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Is my on-again, off-again relationship worth the heartache?

Ask Roe: What should I do? Should I just give up?

Dear Roe,

I’m hopelessly in love with a man and I don’t know what to do. We met three years ago through a mutual interest. It’s been an on-and-off relationship and, frankly, a lot of heartache, but when I’m with him it feels so amazing that there is nowhere I’d rather be. His business is one of the industries badly affected by Covid-19 so he is not in a good place right now. I desperately want to be there for him and have tried many times to talk (we aren’t living together, we are both separated and have dependent children from previous marriages) but he is very distant and I feel that he is pushing me away. What should I do? Should I just give up?

Pop culture has done us all a great disservice by romanticising the on-again, off-again relationship. We’re constantly presented with films, television shows and celebrity gossip that posit that couples whose relationship is a constant source of drama, intensity, emotional breakups and grand reuniting gestures are a romantic ideal. Surely, if two people keep breaking up but then getting back together, they must be fated to end up together. How else would they keep being drawn back together, keep beating the odds, if their bond wasn’t truly strong?

The reason this trope is dangerous is that it equates intensity of feeling – any feeling, positive or negative – with love. It posits that ongoing cycles of insecurity and uncertainty, passionate whirlwind romance, and dramatic and distressing arguments are what love should feel like, and that any relationship that incites less intense emotional experiences is boring, unfulfilling, unromantic.


In abusive relationships, there’s a term for the cycle of abuse and then affection, punishment and reward: trauma bonding.

Loving someone is not and never will be the defining factor in a relationship

Trauma bonding provokes a physiological wave of stress hormones followed by a release of bonding hormones. This damaging cycle and its real impact on the brain and body can make victims of abuse feel physiologically addicted to their abuser, and make withdrawing from an abuser feel like the process of coming off a drug; painful, sickening, and for some, impossible. And when victims do manage to escape abuse, healthy and functional relationships can feel emotionless and dull in comparison; like spending years on a drug then being offered a nice knitting project. Is the knitting lovely, calming, healthy? Yes. Does it feel like a satisfying substitute for the intense highs and lows of a drug, even though you know the drug is destroying you? No.

I’m not saying your relationship is abusive, nor am I saying that all on-again off-again relationships are abusive. But I think an awareness of how relationships built on intensity and instability affect us can be useful in all on-again, off-again dynamics. You need to examine why you keep going back to it, and whether it’s because the relationship is worth it and growing and evolving into something healthier – or because you don’t know how to not go back.

Loving someone is not and never will be the defining factor in a relationship. You can love someone and the relationship can still not be right for you. Healthy relationships are defined by how you treat each other. Liking someone or loving someone and occasionally feeling amazing on the rare occasions when they deign to give you attention and affection is not reason enough to stay with someone. You also need mutual respect, healthy communication, a shared vision for your relationship, affection, trust, safety, happiness.

Do you have that with this man? When you and this man get back together, is it because after each break-up both of you actually think about your relationship, figure out what’s going wrong and both commit to working on it? Or are you just going back to a man who cannot give you what you need because you like him, and believe that your feelings for him will make up for the issues that keep causing you to break up? Because they won’t.

Love is a feeling, not a tool. You cannot fix a broken relationship with love alone. You both need the tools, and the willingness to learn how to use them. Are both of you equally invested in learning how to love each other in the ways you need to be loved?

I don’t think the fact that you and this man have had trouble sustaining a relationship is an indictment of either of your characters, and I do want to give this man some leeway for his emotional distance right now. This, as the now ubiquitous phrase goes, is an unprecedented time. People are facing personal and financial and professional stresses, and we are grieving everything we have lost. His coping mechanisms may require space, which is common and normal. But because of this distance, this could be an ideal time for you to think about what you want from this relationship generally, what you’re actually getting, and whether it’s possible to overcome the distance between those two points.

Put this man aside for a moment. What does your ideal relationship look like? What do you want from a relationship now – a casual companion; a long-term partner and parental figure for your children; someone whom you can share romance and sex but live independent lives? What makes you feel good, and safe, and appreciated? How do you want to manage conflict when it arises?

Now think of what you’re getting from this man. Park aside your feelings for him, and look purely at the relationship. Is it aligning with your values, your relationship goals, how you want to be treated, how you want to deal with conflict? Think of all the reasons you and this man have parted ways, and whether they were resolved before you returned – or if you just sacrificed a need in order to be back with him. Having an on-again, off-again relationship with a person often also involves having an on-again, off-again relationship with our own boundaries.

Asking yourself these questions will hopefully allow you to see this relationship more clearly, removed from the fog of your feelings. And you can decide to either approach this man with a clear sense of what needs to change in this relationship in order to be healthy and sustainable and good for both of you – or you can decide to end it, once and for all.

No matter what you decide to do about this man, commit to respecting your own boundaries, your own desires, your own feelings. Commit to learning how to feel safe and secure. It may feel less intense, but don’t be fooled – creating a healthy relationship with yourself and another person is incredibly exciting. Are you ready to try?