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Question: My boyfriend and I have been involved in an on again off again relationship for four years. The problem is that we can’t seem to end things. We vacillate between being convinced that we can make it to being convinced that we can’t. This is upsetting and confusing for both of us. Can you help us understand what is going on?

Answer: The breakdown of a relationship is rarely a simple thing and usually, the longer the connection the more difficult the ending. In a four year span we have often set up a life together that includes favorite hangouts, mutual friends, connections with each other’s families, and a rhythm and pattern of cohabitation that is considerably engrained. When you lose the relationship you lose all of the above. Add to that the fact that we are by nature a coupling species and it isn’t surprising that, as the song says, “Breaking up is hard to do”.

When in a relationship, we are continually weighing (often unconsciously) both the costs and benefits of the engagement. When in a relationship like the one you describe, the “I can’t live with him and I can’t live without him” experience, I think of the scales as being equally balanced. Some days the costs slightly outweigh the benefits. Those are the days we want out. Some days the benefits slightly outweigh the costs. Those are the days we want back in. Often it’s the fear of dealing with the difficulty of being alone that pulls people back into a connection that hasn’t been working. The challenge of reconstructing a life and looking for love once again can shake the conviction that starting over is the best option. Once we are back into the commitment however, it is usually not more than a spit second before the old issues jump back up and smack us in the face.

There are few situations where a relationship of four years or more ends ‘cold turkey’. Usually the connection is rooted enough that, unless there is a new flirtation waiting in the wings, some ‘weaning off’ process is the norm. A combination of phone calls, e-mails, texts and tweets often drag on for awhile before the last gasp.

All of this said, your situation has been in flux for a long time, and the costs and benefits analysis can only go so far. We’re not talking about a spreadsheet here. There are deep emotions involved that as you say, are both painful and confusing. You’ll need to get under the surface of things to find more clarity. It might help to carefully track the details of the pursuing and distancing dance that you are engaged in: the who, what, when and where of it. Who takes the lead? What are the triggers? How well do you communicate when you feel the tensions mounting etc.? Knowing more about the steps of the dance can be useful.

In the end, we are either dealing with the anxiety of being in a relationship or the anxiety of being out of one. As crazy as it may seem, getting less anxious about your anxiety is the way to go. If you can manage your reactions and think your way through the problem, you should be somewhat closer to a final analysis.      

Margaret Anne Speak, M.A., C.C.C. works with couples, individuals, and families from a Bowen Family Systems perspective at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.