Do you ever dream of hitting a refresh button on your relationship? You could clear away your emotional cache, rearrange your expectations, and take a break in order to rekindle your spark. This is easier dreamed of than executed, of course. Because relationships are beautifully complex, and the issues within them take time and effort to mend. Perhaps even a stretch of distance.
Let’s say you’re entertaining thoughts of taking a break from your partner, but you fear it will summon a disastrous ending. You know, kind of like when Ross saw his break from Rachel as a pass to hook up with another woman, which she interpreted as cheating, tearfully declaring, “You’re a totally different person to me now…” And, after taking months to reunite, “We were on a break!” became Ross’s hot-tempered catchphrase—reverberating for all of eternity (well, the season).
So if you’re flirting with the idea of pulling away from the one you love, read on. While all relationships progress according to their own timeline, we called upon the experts to help you determine if your next right move is to take a step back. And, if it is, here’s how to deal with everything from communicating your expectations to laying out the rules—especially if you’d like to avoid those “We were on a break!”-level mishaps. Because time apart might be exactly the refresher you need…
First, how do you know if your relationship could benefit from a break?
It often begins with the burning question: “Is it you… or is it me?” You may get the sense that something about the relationship is troubled, unsatisfying, or that the passion is fizzing out. Instead of being energized by your time together, perhaps you feel anxious, drained or uninspired.
Say, for example, your conversations are laced with antagonism and reeking of tension. You’ve got the eye-rolling, loud sighs of frustration and passive-aggressive jabs. Or, perhaps there has been cheating, and while the love remains intact, your faith is nearly wrecked. “If the relationship is starting to feel like, ‘I can’t fully be myself,’ or ‘I have to act in a way that is hurtful or makes me feel uneasy,’ then it’s a sign that something about the way you are operating as a couple is not working, and you might want to consider taking time apart to explore those issues,” says Dr. Racine Henry, New York-based couples and family therapist.
The impulse to withdraw from your partner isn’t always about conflict, however. Dr Henry says it could be roused by a shift in belief system or lifestyle. Say, for example, you recently committed to sobriety or gave your eating habits an impassioned overhaul, yet your partner seems bummed that you no longer want to join them for hotdogs and beer. Or, perhaps you’ve accepted a hefty work promotion that will take you away from your shared ritual of Netflix binges.
In such cases, you and your partner may need some time alone to determine if your lives are still compatible or, perhaps, how to streamline your priorities in order to reinstate your compatibility. “Sometimes an individual simply needs to give attention to their friendships, family or health, or finish an important work project they have neglected. Which means a break is also a time to explore how the elements of nourishing the self can be incorporated into how you function as a couple,” says Dr. Henry.
But, wait: If it isn’t a breakup… what does it mean?
According to Dr. Henry, if the break is primarily about “I want to see other people,” then you’re most likely tuned to the frequency of breaking up. Or, at the very least, one of you is strongly dancing with the idea of exploring the world solo. But a break? That has an entirely different energy behind it. In the majority of cases, it means one’s overall desire is to continue the relationship, but they either need to examine the elements within it, or temporarily prioritize something outside of it.
“A break is most often ‘I can’t be intimately involved with and responsible for your feelings at this time, so that I can focus on my own.’ It means not having to perform the duties of being a good partner, in order to explore one’s own happiness or healing,” she says. “It’s not necessarily a sign that the relationship is headed for an ending.”
In other words, it’s less about indulging in things outside of the commitment—sans guilt or consequence—and more so motivated by a desire for clarity or personal evolution.
So, how long should a break last?
One or both of you might feel imprisoned by a time restraint, and doing so could sabotage your whole plan to upgrade yourself or your relationship—before the process has a chance to potentially work its magic, advises Dr. Henry.
“It’s not always a good idea to put a time limit on a break. The person asking for the break may feel pressured, thinking, ‘Oh, I only have four weeks to get my thoughts and decisions together,’ and the other person may be thinking, ‘By this date, everything is going to be back to normal,’ so they aren’t as motivated to do the work.” she says.
Instead of setting a time frame, schedule regular check-ins.
Then you’ve created an additional plight of expectations that might make the break counterproductive. So, then, how do you prevent it from stretching on indefinitely?
Dr. Henry says that mapping out a schedule for regular check-ins is a smarter strategy—whether daily, weekly or monthly, or by email, text or FaceTime. That way, as you progress through the break, you can gauge how your partner is feeling and organically determine when the break should expire, as opposed to holding each other hostage to a specific deadline straight out of the gate.
Should standard relationship rules still apply?
There is no right or wrong path. You and your partner should create a custom blueprint for your time apart—one designed according to your relationship’s strengths, weaknesses and desired renovations. The point is to be transparent about the characteristics that will specifically change and the ones that will stay the same. Say, for example, will you continue to celebrate birthdays and holidays together? What about your cousin’s upcoming wedding—will you still be their plus-one? And, if the relationship is monogamous, will that parameter remain intact? “Write out a list of your concerns, questions and requests, and break them down for each other. Make sure both of you clearly understand what to expect overall,” says Dr. Henry.
