific assessments of on-off relationships
are necessary.
Additional participants in the larger sample also may have experienced
an on-off nature in their relationship but were not identified for our analysis
if they did not perceive that the breakups or renewals influenced their
chance of marriage. As such, the current themes do not reflect experiences
in on-off relationships that did not alter commitment levels. Further, it was
difficult to specifically assess who initiated the breakups and renewals
(i.e., often participants explanations were “we broke up” or “we got back
together”). Hence, themes may have varied by whether the breakups and
renewals were mutually or unilaterally initiated.
The current analyses assessed individuals’ data separately. However,
responses from couples in which both partners were included in the analyses
are likely interdependent. Future research should incorporate both partners
in on-off relationships to assess the similarity of partners’ experiences
regarding breakups and renewals; the similarities or differences in their
reports may be related to other characteristics in the relationship such as
number of renewals, relational quality, or communication dynamics.
Although interdependence theory explains why partners dissolve relation-
ships, this analysis showed that its theoretical components may also aid in
explaining why partners renew previously terminated relationships. The
application of interdependence, however, is only one relational theory that
could be useful in explaining on-off relationships.Additional research using
a variety of perspectives is needed to fully understand the cyclical changes
in relational status that some relationships exhibit.The current findings also
exemplify that relational stability is more complex than typically conceptu-
alized in relational research. Not all relationships can be defined as either
together or apart; some are continually redefined.Further, relational events
that initially denote instability may actually be a larger pattern of stability
(Weigel & Murray, 2000). As Rollie and Duck (2006) noted, “rather than
focusing on relational ending, scholars could focus on relational change
more generally” (p. 238). Similarly, Karney et al. (1999) suggested assessing
the trajectory or progression of relationships instead of focusing on the
endpoint of dissolution. As such, rather than defining relational transitions
such as breakups and renewals in absolute terms,assessing relational change
in a diversity of ways may provide greater insights for all dating relationships.
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... Ainsi, nous proposons de mobiliser la littérature en psychologie sociale pour étudier les motivations de retour des clients d'une part, et les conséquences de la rupture sur la relation avec l'entreprise d'autre part. Nous nous concentrons notamment sur les travaux étudiant les relations amoureuses cycliques (Dailey et al., 2011 ;Dailey, Rossetto, et al., 2009). ...
... Premièrement, ce travail doctoral contribue à la littérature sur le plan académique car nous mobilisons des théories en psychologie sociale, et plus précisément dans les relations amoureuses (Dailey et al., 2011 ;Dailey, Rossetto, et al., 2009) pour mieux comprendre les conditions et les effets de la reconquête dans le champ du marketing relationnel. Nous discuterons des motifs de retour des clients et de leur impact sur la qualité de la relation avec l'entreprise. ...
... Cette théorie offre également une explication à la stabilité et à la rupture des relations amoureuses (Tan et al., 2015). Les individus évalueraient la performance de leurs relations par rapport à deux normes : (1) ce qu'ils attendent des relations, et (2) ce qu'ils perçoivent comme des alternatives (comparaisons avec d'autres partenaires alternatifs) (Busboom et al., 2002 ;Dailey et al., 2011 ;Dailey, Rossetto, et al., 2009 ;Halpern-Meekin et al., 2013). Les travaux dans le champ des relations de couples traitent également des relations cycliques, c'est-à-dire des relations qui se rompent et qui se reforment (Dailey et al., 2011 ;Dailey, Rossetto, et al., 2009). ...
