There are those couples that like to fight viciously, break up, hook up two weeks later, and then decide to get back together—until they inevitably break up again. You probably know a couple like that. And when you’re watching the destruction from a safe distance, it’s easy to cast judgment.
But being part of a couple that can’t cut the cord can be a frustrating, alienating experience—albeit an increasingly common one.
“There’s a new phenomenon I’m seeing in my office where people cannot get away from each other, but they keep on hurting each other,” says Sara Schwarzbaum, founder of Couples Counseling Associates in Chicago.
She attributes this to a recent cultural shift caused by—what else?—social media.
“In the 70s and 80s—before the ability to find anyone, any time, all the time—people were able to cut it off a little more dramatically than now,” Schwarzbaum says.
Now she sees people texting back and forth after a break up—and there’s an addictive quality about constantly being able to contact the other person, she adds.
Breaking up and getting back together doesn’t necessarily mean a relationship is doomed, but taking the following steps can help both of you avoid repeating the vicious cycle.
Here’s what you should know if you get stuck in it.
RECOGNIZE THE WARNING SIGNS
“Relationship experts who work with couples in distress know there are stages in relationships,” says Schwarzbaum. “The first stage—the romantic stage—is the one everyone associates with love, but it’s actually only the first one, and it doesn’t last.”
Schwarzbaum says that volatile couples tend to have trouble getting through the next phase of a relationship—when differences appear and things aren’t so perfect anymore.
“That’s generally when problems arise,” she says.
For a lot of couples, that second stage doesn’t begin until they move in together. That’s when the four major characteristics of “break-up-make-up couples” become more prominent: There’s increasing criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and withdrawal.
And that cycle continues after you and your partner get back together, Schwarzbaum explains.
So how can you successfully break that cycle?
FESS UP TO YOUR OWN MISTAKES
“People [need to be] able to look at their own contributions to the relationship problems,” says Schwarzbaum. “If you’re continuing to blame your partner for what’s going on, then you’re probably not very aware of your own contributions. Nothing will change unless you try to figure it out.”
If a couple really wants to work things out and improve their relationship, they need to be focused on actions, not just words.
“Maybe there are relationship skills you need to learn that you haven’t learned yet,” Schwarzbaum says.
But if you can’t seem to discuss your relationship without tearing each other apart, it might be time for a more dramatic solution.
GIVE EACH OTHER SOME SPACE
In high-conflict situations, Schwarzbaum feels a trial separation can give couples an opportunity to learn how to communicate effectively without escalation.
“When there’s a lot of screaming, [and] a lot of fighting, it’s better to shield yourself and the people around you,” she says.
During these meetings, you and your partner would avoid discussing your relationship and focus on logistics only, especially issues that might revolve around your children.
Of course, you might be in a break up-make up relationship that doesn’t involve kids—but that doesn’t mean there’s no collateral damage caused by the revolving door that is your relationship.
AVOID ALIENATING YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Leaning on friends and family after a breakup is natural and cathartic, but it also puts your family and friends at risk of having to choose a side.
Plus, changing your mind about the relationship after trash talking your partner puts the people you care about in the same confusing position you’re in.
So don’t re-enter a relationship without acknowledging the issues that caused it to end in the first place.
And when you do address the problem with them, say “You know, I’ve been telling you a lot about what’s been going on with my relationship, and I’ve been looking at myself and trying to figure out what I’ve been doing, and we’re trying to work it out,” suggests Schwarzbaum.
Just have a very straightforward talk, because you need to be able to explain why you’re going back.
KNOW WHEN TO CALL IT QUITS
How much back and forth is too much? It’s subjective, but the longer a couple repeats the cycle, the more at risk the relationship.
“The more hurt there is, the more water under the bridge, the longer you go on hurting each other, the harder it is to come back up from under,” says Schwarzbaum. “Sometimes two people are wonderful: They’re intelligent, they’re kind, they’re great—but they’re not good together.”And sometimes, trying to make it work instead of calling it quits can actually do more harm than good.
“Anything that’s not mutual kindness and respect and gratefulness—anything that doesn’t keep the relationship healthy and growing, the more of those things there are, the harder it is to get back up,” says Schwarzbaum.