On Off Relationships

On-again-off-again, push-pull, hot-cold, Yo-yo relationships can be incredibly painful and confusing. I think most people have either experienced this kind of relationship directly, or else know someone who has, so we all know how soul destroying they can be. But why can they be so difficult to let go of?

From the Beginning

The hot-cold pattern can sometimes start at the very beginning of a relationship. You meet him or her, feel a mutual instant attraction, and seem to really click in the personality department. You text or email each other; you talk on the phone; and you might have another date or two. You may even sleep together at some stage. But then somewhere along this timeline things suddenly go very cold. Your new lover stops answering your texts or phone calls, or when they do, it’s in a cool detached way. Dates get called off with thin excuses.  All the warmth, and unspoken promises of things to come, suddenly disappear. You send a ‘What’s going on?’ message and get nothing back.

This can lead to huge hurt and confusion. Unanswered questions tend to create worst case responses in your mind. She doesn’t like me any more. I was just a sexual conquest. He has girlfriend. There is something really wrong with me.

You just start to face the realisation that the whole thing was a farce, when suddenly, out of the blue, your lover contacts you, says ‘I am so sorry’, with great conviction, and explains that she has been going through a bad patch and got caught up in some life drama that she didn’t want you to have to deal with. Or perhaps he says that he was overcome with strong feelings for you, so got scared, but now he’s realised he really does want to be with you. She is warm and passionate and adoring once again, so, of course, you take her back. Who wouldn’t? And once the bruising starts to heal, you relax and the relationship begins to flow freely again.

That is until a week or two later, when history repeats itself and once again the trail suddenly goes cold.  Back into the depths of confusion and despair you go, until he contacts you again….

Why We Get Hooked

One of the reasons hot-cold relationships are so difficult to let go of is because they provide what’s called ‘intermittent reinforcement’. This is a term coined by a research psychologist named Alfred Skinner who studied the behaviour of animals in a ‘Skinner Box’. This was a simple box with a lever, water, and a small shoot. If the animal accidentally hit the lever, a food pellet would fly down the shoot, into the box. The animal quickly learned to press the lever to get the reward of food.

If the pellets suddenly stopped coming, the animal learned that the lever was no longer useful and stopped pressing it. The prior association and learning were extinguished, usually pretty quickly.

However, if the food stopped coming for a few presses of the lever, then started up again, and if this cycle happened a repeatedly, with the food pellets stopping and starting up again intermittently, the animal would find it very difficult to stop hitting that lever, even long after the pellets stopped coming. Skinner realised that this ‘intermittent reinforcement’ created behaviour that was very difficult to extinguish. This is partly the reason that people on the end of yo-yo strings find it so difficult to let go of their dysfunctional hot and cold relationships. They repeatedly forgive in order to get that juicy love reward; then keep hoping and trying to reconnect, even long after the romance is dead.

When the Roots Go Deeper

Sometimes this on-off pattern can emerge later in a relationship, when it’s even harder to let go. Maybe at the beginning of the relationship she was consistently adoring, and the future looked rosy; but after a few months, or even years, he starts to withdraw, or becomes hypercritical. Your sensitive, opened heart begins to crumple, and you withdraw or attack, or simply cry and cling, in reaction to your pain and confusion. The next thing you know you are alone, with the sound of a slammed door ringing in your ears. Your rosy world has become dark and unbearable.

Then suddenly your beloved is back: apologetic, regretful, and desperately wanting to be with you again. Of course you say yes. Of course you let her return. Of course you believe his excuses. Because you want to, and because all relationships have their ups and downs, don’t they? That was the little wobble that had to happen, but now it’s passed and you can move together into an even deeper, warmer, more secure place. And for a while you do.

Then zap, it happens again, this time with even more vengeance and finality, and you are left feeling completely distraught, distressed and heart-broken…. until he returns and the whole cycle of starts again, with the intermittent reinforcement keeping you firmly hooked.

Listen to Alarm Bells

Humans are not as simple animals as rats and pigeons, so sometimes our intelligent minds can override our primitive brains, and, when appropriate, ring loud ‘get out’ alarm bells in our heads . If you are smart enough, strong enough, have adequate self worth, and are not in too deep, you might listen to those bells, end the relationship, delete her number, and escape gasping to lick your wounds, and get on with life.

Generally though, the longer the relationship, the deeper the heart roots, so the harder it is to let go. Once you have fallen deeply in love, you will be more desperate to hold on, rationalising and justifying, to stifle the alarm bells and force your head to believe that the painful stuff won’t keep happening. And, to be fair, sometimes it doesn’t, so it really is often worth hanging in there, moving through the crisis and forgiving and forgetting.  Of course, when there are children, or even property or pets involved, it is more important to try to fix it, so that too can be a good thing.

But if it this on-off  pattern has happened repeatedly, and you realise that the Skinner effect might be taking hold, making you obsessively cling to the source of your pleasure and pain, then your sensible alarm bells really need to be turned up a notch and heeded.

Take Action

That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you leave the relationship, but you need to become very conscious of the dynamic of the relationship, and the part you play in it. You might choose to address the overall problem with your partner directly; but if the problem is deeply entrenched, or it is difficult to regain trust, I suggest that you call on the help of a competent therapist to help you work through it together; or failing that, to help you to explore your issues independently.

Warm wishes




Image courtesy of photostock and freedigitalphotos.net

3 comments for “On Off Relationships

  1. Nicole
    November 10, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    I’m currently in this situation. Thank you for the insight. Sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy because I feel like I’m dating two different men with how he is hot one min for me and then cold the next. Has anyone else felt this way? It’s hard to let go because when he is on the hot cycle he is the best man I could ever find but then when he is on the cold cycle he is my worst nightmare where he is verbally abusive, cold, indifferent, lies and the list goes on. I stay so confused on which man he really is and how he truly feels.

  2. David
    February 17, 2017 at 5:50 pm

    Thank you for this posting. I’ll spare you our story but your writing rings true. Here’s to louder alarm bells!

  3. Dave
    May 26, 2015 at 1:00 am

    Amazing article, very touching and informative. Particularly relevant to my situation despite the fact that it is not even an on off relationship I’m currently experiencing; reading this has increased my awareness of those warning bells. Thank you. <3

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