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Love. Disappoint. Fight. Break up. Miss each other. Get back together. Repeat.

Those are the basic instructions for, or rather the pattern of, a couple who engages in an on-again, off-again relationship.

Also known as “relationship cycling,” the predictable, repetitive cycle of breaking up and getting back together again can be dysfunctional, unstable, hurtful and even toxic. So why do so many couples put themselves through such an awful experience?

Debra Alper, a Chicago-based relationship therapist, noted that relationship cycling stems from a number of different places. These include:

  • Unhealthy models of attachment we learned during childhood
  • Fear of being alone
  • Belief that things will change
  • Low self-esteem
  • Addiction to the habits of the relationship

“Relationship cycling is a psychological dance in which the couple falls in love, they get close, they begin to disappoint each other. (Then) they begin to fight. They begin to find the relationship intolerable, they end the relationship, only to be terrified at the (loneliness) that happens when they break up,” explained Alper, who has been in practice for 19 years. “This then brings them back to each other to try it all over again.”

In Alper’s experience, when the couple breaks up, there is temporary relief, but then the fear of loneliness sets in and all they can think about are the good parts. Then, they start to imagine the high they will get when they reconnect.


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