Q: I am 21 years old and my ex-boyfriend is 34. We had been together for 2 years on and off. We broke up two months ago but in the past two weeks he suddenly came into my work place and we spoke. This week we planned on Monday to hang out, but I canceled on him and rescheduled for Wednesday. We had a quick dinner; he kept updating me about his friends and what he has been up to, and asking how I have been. After dinner, he walked me home and brushed his hand against my back occasionally...but when we reached my place, we just hugged and parted. We didn't kiss or talk about where our relationship is going.
The next day he texted me telling me that it was nice to see me again...I replied "Likewise." Two days have passed now...and I haven't heard from him since.
I guess I'm just confused as to whether my ex-boyfriend still wants to get back with me...or is it time for me to let go and move on?
A: Thank you for your question. It does sound like you are getting some mixed signals, so it is natural to want some clarification about what is going on with your ex. While there has been a lot of research on relationships that start and end (something we call noncyclical relationships), there is less research about on again-off again relationships (“on-off” or cyclical relationships). But this limited work makes it clear that, not surprisingly, on again-off again relationships are quite different from typical relationships in a number of ways. For example, on again-off again relationships tend to have greater conflict, less commitment, lower satisfaction, and fewer positive behaviors (e.g., validating each other’s feelings) than noncyclical relationships.1 Partners involved in on again-off again relationships also report doing things that negatively impact the relationship, such as being less cooperative, polite, and patient with each other. In other words, on again-off again partners engage in bad relationship maintenance behaviors, so their relationships are very unstable.2
On again-off again relationships also tend to involve a lot of uncertainty3—such as uncertainty about how things are communicated. Social-sexual communication is a term used to describe messages or cues that convey sexual or romantic interest.4 Intimate nonverbal behaviors, like brushing his hand against your back, is definitely not as platonic as simply smiling and sitting in close proximity to you over dinner.5 So, when he expresses himself with an intimate gesture, and then “disappears” for a while, the message he is sending is definitely a mixed one. It is no wonder you are left feeling so uncertain about what is going on.
Many people involved with on again-off again relationships use break-ups as opportunities to “redefine” their relationships. Then, after breaking up, they keep in contact with their exes with the belief that their relationships are not entirely over.3 Whether things are on or off, research suggests that your ex (and you) are more likely to use “strategic maintenance” strategies, which are intentional behaviors (e.g., call you and make a date) rather than “routine maintenance” strategies, which are unintentional (e.g., showing regular affection). So, your ex might call and try to reconcile with formal offers for dates, but his long term motivation to continue maintaining the relationship may be lacking.
I think you need to ask yourself, what are you getting out of the relationship? The uncertainty of not knowing seems to bring partners back to each other again and again,6 so when you are ready to get off the merry-go-round/rollercoaster of not knowing, I think you will have your answer.
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1Dailey, R. M., Pfiester, R. 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., Rossetto, K., Pfiester, R. A., & Surra, C. A. (2009). A qualitative analysis of on-again/ off-again romantic relationships: ‘‘It’s up and down, all around.’’ Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26, 443-466.
3Dailey, R. M., Hampel, A. D., & Roberts, J. B. (2010). Relational maintenance in on-again/off-again relationships: An assessment of how relational maintenance, uncertainty, and commitment vary by relationship type and status. Communication Monographs, 77, 75-101.
4Solomon, D. H., & Williams, M. L. M. (1997). Perceptions of social-sexual communication at work: The effects of message, situation, and observer characteristics on judgments of sexual harassment. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 25, 196-216.
5 Koeppel, L. B., Montagne-Miller, Y., O’Hair, D., & Cody, M. J. (1993). Friendly? Flirting? Wrong? In P. J. Kalbfleisch (Ed.), Interpersonal communication: Evolving interpersonal relationships (pp. 13-32). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
6Dailey, R. M., Borae, J. Pfiester, A., & Beck, G. (2011) On-again/off-again dating relationships: What keeps partners coming back? The Journal of Social Psychology, 151, 417-440.
Dr. Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.