Some monogamous couples, like Madelene and Katy, seem to find themselves in these relationship loops: break up, get back together, break up again, get back together again. But how many times can two people break up before the relationship should be over for good?
It really depends on the couple, says Joy Harden Bradford, PhD, an Atlanta-based therapist who runs the podcast Therapy for Black Girls. "I don’t think there’s a magic number that would indicate that a couple has broken up too many times for a relationship to be healthy and viable," she says. What really matters, rather than the number of breakups, is what's driving them to keep breaking up. "Are the breakups happening because of a lack of emotional maturity and an ability to talk through issues rather than run away?" she asks. If that's the case, Dr. Bradford suggests the couple see a counsellor who can help them learn better strategies for dealing with conflict.
She also suggests talking with each other about what went wrong the last time you were together. "Are you getting back together because you're just so overcome by sadness over missing each other that you jump back in with no real plan of action for how to strengthen the relationship? If this is the case, it’s very likely there will continue to be breakups," Dr. Bradford says. Getting back together only works if the couple reconnects with the understanding that they need to figure out what went wrong in their relationship last time and have a strategy to make this time different. Talking through the issues you've faced before has the potential to end the breakup cycle you've found yourselves in. But, you have to do the work.
As a therapist, I would wonder if there are some self-worth issues going on where one or both of them feel like they’ll never find another partner so they better just settle
When couples find themselves in an on-again, off-again pattern, they need to explore what's going on for them both individually and together, she says. Sometimes, people want to get back with someone who's not right for them because they're familiar with the relationship and have gotten comfortable. "As a therapist, I would wonder if there are some self-worth issues going on where one or both of them feel like they’ll never find another partner so they better just settle for this," Dr. Harden says.
Other times, people may not have learned what a healthy relationship looks like and may not realize that their relationship could be better. "I’d wonder about what kinds of relationship models they’ve seen before. If everyone they know has this same kind of dynamic, they might believe that this is how relationships are supposed to be," she says.
In both cases, whether insecurity or a lack of relationship role models is at the core of a couple's constant breakups, Bradford believes it would be beneficial to talk to a therapist, either alone or with your partner. Talking it out with a neutral third party can cut down on the blowout fights that likely led to a few of your breakups, and can help you learn how to build a new, healthier relationship.
*Names have been changed.