If you’re nervous, this is an essential step—because the aspects of your relationship that remain unchanged (i.e. staying official on social media, etc.) can serve as anchors for your love, bringing comfort during the hiatus.
Denna Babul, relationship expert and author of the upcoming book Love Strong: Change Your Narrative, Change Your Life and Take Your Power Back, emphasizes the importance of being compassionate about your partner’s history when ironing out the rules. “You have to understand what each person needs—not only from the break but during the break. For example, let’s say one party in the relationship has abandonment issues from childhood. If so, they will likely need regular check-ins and reassurance,” she says.
But this shouldn’t involve betraying your own needs in order to pacify their fears. Otherwise you’re using the time to drive further away from yourself.
Know that a break is not a means to manipulate your partner…
Unless of course you want to create more potholes within the trust you’ve built. So, while it may be tempting to flaunt other admirers or opportunities in their face, Babul says there is risky business in playing those cards. “One way that people get into trouble on a break is that they may do it with a spirit of ‘I’m going to go show them!’ But then it backfires terribly,” she says.
Because a relationship is not a game. So if you’re requesting a break as a means of punishment, or to scare them into being more attentive or romantic, you’re creating further damage—even if the consequences aren’t obvious immediately. Dr. Henry stresses that a break “should specifically be about the things you’re going to do for yourself and who you want to be in the relationship,” not a manipulative tool. Scare tactics aren’t relationship rehab, but trickery. And they will almost always come back to haunt you.
Temporarily eliminating communication may help rebuild it…
Dr. Henry says that when one or both parties feels a tug to retract their energy from the relationship, it’s often a sign that the health of their communication is awry.
A break should specifically be about the things you’re going to do for yourself, and who you want to be in the relationship.
“Almost every couple shows up at therapy and says, ‘We aren’t communicating…’ and I always say to them, ‘That’s not why you’re really here!’ Everything is communication—including one-word text messages. What needs to happen is reestablishing the right exchanges of communication—ones that are more honest, open and thorough in expression,” she says.
So, if you withdraw love when you don’t get your way, perhaps turning your back on a heated discussion, you’re communicating. The same applies when you go radio silent with your phone, or interrupt them when they offer a rebuttal in an argument. Dr. Henry advises that, if negative communication habits have contaminated your relationship, a break may be an effective way to clearly identify and filter through those toxic patterns.
And, if you want the break to be productive, set intentions and goals.
“Make sure each person shares what they hope to accomplish by the time you come back together,” says Babul. “What tools are you going to put in place? What do you need to figure out? Otherwise you might end up wasting the break by shutting down, vegging out or calling your ex.”
Whether you need to put the finishing touches on a business plan, study for a certification, determine if you can forgive an indiscretion, or figure out whether or not you want to have children, lean into self-exploration before the break commences. This will help you enter into it with a spirit of action, power and purpose, making the process feel less elusive.
Know that each person has the right to choose how they navigate those goals… alone.
While being clear about what you wish to accomplish is key, Babul says that both of you should manage your expectations around how that plays out. Real life is not a rom-com, and you might not get the screen-worthy apology or fairytale reunion you’re dreaming of. “It’s important to remember that you can’t control how the other person accomplishes the goals you put in place,” she says.
Your partner is not obligated to align with your expectations, nor are you obligated to harmonize with theirs. Trying to enforce dictatorship over how the other person should evolve through the break is a recipe for resentment. Because there is no way to predict what insights and revelations may come.
In other words, take this time to focus on activating your sense of personal fulfillment, instead of obsessing about whether or not your partner has found their way into someone else’s arms. Because your worst-case hypotheticals are oftentimes far from reality, and even if they come true, worrying only gives you an illusion of having control over the outcome.
Because if you want a whole relationship, you have to be a whole person.
While the notorious line in Jerry Maguire, “You complete me,” has influenced our romantic ideals for decades, it’s a total fallacy. In fact, according to Dr. Henry, if you want a fulfilling relationship, hunting for a partner to complete you is a dead-end goal. Because nobody has that kind of power
“There’s often this rhetoric around the idea that when you are a couple, you’re no longer an individual,” she says. “But that’s never true. Taking a break, when needed, is a way to be selfish for a while, and I don’t think selfish is an ugly word. I think ‘selfish’ is a great and productive word that we need to use more often. It actually makes us better in our relationships.”
So, whether you’re the one asking for the break, or if you’ve found yourself on the undesirable end of one, try to see it through a lens of self-optimization. Relish it as though it’s a sacred course—because it is. You could finish that stack of books you’ve longed to devour, reunite with a long-abandoned creative pursuit, or simply take yourself on a date to the movies. You’re on a break, so be all the way on it—as selfishly as you need to be.
Yes, it’s possible for it to work.
A break can absolutely create a more vivid and satisfying bond in the long-run, according to Dr. Henry. “I’ve had couples start coming to therapy while on a break. It allowed them to have focused conversations that took them to deeply-rooted levels of communication around their issues. They were able to accomplish things they would not have been able to otherwise.”
So if you and your partner are symbiotically invested in creating a healthy and lasting union, a break could be transformative in the best of ways—despite the toxicity that may have wormed its way into your habits. Because relationships are not defined by how you fall apart, but by how you come back together with a vision of the future.
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