Avec le changement de paradigme en marketing, la fidélité client est un des enjeux majeurs pour les académiques et praticiens du marketing relationnel. Avec des marchés de plus en plus concurrentiels et interconnectés, il est primordial pour une entreprise de fidéliser ses clients pour rester compétitif et profitable. Néanmoins, aucune entreprise ne peut retenir la totalité de ses clients, plus particulièrement dans le secteur des services dans lequel il est particulièrement difficile de fournir une qualité de service irréprochable en permanence. La majorité des causes de rupture est par ailleurs les échecs de service. C’est dans ce contexte que le management de la reconquête client s’est développé et a attiré l’attention de certains académiques et managers. Cette thèse de doctorat propose d’étudier les stratégies de reconquête des clients partis suite à un échec de service à travers quatre études empiriques. Compte tenu de la rareté des études dans le champ de la reconquête client, notre première étude consiste en une étude exploratoire qualitative. L’objectif est d’étudier les motivations des clients reconquis et leurs conséquences sur la qualité de la relation avec l’entreprise. Cette étude exploratoire ouvre des pistes de recherche que nous investiguons avec trois études quantitatives. La première consiste en une étude terrain auprès d’anciens clients d’une banque française (N = 648). Nos résultats montrent l’effet médiateur de la satisfaction relationnelle entre les causes de rupture et la reconsidération de l’entreprise, ainsi que le rôle modérateur du temps écoulé depuis la rupture. Plus particulièrement, nos résultats montrent que les clients partis pour le prix reconsidèrent plus l’entreprise comparativement aux clients partis suite à un échec de service, lorsque la rupture a eu lieu récemment (moins de deux ans). Notre deuxième étude quantitative consiste en un collecte via questionnaire pour étudier le rôle de la satisfaction à l’égard du concurrent dans le cadre du management de la reconquête (N = 303). Nos résultats montrent dans un premier temps l’influence négative de la satisfaction à l’égard de la concurrence sur la reconsidération de l’entreprise. Puis, nous montrons le rôle modérateur de cette variable sur le lien entre les causes de rupture et la reconsidération de l’entreprise. En effet, les clients partis suite à un échec de service sont plus difficiles à reconquérir comparativement à ceux partis pour des raisons liées au prix, et cette différence s’accroît avec la satisfaction vis-à-vis de la concurrence. Ces deux études nous permettent d’identifier les clients les plus difficiles à reconquérir : ceux partis il y a moins de deux ans suite à un échec de service et qui sont satisfaits du concurrent. Finalement, notre dernière étude consiste en une expérimentation via questionnaire (N = 362). Celle-ci nous permet d’étudier une nouvelle stratégie pour reconquérir ces clients les plus difficiles à récupérer. Nos résultats montrent que la communication post-échec est une stratégie de reconquête efficace pour reconquérir les clients partis suite à un échec de service, il y a moins de deux ans et étant satisfait de la concurrence.
... Finally, although researchers typically depict stage models linearly for simplicity, their framing of dissolution as a process rather than a finite event leaves open the possibility that couples cycle or oscillate between stages (e.g., Battaglia et al., 1998). Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that on-again/off-again relationships-in which couples cycle through multiple breakups and renewals-are quite common (e.g., Dailey et al., 2009;Halpern-Meekin et al., 2013;Vennum et al., 2014). ...
... In fact, in some studies, participants do not even agree on whether their relationship ended. In a study by Dailey et al. (2009), couples in which one member of the dyad reported the relationship had ended were sampled, and 35% of those had a partner who did not say the relationship had ended. These findings suggest that, at least in some relationships, an uncoupling process unfolds that is more complicated than a single event. ...
... Relatedly, research that has followed breakups over time has shown that not all breakups persist (Dailey et al., 2009;. For this reason, some researchers require a full year of marital separation before concluding that a breakup has occurred (e.g., Rogers, 2004). ...
The dissolution of romantic relationships can be conceptualized in many ways, from a distressing event or a consequential life decision to a metric of a relationship's success. In the current review, we assess how relationship science has approached dissolution research over roughly the past 20 years. We identified 207 studies (from 195 papers) published between 2002–2020 that captured relationship dissolution events and coded the papers for relevant features. The most common methodological approach to studying breakups was a self‐report study (92%) in which relationships were tracked over time (72%) and breakups were treated as an outcome variable (79%). These results suggest that most research on dissolution has focused on predictors of it, rather than processes required to uncouple and circumstances surrounding the breakup itself. Coding revealed heterogeneous theoretical approaches, with the most common perspective across papers—social exchange/interdependence theory—informing only 15% of the papers coded. A majority (61%) of samples were representative of the nations, regions, or localities in which the studies were conducted. Yet, samples still tended to be disproportionately comprised of young, white individuals from Western countries. We conclude by discussing potential avenues for moving our understanding of relationship dissolution forward.
... Even after a relationship is dissolved, the breakup does not always "stick." On-again/off-again relationships are common, whereby a relationship dissolves and renews, often repeatedly (Dailey, Rossetto, et al., 2009). For example, in one sample of 445 college students, 62% reported having experienced at least one on-again/off-again relationship as part of their dating history, most of which included multiple cycles of breakups and renewals ). ...
