On-off relationships can be “toxic” for mental health, says study

Posted by
Anna Brech
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It’s the mainstay of all great romantic arcs but a study has found that on-off relationships take a serious toll on our mental wellbeing.

From Carrie and Big in Sex and the City to Rachel and Ross in Friends, we just can’t resist the cliffhanger allure of an on-off relationship.

Even in real life, we have a tendency to romanticise turbulent unions. 

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who married and divorced twice, are the stuff of enduring Hollywood legend: the great love story of a golden era.

The reality is, however, that such volatile relationships may cause significant psychological stress.

A study from the University of Illinois found that the habit of breaking up and getting back together is linked to a series of negative patterns including higher instances of anxiety and depression.

Researchers led by co-authors Brian Ogolsky and Ramona Oswald examined data from 500 individuals in heterosexual and same-sex relationships.

Across the board, they found an association between the tendency to be on-off and mental health distress symptoms.

Elizabeth Taylor pictured just before she left Eddie Fisher (centre) for Richard Burton (left)

The human development team behind the findings says couples in these up-and-down relationships should take an honest look at what is going wrong and either fix things or end it altogether.

“The findings suggest that people who find themselves regularly breaking up and getting back together with their partners need to ‘look under the hood’ of their relationships to determine what’s going on,” says assistant professor Kale Monk. 

“If partners are honest about the pattern, they can take the necessary steps to maintain their relationships or safely end them. This is vital for preserving their well-being.”

A common reason for couples reuniting is practicality, says Monk. People may get back together for financial security, or because they’ve already invested so much time being together. But individuals should look to preserve their mental health above all. 

“Remember that it is okay to end a toxic relationship,” he says. “If your relationship is beyond repair, do not feel guilty leaving for your mental or physical well-being.”

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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