If there’s one thing we’ve learned from R&B songstress Mariah Carey, it’s that it’s OK to be full-throttle, heart-wide-open, let’s get matching tattoos fiercely in love. No wonder her name pops up so much on wedding reception song lists.
Throughout her robust catalog of soulful love songs, Carey’s also taught us that it’s totally fine to mourn when a relationship ends. (See “Butterfly” and “Always Be My Baby.”) Because—according to the worldview reflected in her '90s and aughts work at least—that person will eventually come back anyway, and that’s how you know you were meant to be.
In 2018, we’re not sure that take is all that healthy. According to a new study published in the journal Family Relations, this kind of on-again, off-again relationship—think Carrie and Mr. Big in Sex and the City—is actually pretty harmful for your mental health.
Relationship transitions are tough for everyone. Anywhere between 30 to 50 percent of young people have cycled in their current relationship, and a quarter of married young adults have reported getting back together after a brief separation, according to research cited by the study’s authors. When compared to those without a history of breaking and and reconciling and breaking up again, “on–off relationships are associated with higher rates of violence and verbal abuse, poorer communication, as well as lower levels of satisfaction and commitment.”
To get a better understanding of these on-again, off-again cycles and how they impact different people, researchers examined data collected from 545 individuals in same-sex and different-sex relationships. Participants were asked to track how frequently they experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety over a two-week period. They also shared if they had a history of cycling through a relationship, and how often they had broken up and gotten back together with that person. LGBTQ participants also reported about additional stressors, including whether they’d experienced rejection or victimization because of their sexual orientation.
According to the study’s findings, about a third of people admitted to having a history of relationship cycling—some as many as eight times! That was consistent among both straight and gay people. Not surprisingly, those people also reported more psychological distress.
As the authors explain, “Not only can transitions out of a relationship affect psychological adjustment, but transitioning into relationships without deliberation and dedication to seeing the relationship continue can also be distressing. Similarly, transitions may create uncertainty about the future of the relationship, which is associated with depressive symptoms and may be an important mechanism in the link between relationship quality and mental health.”
Ultimately, these findings read like an important wake-up call. If you and your partner are engaged to be married and still waffling, the study suggests it’s less likely you’re going to actually make it down the aisle because of such instability. And, the authors write, while “married couples can experience separation or divorce and renewal, often in the form of a ‘trial separation,’ the reconciliations tend to be short-lived, with many who reconcile separating again within the first few years after reuniting.”
Kale Monk is an assistant professor of human development and family science at the University of Missouri-Columbia and lead author on the study. “The findings suggest that people who find themselves regularly breaking up and getting back together with their partners need to ‘look under the hood’ of their relationships to determine what’s going on,” he said in a statement. “If partners are honest about the pattern, they can take the necessary steps to maintain their relationships or safely end them. This is vital for preserving their well-being.”
Or, as he told Time: “It is okay to end a toxic relationship.”