... Many participants worried that discussing the state of the relationship would damage it, or that their (potential) partner would feel differently about the relationship than they did. Such concerns may lead people to People show a preference for existing partners over more attractive partners even in hypothetical contexts Gunaydin et al. (2018) Many struggle to leave even unhealthy or abusive relationships Arriaga (2002); Arriaga et al. (2013); Rusbult and Martz (1995) Dissolved partnerships frequently reconcile Dailey, Rossetto, et al. (2009) Break recovery is as difficult for rejectors as it is for rejectees Sbarra (2006) Biological Endogenous opioids play a role in relationship maintenance Inagaki et al. (2016;Inagaki, 2018); Panksepp et al. (1980); Panksepp (1998); Tchalova and MacDonald (2020) Biological Even temporary separation from a romantic partner is associated with physiological dysregulation Diamond et al. (2008) Cognitive Breakup decisions tend to be deliberative and effortful Battaglia et al. (1998);VanderDrift et al. (2009);Joel, Eastwick, & Finkel (2017) try to acquire information about the state of their relationships through indirect means ("secret tests"; Baxter & Wilmot, 1985). Even when fears of rejection do not outright prevent people from pursuing romantic partners, those fears may at least make successful pursuit less likely. ...
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Dating is widely thought of as a test phase for romantic relationships, during which new romantic partners carefully evaluate each other for long-term fit. However, this cultural narrative assumes that people are well equipped to reject poorly suited partners. In this article, we argue that humans are biased toward pro-relationship decisions—decisions that favor the initiation, advancement, and maintenance of romantic relationships. We first review evidence for a progression bias in the context of relationship initiation, investment, and breakup decisions. We next consider possible theoretical underpinnings—both evolutionary and cultural—that may explain why getting into a relationship is often easier than getting out of one, and why being in a less desirable relationship is often preferred over being in no relationship at all. We discuss potential boundary conditions that the phenomenon may have, as well as its implications for existing theoretical models of mate selection and relationship development.
... Young adults increasingly seek out their partners as sources of support, intimacy, and companionship, and rank their partners as being higher on a hierarchy of support figures as they enter this developmental stage (Furman and Buhrmester 2009). Relationship qualities also are predictive of the dissolution of relationships among young adults, with lower levels of perceived support and validation, and high levels of conflict associated with an increased likelihood of a relationship ending (Dailey et al. 2009;Gable et al. 2006). Indeed, young adulthood is developmentally critical to the understanding of romantic experiences and DA. ...
... Previous research has suggested that higher levels of conflict serve as a primary reason for dissolution of a relationship (Dailey et al. 2009). Additionally, aggression has been associated with relationship termination directly, documenting a link between experiencing physical aggression and an elevated risk for dissolution of a relationship (Rhoades et al. 2010b;Shortt et al. 2006). ...
Full-text available
Little is known about how an individual’s commitment to their romantic partner evolves over the course of a relationship following involvement in dating aggression (DA). The present study explored longitudinal associations between both psychological and physical DA involvement and subsequent changes in commitment. We hypothesized that experiences of physical and psychological DA may be related to decreased feelings of commitment (including both dedication and constraint) in a relationship, and that gender may moderate the link between DA and changes in commitment. One-hundred and twenty (60 female) young adults (ages 18–25) in a romantic relationship completed electronic questionnaires each month for 6 months, (M age Wave 1 = 22.44, SD = 2.20). DA involvement and commitment were measured by the Revised Conflict Tactics Scale, and the Revised Commitment Inventory, respectively. Using multilevel modeling, the current study examined shifts in commitment (dedication and constraint) following DA involvement. As hypothesized, physical and psychological dating aggression involvement were both associated with declines in relationship commitment. Analyses also tested for potential gender interactions with physical and psychological dating aggression involvement for both constraint and dedication. No significant gender interactions emerged. These findings add to the accumulating evidence for the deleterious effects of dating aggression on relationships, including on relationship commitment, and illustrate important implications for interventions aimed at reducing dating aggression among young adults.
