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First of all, what do we mean by an on-again/ off-again relationship? According to Wikipedia “An on-again, off-again relationship is a form of personal relationship between two persons who keep breaking up only to reconcile afterwards, thus repeating a cycle.” In most of my favourite romantic movies, series & books, couples engage in this type of relationship: Emma and Dexter from One Day, Marianne and Connell from Normal People, Ted and Robin from HIMYM (Sorry, Barney and Robin fans but I really like them as a couple), Ross and Rachel from Friends, and Joey and Pacey from Dawson’s Creek. Also, I was in an on-again/ off-again relationship for 6 years, and I have to ask, why do we do it?
Re-watching/reading some of the aforementioned series, movies & books, it seems that the pattern that leads to this kind of relationship is usually the immediate bond you feel with someone because of shared interests or simply the things you have in common. When I started my on-and-off relationship, I was clearly attracted to this guy, let’s call him Francesco. He made me feel understood in a time when I felt nobody was able to do it, not even my family or closest friends. If we look at couples like Ross and Rachel, they bonded over their failed marriages, Chuck and Blair over their love for scheming and maybe even sexual desires (‘kinks’), and Connell and Marianne over their devotion to school work and intellectual discussions. I guess the thing is that even on-off-relationships start just like any other, but then, when you decide to take a ‘break’ (Friends fans I hear you), unhealthy and toxic behaviours might also start to show. In my case, the first time Francesco and I broke up it was because I was so focused on the uni I would get into, worrying that I would be stuck in the same small town forever and I did not feel like involving him in this decision making. I think Francesco also felt like I was excluding him in my future choices and felt left out (indeed this would be a recurring theme in our breakups). In addition to that we developed very toxic dynamics in terms of him making me feel less secure about myself through passive aggressive comments and me letting him do that, because I was too scared of losing the only person I felt truly understood by. Now, three years after the ending of our relationship, I can clearly see that the issues we had at 16 were the same that we had at 25. Of course, we were changing and evolving, and the problem might not have been the choice of uni but the work type or which country to live in, however the dynamics between us never changed. Every time we got back together, and even now, during our occasional meetings just to ensure that we are both still alive, this behaviour toward each other has rarely changed.
Looking at book characters, Marianne and Connell broke up for the first time because of miscommunication. He did not tell her how much he cared about her, and she let him treat her badly (at least during their high school period) because she thought that this is the only kind of love she deserves. Every time they break up in the series or the book, it is related to these miscommunication issues that keep on recurring. Going back to ‘ Friends’ Ross & Rachel keep breaking up because none of them is willing to admit to being wrong or looking at the other person's perspective. Ross keeps being jealous & insecure of Rachel’s new focus on her career and Rachel is not able to understand Ross’s point (which I honestly also struggle to see) and meet him halfway. (fyi I am team ‘ not on a break’)
Another very interesting point of this on-again/off-again relationship is the part where you try to be friends with your ex. In the case of Francesco and I, the most we accomplished was friends with benefits but I would consider this also a kind of friendship. Again, here the issue was that I was aware of the strong connection between the two of us and I believe none of us was willing to let things go. Usually this happens when there are very few, rational reasons to be together but you have these big feelings every time you are with this person and you are not very willing to let them go.
Let's also have a look at Dexter and Emma from One Day. They were kind of the same, not many rational reasons to be together, but you could feel that they had this inexplicable connection between them, and so they decided to follow it by being very close friends for years. I think here the theme is clearly about following emotions rather than the brain. I find it fascinating how people who are such rationalists (I’d put myself in this category) are so willing to let their emotions take over everything that relates to relationships.
Once, a close friend of mine who was also in this kind of relationship told me that she realized that she was addicted to the drama of it all. If everything was going well, she would miss the drama of the dramatic breakups. People who have been in an on-off relationship know what I am talking about, but for the lucky ones who never had the pleasure to experience this, let me explain:
I know every breakup is dramatic, but when it's at least the second or third time that you are ending things, it gets different. It's like a déjà-vu, you’ve already been there, so you basically start talking about everything that was and went wrong years ago, or dwell on things that you thought about during the off-again period, and through this making everything more and more dramatic (at least this is what happened to me). Also because you’ve already broken up so many times, you start questioning yourself (Shall we break up again? Is this going to be the final breakup?). In my case, I clearly recall that I never thought that it was the final breakup until we had our proper last one. To me, they all seemed like, “right now we can’t be together for this list of rational reasons, but one day we will because we are meant to be.” I also remember how used I was to these kinds of moments, feeling incredibly upset because we were ‘breaking up’ but then also seeing the strong connection I felt with Francesco during those mutual feelings of sadness. I believe it was those moments in which we were clearly both upset because we were ‘ending’ our relationship, that made our bond grow stronger. Like when you are very sad and somebody really understands your sadness and you feel less lonely. Let’s take Carrie and Big from Sex and the City as an example, the ultime on-again/off-again relationship (in my humble opinion). There was a great episode in which Carrie reflects on the fact that she may not be addicted to Big, but to the pain that her relationship with Big brought her and that is why she could not quit it.
One of my closest friends always used to tell me: “Can’t you just accept that there is a connection between you and Francesco and that there will always be one? That does not mean you cannot love someone else in a monogamous way, but you have to accept that this connection and your relationship with him will always be part of who you are.” I guess that we need to get the idea out of our heads that there is only one way to love someone, or that we will always have this one big love who will be in our life forever. Maybe we just need to accept that certain people that made us who we are today, will always have a special place in our heart and will always make us feel something and there will always be a unique connection. But that does not mean that they have to stay in our day to day life.
As Tara Westover wrote in her memoire “ Education”: “You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them (...) You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”