Does Taking a Break in a Relationship Ever Work Out?
DEAR DR. JENN,
My boyfriend and I love each other, but we have been fighting a lot lately and he wants to “take a break.” I don’t understand how this works. How does this help our relationship? If we do this, what does it look like? Should I even agree to this? —Broken
I’m with you. As a psychotherapist, I am not a big fan of couples taking a “break.” In a young relationship it is often a sign of incompatibility, immaturity, or poor impulse control. In healthy relationships we tend to trigger each other but the best way to grow is to face the issues together head on, ideally with a therapist. And while separation can ultimately lead to a deep understanding, in my clinical experience that is only the case in very specific types of situations.
To me, therapy — not hiding from one another — is always the first line of defense for struggling couples. I actually recommend all couples do six months of weekly couples therapy. I find this helps people conceptualize their relationship differently, learn new tools, improve communication, identify their triggers, reduce volatility and it is nice to have a neutral professional who is your go-to person for future issues. If you don’t have insurance or feel you can’t afford therapy, keeps mind there are mental health clinics all around this country that see people based on ability to pay.
When is a break (instead of a breakup) a bad idea?
Too often I see people take a break for the wrong reasons. I have seen too many couples use it as revenge to hurt, scare, or abandon a partner when they are angry. This is cruel and never helps heal a relationship. I have seen people suggest a break when they really don’t want to be in the relationship, but don’t have the courage to leave. This is the emotional equivalent to amputating an arm finger by finger. It elongates the pain and suffering.
Sometimes one person doesn’t want to be in the relationship but is afraid to be single, and uses a "break" as a way to line up their next boyfriend or girlfriend. Using a person to help you avoid sitting in your own skin and learning to appreciate your own company is unfair keeps you stagnant. Other times people want to take a break in order to see if “the grass is greener” and date other people. This is ridiculous. You cannot compare the novelty and excitement of a new person to someone you have spent years with, share a mortgage, deal with the day-to-day challenges of parenting, run a household together, or whatever your version of committed long term love entails. The adrenaline, endorphins and serotonin of a new encounter will blur your judgment.
Can taking a break ever help a relationship?
There are some cases in which it can be helpful. Long term relationships, especially with kids, that have hit the breaking point where both parties want to work through it but have so much anger and resentment that they are fighting at home constantly, creating a volatile stressful environment for both parties and, even worse, for the kids. In situations like that it can be helpful for one person to move out, maintain whatever commitments they have around monogamy, and continue to work on the relationship in intensive therapy until they build the skills to move back in together peacefully.
I am not a fan of taking a break in newer relationships. It sets a bad precedent of running from the relationship when things go wrong. It is one thing to spend a night on a pal’s couch to let things air out after a fight, as long as you have told your partner where you are and been clear that you are coming back. Cooling off is different than taking a break, which is basically a practice breakup for all intents and purposes.
Want to try taking a break anyway? Here’s what you need to know:
1) Keep the rules clear. You don’t want a Ross and Rachel situation where someone steps out of line and spends the rest of the (presumably reunited) relationship defensively screaming, “We were on a break!” Have a discussion about whether or not you will date other people (dating others does not tend to work and usually results in jealousy and heartbreak), how much information you will share with each other if you hook up (again, more pain) and if there are lines you don’t want each other to cross.
2) Establish a goal for the break. Are you doing this so you can work on yourselves individually? So you can sample the single life? So you can get a little distance to assess if this relationship is something that has a future? Figure this out for yourself, and talk it out with your partner. If you’re not on the same page, a temporary break might not do it.
3) How much contact will you have? The rules of engagement are important. Are you going cold turkey on communication for a period of time? (I have yet to see both parties keep this commitment.) Are you only seeing each other in couples therapy to work on the relationship? Is texting or email okay? What about phone contact?
4) Keep your break private. Don’t announce it on Instagram or change your Facebook status. That invites questions, outside opinions, and drama. Keep this clean and focus on your predetermined goal.
5) Set a time frame. How long is this break going to last? Having a plan to reconvene to discuss and evaluate as a couple is one of the things that differentiates a break from a breakup. If there’s no end date, be honest about what this “break” really is and ease both of your pain a little by saying it out loud. If there is an end date, once it arrives, you have a LOT of talking to do to discuss what you felt and learned during your time apart. Most importantly: Did you find out you want more of it? Like, indefinite amounts?
My recommendation is that, instead of taking a break, get yourselves into couples therapy. Put down your phones and spend face to face time together connecting every day. Read some relationship books or listen to some podcasts together that will help you learn and invite conversation. And please, for everyone’s sake, cut someone loose if you don’t want to be with them. Their person might be out there waiting — and so could yours.