... Unfortunately, there is scarce research regarding reconciliation in the brand relationship literature; however, there has been some research addressing this aspect in the interpersonal relationship domain. Employing a qualitative methodology, Dailey, Rossetto, Pfiester, and Surra (2009) explored the reasons a person decides to reunite with an ex-partner; among the main reasons for a relationship renewal are having a more effective method of communication, changes in negative characteristics of the partner or the self, continued attachment, a renewed effort by both partners, increased intimacy, and even dissatisfaction with alternative partners. Overall, Dailey et al. (2009) proposed that positive aspects of the ex-partner and the ex-relationship contributed to the possibility of a romantic reconciliation. ...
... Employing a qualitative methodology, Dailey, Rossetto, Pfiester, and Surra (2009) explored the reasons a person decides to reunite with an ex-partner; among the main reasons for a relationship renewal are having a more effective method of communication, changes in negative characteristics of the partner or the self, continued attachment, a renewed effort by both partners, increased intimacy, and even dissatisfaction with alternative partners. Overall, Dailey et al. (2009) proposed that positive aspects of the ex-partner and the ex-relationship contributed to the possibility of a romantic reconciliation. Following these arguments, the following hypothesis is proposed. ...
The phenomenon of consumers developing relationships with brands is well documented. However, few researchers have addressed the brand relationship breakup process. Since consumers choose to break up with brands for several reasons, the purpose of this study is to better understand brand relationship breakups and reconciliation through the development and validation of a measure of the valence of the brand relationship breakup (i.e., how positively, negatively, or neutrally the consumer perceives the brand relationship breakup). The findings indicate that a more positive brand relationship breakup makes consumers more prone to reconcile with the brand and less likely to spread negative word of mouth. In addition, consumer desire for vengeance mediates this relationship. Finally, this paper explores how the valence of a brand relationship breakup influences the type of recovery strategies a company should use to reestablish the brand relationship with the consumer.
... This study focuses specifically on relationship uncertainty as it most directly addresses the uncertainty that on-off partners are facing, namely, the ambiguity about the continuation of their relationship. For example, cohabiting and married partners with a history of cycling reported greater uncertainty regarding the future of their relationship , and on-off partners with more renewals experienced greater relationship uncertainty (Dailey, Rossetto et al., 2009). Additionally, those in on-off relationships are found to have the higher rates of uncertainty compared with noncyclical relationships (Dailey et al., 2010(Dailey et al., , 2012, and on-off partners cite uncertainty as a major stressor for their relationships (Dailey et al., 2011). ...
This study extends prior research on the intergenerational transmission of relationship instability by examining parents' history of on‐off relationships as a predictor of emerging adults' own cycling (i.e., breaking up and renewing with the same romantic partner). Data were collected at a large mid‐western university from 702 emerging adults (18–25 years old). Multinomial logistic regression was used to predict the likelihood that participants had cycled in a past or current relationship. Results show that parental cycling increased the likelihood of offspring cycling in a past or current relationship relative to never cycling, and greater uncertainty about the future of the relationship was a mechanism through which such transmission occurred. Findings from this study demonstrate that parental relationship instability can even be consequential for the transient relationships within emerging adulthood, making family history a productive area to explore for practitioners working with cyclical partners and/or emerging adults. 上一代人的关系不稳定对下一代人关系的代际传递影响已有研究,本研究将扩展该研究课题。我们研究调查了父母之间时分时合的关系发展史如何能作为一个预告因子来预测刚踏入成人阶段的青年人自己的感情发展循环 (即与同一情侣分手又和好)。研究人员从美国中西部一所大型大学收集了702名18‐25岁的年轻人的数据。多项逻辑回归被用来预测参与者在过去或现在的关系中分分合合的可能性。结果表明,与从不没有分分合合历史的人相比,父母的分分合合关系史增加了子女过去或现在的爱情关系中分分合合的可能性,而对未来关系发展的更大的不确定性是这种代际传递发生的机制。这项研究的结果表明,父母关系的不稳定甚至可能对刚踏入成年期的年轻人较短的情侣关系产生影响,这使得家族的关系发展情况值得特定的一类行医者们视其为一个亟待深入探索研究并多产结果的领域,他们的治疗对象主要是和关系时好时坏的伴侣们和/或刚踏入成年期的年轻人。
... Since in the present research participants will be asked to report on their recollection of significant life choices, it is possible they will be keen to find a more prominent role of emotions, intuition and instinct in their own life choices related to love and affection. An interesting example is the work by Dailey and colleagues (Dailey et al., 2009), who employed a qualitative research methodology to describe reasons for break ups or renewals of romantic relationships: their results show a number of themes that could be considered "irrational" and impulsive, such as decisions based on feelings independent of reasoning (e.g., "I just didn't feel like marrying anymore") or cognitive dissonances related to one's own behavior (e.g., cheating after having decided not to, and feeling guilty after). ...
