Breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine. You can't do it in one push. You gotta rock it back and forth a few times, and then it goes over.
-Jerry Seinfeld (to Elaine, regarding her relationship with Puddy)
In previous articles I wrote about research on what and who predicts breakups in relationships. Most of this research on relationship stability considers breakup to be a finite state or endpoint: a relationship is either over or it’s not; there is no middle ground. As you might have experienced, however, breakup can often be a process in which some couples get back together and then breakup again (press Alt+Ctl+Del to reboot and do it all again...and again).
For the Seinfeld fans out there, you’ll recognize this cycle of breakup and reunion as the central theme in Elaine’s relationship with David Puddy. Whether it was because he was a face-painter, gave gratuitous high-fives, had awful taste in clothes (recall both the fur coat and 8 ball jacket), or if it was because of Elaine’s general bossiness or poor moves on the dancefloor, they were constantly breaking up and, for some reason, getting back together.
New research by René Dailey and colleagues has focused on these “on-again/off-again” relationships. It turns out that Elaine and Puddy were not uncommon; nearly 2/3rds of people report having been in an on-again/off-again relationship at some point, and approximately 40% of on-going relationships have been “on/off” in the past.1 In addition, these relationships “cycle” repeatedly; on average, these couples have broken-up and reunited more than two times, and nearly 25% of them have cycled four or more times. However, unlike Elaine and Puddy, who broke up and reconnected on an hourly basis, on/off-relationships tend to have periods of a month or two between breakup and reunion. Not surprisingly, these relationships tend to be characterized by more uncertainty and lower levels of positivity, love, and satisfaction compared to stable relationships that don’t cycle.1,2
If on-again/off-again relationships tend to be worse off than continuously “on” relationships, why do partners keep getting back together? Clearly, a lingering attachment is one driving force.3 Individuals also often assume that during a separation they improve their communication skills, decrease conflict, and “grow as a person” (i.e., change for the better), which gives them hope for the second (or third or fourth) time around.4
Finally, Dailey and colleagues’ results suggest that dissatisfaction with new (potential) partners can bring couples back together.4 They may have broken-up because the grass was greener, but upon getting back out on the dating market they find that their exes were about as good as they could do. Clearly, David Puddy doesn’t look so bad when compared to the “close-talker” or the Wiz.
Can't get enough Seinfeld on SofR? Check out Who Has the Upper Hand? Power, Sex, and Seinfeld.
1Dailey, R. M., Pfiester, A., Jin, B., Beck, G., & Clark, G. (2009). On-again/off-again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships? Personal Relationships, 16, 23-47.
2Dailey, R. M., Middleton, A. V., & Green, E. W. (in press). Perceived relational stability in on-again/off-again relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
3Dailey, R. M., Jin, B., Pfiester, R. A., & Beck, G. (in press). On-again/off-again relationships: What keeps partners coming back? Journal of Social Psychology.
4Dailey, R. M., Rossetto, K. R., Pfiester, R. A., & Surra, C. A. (2009). A qualitative analysis of on- again/off-again romantic relationships: “It’s up, it’s down, all around.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26, 443-466.
Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.