Gigi Hadid and Zayn did it. Kate Middleton and Prince William did it. So why does being part of an on-again, off-again relationship carry so much stigma?

By Jenna Birch
Updated Apr 30, 2020 @ 1:30 pm
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So, notorious on-again, off-again couple Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik have been back on since the start of the year… and the duo is officially pregnant (!!).

I am all about it.

Like the rest of the internet, I have been keeping track the couple’s relationship timeline, which dates back to 2015 and is peppered with a series of occasionally-brief, sometimes longer-term breakups. I have also been rooting for them to make it work — and not just because they look perfect walking the MET Gala red carpet together or posting cute quarantine birthday Instagrams. I actually believe in the power of on-off couples for a modern world, despite the fact that so many people disapprove of rekindling with an ex (let alone doing it several times, god forbid).

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I’ve done a lot of research on modern dating and relationships, and even wrote a book on the subject from 2016 to 2018. One of my most important revelations from talking to about 120 millennial people — some of whom had found the love of their life — was that you might not know when you meet the right person. They don’t arrive with a flashing neon sign. They literally arrive in the midst of a thousand other options you may be contemplating for your life, including where you’re going to live and what job(s) you’re going to take. They’re just one person in a literally endless stream of people to potentially date.

Especially if you meet your person early in life, like Gigi and Zayn — who met at age 20 and 22 respectively — you’re probably not going to be 100% sure about committing to them from the get-go, even if you have a great connection. And unless you are 100% sure, you probably have more soul-searching to do. In some scenarios, you need to break up. You need to date others and contextualize what each of your experiences means about what you want and who you are becoming. You need to work on yourself and define your needs. You need to work on your career and become grounded in your own self-worth.

Some of my favorite celebrity couples have split up before staying together for good, including Kate Middleton and Prince William, Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom, Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake, and Pink and Carey Hart (whose relationship spans two decades). This is common; I simply wish the process of “figuring it out” was more normalized in relationships.

This is not a sad process, where you wait around for the slightest chance to reconcile with your ex. You live your life, make good friends, rack up career accomplishments, and date other people if needed. I remember one woman I interviewed for my book who married her ex after a five-year breakup, recalling how empowered she was after their split — living alone, climbing the ladder at work. She never intended to get back together, but rather build a fulfilling life … and she just happened to realize her ex was the best partner to help achieve that goal.

There’s also the tale of two kindergarten sweethearts, who dated a bit after high school and on-and-off throughout their twenties before eventually marrying in their thirties. A lawyer looking for balance in her life, this woman dated diligently until her now-husband figured out what he wanted. She never wanted to force it, and remembered telling him that if they didn’t end up together, “I might not be as happy, but I’d still be happy.” Either way, she was more than OK.

Accumulating these stories while single gave me the confidence I needed to let go of my past, move on faster if it wasn’t working out, and be open to anything down the road. I first met my now-fiancé in 2015 in an encounter so brief I barely remember it. We didn’t officially date until 2017, while he was living in California and I was living in Michigan, and we were long distance before breaking up for most of 2018. The breakup was not destined to last — but, oh yes, we were in the glorious process of figuring it out, and I would not change a thing.

Eventually, I wanted to feel forward momentum in my life, which is why I am pro-breakup; if you feel stuck in one place emotionally, trying to make something work, you are obsessing instead of growing (and that’s no way to live). When we broke up, we were unsure where life was going to take us. I’d just published my book and had experienced a series of health problems — I was content to stay in place for a while. He was contemplating moving back to the Midwest and taking a new job, but he also loved the Bay Area.

After we split, I had two short-term relationships and plenty of dates, eventually recognizing that my now-fiancé was the person against whom I compared everyone else. He took a job in Michigan and planned his West Coast exit. We didn’t consult each other. But by the end of 2018, we chose each other with more confidence that it was the best choice for our lives and growth. And every day since, we’ve just kept choosing each other.

According to researchers, breaking up and getting back together is not always a sign you’re doomed to fail, and can actually increase appreciation for your partner and lead to more commitment than you two may have had otherwise. But! Of course, some studies also say if you consistently reconcile without ever directly addressing what broke you up, you are setting yourself up to fail. You’ve gotta be real with yourself. If an on-again, off-again relationship is toxic and getting back together feels compulsive, like you need to fix it at all costs, you should seriously gut-check and ask yourself what you are saving. A connection that makes you a better human? More productive? Kinder? The best version of yourself, most of the time? I hope so. If not, then just because you want to get back together doesn’t mean you should.

In the modern world, with the age of first marriage creeping upward every year, and so much need to find our own paths before we merge with a partner, the idea of “once an ex, always an ex” seems antiquated and way too black and white. If in your search for a partner, you find out the best person for you was an ex, why not get back together? Because your friends and society will have opinions? Pssh, please.

So, to Gigi and Zayn: welcome to the ranks of solidified on-and-off-ers. I’d like to think we have greater knowledge of what “right” means for us, and the mettle to make tough choices — hopefully together, and for a long time.