Full-text available
People often make life choices that will affect their future (e.g. getting married). However, research on decision making focuses more on abstract dilemmas than on decision making. The aim of this study is threefold: to analyze (1) whether people rely mainly on intuitive or rational processing (System 1 or 2) when making life choices; (2) whether some characteristics of recalled life choices (e.g., difficulty in making the decision) differ between life areas (sentimental and work contexts); (3) whether personality traits and System 1 or 2 utilization may predict final satisfaction in life choices. By conducting a cross-sectional study on 188 participants' recall of selected life decisions (in the sentimental and work life areas) we found that System 1 is more involved than System 2 in sentimental choices while the opposite happens for work ones. Lastly, satisfaction in life choices is partially predicted by the involvement of cognitive systems and individual differences, with different predictors emerging across life areas. Discussion suggests directions for future research on naturalistic decision making.
Why do people fall in love? Does passion fade with time? What makes for a happy, healthy relationship? This introduction to relationship science follows the lifecycle of a relationship – from attraction and initiation, to the hard work of relationship maintenance, to dissolution and ways to strengthen a relationship. Designed for advanced undergraduates studying psychology, communication or family studies, this textbook presents a fresh, diversity-infused approach to relationship science. It includes real-world examples and critical-thinking questions, callout boxes that challenge students to make connections, and researcher interviews that showcase the many career paths of relationship scientists. Article Spotlights reveal cutting-edge methods, while Diversity and Inclusion boxes celebrate the variety found in human love and connection. Throughout the book, students see the application of theory and come to recognize universal themes in relationships as well as the nuances of many findings. Instructors can access lecture slides, an instructor manual, and test banks.
Why do some people maintain stable feelings of commitment toward their partners, whereas others’ feelings wax and wane from day to day? The current paper draws insight from decision conflict research suggesting that individuals torn between decision options are particularly susceptible to attitude change. In three samples, we validated a stay/leave ambivalence scale to capture internal conflict about whether to remain in versus exit a relationship. In two dyadic daily experience studies, individuals who felt more ambivalent about their relationships experienced greater daily fluctuation in commitment and breakup contemplation compared to less ambivalent individuals. Ambivalent individuals’ relationship intentions were also more strongly tied to their daily experiences, such that they felt more motivated to stay on days with greater relationship positivity, and more motivated to leave on days with greater relationship negativity. We discuss implications of these results for ambivalent individuals, their partners, and our understanding of stay/leave decision processes.
As an important dimension of romantic relationships, sexual activity has received little attention in research on on‐again/off‐again (on–off) relationships. Study 1 assessed the prevalence and perceptions of sexual experiences in on–off relationships as compared to non‐cyclical relationships (those without a history of breakups and renewals); furthermore, current and post‐dissolution (PD) relationships were assessed. Findings showed that on–off partners were four times more likely to engage in sex after breakups than non‐cyclical partners (55 vs. 13%). Results also suggested that on–off partners' perceptions of PD sexual experiences were more satisfying, more compatible, and less stressful than were non‐cyclical partners'. Using longitudinal data, Study 2 showed that PD sex was linked with reconciling the relationship. Conclusions from these findings and future directions are discussed.
This research examined the association between relationship satisfaction and later breakup status, focusing on the temporal changes in satisfaction ratings of individuals in newly formed dating relationships. Growth curve analytic techniques were used in 2 longitudinal studies to create 4 predictors: each participant's initial level of satisfaction, linear trend in satisfaction over time, degree of fluctuation in satisfaction over time, and mean level of satisfaction. Consistent with hypotheses, individuals who exhibited greater fluctuation in their repeated satisfaction ratings were more likely to be in relationships that eventually ended, even after controlling for overall level of satisfaction. Individuals with fluctuating levels of satisfaction also reported relatively lower commitment. The results are discussed in terms of conditions that promote versus undermine relationship stability.