Some couples love to travel together. Some enjoy fusion restaurants. Others like to fight viciously, breakup, bitch to their respective friends, rendezvous two weeks later, and decide they’re actually soulmates—until they inevitably break up again. If you don’t personally know a couple like that, look no further than the cover of a tabloid magazine for proof that merry-go-round relationships are alive and well (we're looking at you, Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick).
When you’re watching the destruction from a safe distance, it’s easy to cast judgment. It might even be fun to watch, in a rubbernecking-the-apocalypse kind of way. 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,” Sara Schwarzbaum, LMFT, tells WomensHealthMag.com. Schwarzbaum is the 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, anytime, all the time, people were able to cut it off a little more dramatically than now. I’m seeing that people go back and text each other [after breaking up]...there’s an addictive quality about constantly being able to contact the other person," Schwarzbaum says.
Breaking up and getting back together doesn’t necessarily mean a relationship is doomed, but there are steps a couple can take to avoid doing it over and over again. If you’re considering a one-way ticket to ex-ville, consider the following advice.
Know 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 cute 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. “We see couples who fell in love, have wonderful things in common and wonderful attraction, then they move in together and have trouble managing their differences. What begins to happen is there’s an increasing presence of what some experts call the four major characteristics of couples who break up and get back together: there’s increasing criticism, increasing defensiveness, increasing contempt, and increasing withdrawal. And that cycle continues when they get back together,” she explains. So how can a couple successfully break that cycle?
"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 action, not just words. "Maybe there are relationship skills you need to learn that you haven’t learned yet,” Schwarzbaum says.
"If you’re continuing to blame your partner for what’s going on, then you’re probably not very aware of your own contributions."
But if you can't seem to discuss your relationship without tearing each other apart, it might be time for a more dramatic solution.
Consider a Trial Separation
In high-conflict situations, Schwarzbaum feels a trial separation can give couples an opportunity to re-learn how to communicate 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. If there are children involved, people still need to learn how to co-parent, whether or not they’re together," she says.
Ideally, a couple would avoid discussing the relationship during this separation, limiting their contact to logistics. “If there are children involved, you can have business-like contact during a trial separation. I’ve coached couples who have business-like meetings where they can work on the issues they need to resolve when it comes to children. I would make a rule not to talk about relationship issues during a trial separation,” Schwarzbaum says.
Of course, many couples who breakup-and-makeup don’t have children—but that doesn’t mean there’s no collateral damage caused by the revolving door that is their relationship.
Don't Poison the Well
Leaning on friends and family after a breakup is natural and cathartic, but it also puts your armchair therapists at risk of having to choose a side. That's fine if your ex is a demon, but changing your mind about the relationship post-trash talking it puts the people you care about in the same confusing position you’re in. Don’t re-enter a relationship without acknowledging the issues that caused it to end in the first place.
“Couples can repair that poisoning of the well by talking to their friends and family members and saying, ‘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 out.’ Just a very straightforward talk...You need to be able to explain why you’re going back,” says Schwarzbaum.
Know When to Call It
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 instead of separating, they keep trying to make it work and they keep hurting each other. And 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.”