Taking a break in a relationship – Do relationship breaks work?
As much as I am loathed to reference the already wildly over-referenced “WE WERE ON A BREAK” Friends episode, it's a damn good example of when taking a break in a relationship didn't really work out. Why? Well Ross and Rachel decided to take an undefined break from their relationship and Ross immediately boned someone else.
Now, this probably would have been fine if they'd set clear boundaries and rules as to what their “break” entailed. They, however, did not.
Which led to a whole load of bullshit and issues we were forced to watch them unpick for seven long seasons.
Despite this rather negative portrayal of break taking, it turns out having a temporary separation from a relationship that's become all about arguing and being dicks to each other could be a really good idea.
So when should you take a break from your relationship? How can you make sure it is actually useful rather than destructive? And what rules should you have in place? I spoke to Simone Bose, a relationship therapist and counsellor at Relate.
When to take a break
“Some of the clients I see are genuinely stuck at an impasse, and their arguments are so complicated and emotional that they’re really entrenched in it,” Simone tells me.
“They actually do want to save their relationship but feel so lost by it. They love their partner but their patterns are so negative they don’t know what else to do expect have a break.
” This, Simone says, would be a situation in which a break could be helpful.
And if you're noticing you're focusing on your partner and not seeing your friends as much, or giving less time to your own interests, a break may be the answer.
“Sometimes people become very enmeshed in a relationship and lose their sense of self and judgement. They lose their balance in life, and it's about rebalancing,” she adds.
“You might even lose self-esteem too and aren't sure of who you are because you’ve taken on so much of the other person.”
How taking a break can help
As long as both partners are clear on the logistics of how the break is going to go down, Simone says she believes it's a healthy way to deal with these issues.
“Usually, getting that space gives them time to reflect separately helps,” she explains. “If the couple doesn’t get that, they start arguing again because they haven’t had time to heal. To get through it, they have to untangle all the negative patterns and understand where they’re coming from.” And a break – done right – should do just that.
Telling your partner you want a break
Don't just go in there all Ross and Rachel style and have a screaming row.
“You should be very clear that it’s not because you don’t love the person, but that you need this space to work on yourself,” Simone says. “Do it with love and make that person feel assured that you love them.
Explain you just want to start seeing your friends a little bit more, or go and do some activities independently, or see your family more.”
And if you're living together? Simone suggests questioning whether one of you moving out or going to stay with friends or family might be the answer. It could give you the physical and emotional space you need to reflect and re-evaluate.
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Set the rules
“Both partners have to have their needs met in this, and the rules need to be clear,” she says.
“You always find in a couple there’s one partner that has a more anxious attachment style who needs more physical contact and to know things are OK.
Then there’s the 'avoidant' partner who’s usually more cut off and distant in times of conflict. This is why you need to be on the same page, to make sure you're both getting what you need.”
Stay in contact
If the true aim of taking a break is to work things out and ultimately stay together, Simone recommends staying in contact over the course of the separation. “Otherwise you’re pushing each other away,” she says. “Having zero contact is not a good thing if you’re trying to make your relationship work.”
Agree on how often you're going to talk, via which method of communication, and stick to it. Simone adds, “One person, if their attachment style is more anxious, might need to have a phone call a certain number of times a week. And the other person needs to try and be considerate of that, even if they themselves need space.”
Set a time period
It's hard to know what a useful period of time will be, as it will differ from couple to couple. As a general rule, three months works Simone says. “I wouldn’t say a year or anything that, start off with three months to see how it goes. If it gets beyond six months then you’ve got to question what’s happening there.
“Set the amount of time that suits both of you, but enough to give you space so you are able to repair those negative patterns. When you’re always together you’re not able to have that space to think and appreciate what you’re missing.”
Sleeping with other people
À la Friends, if you're in a monogamous relationship it's also very wise to be clear about whether you're going to be getting with other people while separated. “You have to both be on the same page about that,” she says.
“If I had clients that were both saying they wanted to see what else was out there, and they were quite sexually experimental anyway or quite open in that way, I would say, 'OK if that’s what seems right for both of you, and you agree, fine'.
