In her 2012 album, “Red”, Taylor Swift makes it pretty clear she’s done with on-again, off-again relationships, claiming “we are never, ever getting back together” eleven times throughout the song. Love her or hate her, the pop music queen of oddly personal dating advice may have a good point if the results of a new study published in Family Relations hold true.
Led by a team of researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the study used responses from 545 couples to show that cycling in and out of the same relationship was correlated with statistically significant increases in symptoms linked with anxiety and depression. Importantly, the findings were the same across both heterosexual and homosexual couples, which is notable because few past studies have incorporated a diversity of intimate relationships in their analysis.
“I embarked on this research because there are a lot of misleading media messages in popular songs and TV Shows, as well as famous narratives saying things like, ‘If you love someone, let them go, if they come back then you know it was meant to be’ – and although breaking up and getting back together isn’t always a bad omen, on average, we find that a continued pattern can impair personal and relational well-being.” Kale Monk, Ph.D, the study’s lead author tells Inverse in an emailed statement.
It’s obvious that terminating a relationship is stressful. But what about entering into one? While both experiences feel different, they’re both transitional periods, which can be difficult for couples to navigate.
In their paper, Monk and his colleagues note that “times of transition lead to tumultuous interactions and uncertainty about the future of the relationship.” This is what researchers call “Relationship Turbulence Theory,” and previous studies examining this theory have suggested that transitional periods can result in emotional polarization on both sides.
These issues are the classic hallmarks of breakups. A big change happens, you start to doubt whether your relationship will survive, and you eventually withdraw from one another. However, the authors’ interpretation of their findings suggest that even getting re-involved with an ex counts as a transitional period that can contribute to mental anguish:
“In other words, not only can transitions out of a relationship affect psychological adjustment but transitioning into relationships without deliberation and dedication to seeing the relationship continue can also be distressing,” they write.
Monk says this doesn’t mean that getting re-involved in a past relationship is doomed to fail. Instead, he clarifies that the issues arise from getting back into a relationship for the wrong reasons.
“Spend some time thinking about the reasons why reconciliation is being considered,” he advises. “Why do you want or feel like you need to get back together? Is the reason rooted in dedication and positive feelings, or more about obligation and convenience? The latter reasons are more likely to lead down a path of continual distress.”