The Economics of Recycling Relationships

I got to thinking recently about recycling relationships, the on-again off-again dynamic that can sometimes drag out for years.  Much has been written about the subject, but most of it is anecdotal.  I wanted to take a step further and take a deeper dive into understanding what drives this behavior, and how to stop the madness.

On-off relationships are quite common.  One recent study from UT Austin found that 40% of relationships can be classified as “on-off” where the couple goes through frequent cycles of dissolution and reconciliation.  (I believe the actual number is lower, since the sample population in the paper is primarily college aged kids, who are notoriously flighty.  I assume that the number goes down as the couple matures).  The reasons behind this pattern are fairly straightforward.  As Karin Halperin points out in an article for ABC News: “They push each other away, but then they miss the positive aspects of that person while looking the other way at the things that drove them apart. They miss each other. They feel lonely. They seek relief from the void.”

On-off again relationships are generally problematic to begin with, as numerous studies have pointed out.  Aaron Ben Zeev, writing in Psychology Today, points out that “On-off partners report more negative aspects in the relationship (e.g., conflict ineffectiveness, relational uncertainty) and fewer positive aspects (e.g., relational maintenance, satisfaction, and commitment) than partners in non-cyclical relationships.”  This is echoed in the UT Austin paper, where the authors state that “Overall, as compared to noncyclical partners, on-off partners were less likely to report positive characteristics in the initial phase of their relationship and while currently dating,” and “As compared to partners in noncyclical relationships, on-off partners reported lower relational quality and greater communication difficulties, which may be exacerbated by additional transitions.”

In other words, on-off relationships are already predisposed to failure because the core fundamentals of the relationships are shoddy to begin with.

Yet people go back for more, again and again.  But why?

One way to understand this pattern is to look at it economically: Getting back together with an ex is a simple cost-benefit analysis.  On one side of the equation are the benefits: familiarity, comfort, a feeling of togetherness, etc.  On the other side are the costs: all the negative aspects that existed.  When measured against each other, sometimes the benefits outweigh the costs, which will bring the couple back together, but sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits.

But herein lies the problem, this cost-benefit analysis is not made in a rational setting.  As our good friend Dan Ariely points out, feelings and emotions get in the way of logic and lead to irrational decisions.  In the case of on-off relationships, feelings of love, loneliness, or whatever else, tend to make people overestimate the benefits of the past relationship, and underestimate the costs.  Therefore, they will downplay past trauma and throw themselves back in the ring, blindly believing that “this time will be different”, only to be disappointed and traumatized again and again.

On-off relationships can survive in the long run, but only under two conditions.  First, the cost-benefit analysis needs to be examined in purely objective, non-emotional terms.  It is difficult to do, but the benefits must outweigh the costs when examined rationally, and not when examined through rosy-colored glasses.

Secondly, the detrimental behavior pattern of the past needs to be broken.  Both partners need to be willing and able to examine their own faults and behaviors with an open mind in order to generate a new framework for their relationship.  In effect, both sides need to honestly address what happened in the past that led to recurring break ups and change their behavior entirely, focusing on the benefits and minimizing the costs.  As Halperin states: “If there’s any chance of the relationship working out, people need to talk and generate some new ideas.  Otherwise, they’re just sweeping the problems under the rug, which is what most people do.”


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