“Reflect on how you feel when you’re not with the person”
“But if one partner wants to sleep with other people and the other feels uncomfortable, I’d get them to think about what their motivations are, and the pain they could cause the other person in doing that. I'd ask, 'What are you actually trying to do in this relationship? Are you being honest here?' Sometimes people aren’t necessarily honest with themselves about what they really want.”
What to do next
Remember that in the time you spend apart, it really is meant to be about reflecting on how you feel when you’re not with your partner. Simone also recommends counselling as a way to try and heal. “It will help the conversations be really constructive when you do meet each other or have contact,” she says.
While she admits that what was meant to be a temporary break can result in a proper break up for some couples, it's often because one of them secretly wanted to end it in the first place.
“Usually it's when they've used the separation as an 'out',” she says.
“That's why you should always try and be as honest as possible early on, so it doesn’t hurt someone so much by stretching it out. “
If you're in need of relationship support, visit Relate's website for details of their services. You can also find your nearest Relate clinic here.
The 5 Rules for Taking a Break in a Relationship (and Why They Work)
I was talking to a friend who was taking a break in a relationship, and she confided that at first, her partner didn't realize that he couldn't just call and text her he used to while they were taking time off. “He just didn't get it,” she explained to me.
That is until she laid down some ground rules. And how did the break work for them? It allowed her to take a step back and realize that while he was a great guy, she didn't see a future with him.
Although he was upset, in the long run, it's better for both of them, since not taking a break would have just prolonged the inevitable.
However, parting ways is not always the case post-break. “Many couples get back together again,” confirms Kristin Davin, a psychologist in New York City.
She does say that this all depends on how the couple lays out the guidelines for the break from the beginning so that they can both move forward with similar expectations.
If you're curious about taking a break in a relationship and how to go about it the right way, here's how.
Do some soul-searching to explore why you need a break in the first place.
Are you feeling your relationship is lacking excitement? Are you hitting a new stage in your life (moving for work, going to school) that has you thinking you may not work together long-term? The point here is to realize whether your problem is a deal-breaker ( your S.O. doesn't want kids and you do).
If that's the case, there's no need for a break—it's time for a break-up. “When taking a timeout, call it for yourself and not for your partner,” says Liz Higgins, a couples therapist.” This decision all comes down to knowing yourself.”
If you're feeling stressed and overwhelmed, it might be time to take a break to give yourself a chance to evaluate the relationship and your needs.
Since a break from your relationship involves both partners, the conversation about embarking on one should, too.
If at all possible this should take place in person (if you're in a long-distance relationship, that might be the only exception).
That way, you'll be able to read body language and signals you usually won't get over the phone. Plus, seeing someone face to face will confirm whether or not the feelings are still there.
Be as clear as possible. Bring up the reason you're having the break, how often (or if) you'll stay in touch, and whether you'll date other people during this time. Another important thing to consider is how to treat a break if you live together. “If you share things with this person (e.g.
a car, a dog), you will not be able to truly 'take a break' if you are still half invested because of these things,” says dating and relationships coach Chris Armstrong. “Remove the co-dependencies you have on each other to the greatest extent you can for the duration that you're on your break.
Has a recruiter ever told you that you should have an answer about a job in a week, only for the full seven days to pass without hearing from them? It's wise to consider this notion if you or your partner try to put a time limit on your break since you might not be sure which difficulties you may encounter while trying to make sense of your time apart. This will only lead to frustration on both ends as one partner gets angry at another for requesting more time to make up their mind. “The fact is that finding yourself and investigating who you really are is a complicated endeavor that cannot be forecasted in terms of how long it will take,” explains Armstrong.
While on your break, take time getting to know yourself a relationship. You can pick up hobbies you haven't been doing as frequently, visit with family and friends, and at times allow yourself to feel lonely (often when you're part of a couple you don't get to feel this often).
“You need to ask yourself if wanting to escape feeling lonely is a sufficient reason to be with anyone—especially if it's your primary reason for being in a relationship at all,” says Dr. Gary Brown, a relationship counselor. Also determine whether you feel the problems in your relationship can be fixed by the break, or if it's best to part ways and move forward alone.
Put simply: If you're happier solo than you were together, it's ly time to cut ties.