Many of us have known at least one on-again-off-again couple who (cue the Friends references) seem to be constantly “on a break.” And while it’s easy to dismiss them as a bit dramatic, maybe we also quietly wonder, ‘do me and my partner need space?’ I mean, what does a “break” even mean? Is it necessarily a bad thing?

Well, there’s no cookie-cutter way to take a pause, but doing so can actually be extremely healthy for both the individual and the partnership. “When you’re in a relationship, it may be difficult to see things objectively,” says marriage and family therapist Anita Chlipala. “Giving yourself some space can let you see your relationship from a different perspective.”

A break doesn’t have to mean catastrophe — it can provide the necessary time and space to evaluate the partnership.

So, what does “taking a break” mean?

A break is like putting a bookmark in the relationship, so you can temporarily take a step back and reassess what the partnership means to both of you. “When a couple is having issues, a break can provide evidence of what’s the best decision in terms of the relationship,” says Chlipala. “It doesn’t mean there’s an official breakup, just that the couple is pausing the relationship for a certain period of time.” Depending on the couple, this may mean a physical separation, limited communication, or a change to the “rules” around the relationship. The key is that it’s a break from the day-to-day routine and life you have as a couple.

When to take a break

Taking some space can be beneficial when something jarring happens in a relationship, such as infidelity or a sudden career change. It lets you hit the pause button and analyse the event so that you're not immediately reactive. “Feelings can be powerful,” says Chlipala, “but with some physical and emotional distance, you might start thinking, ‘How did I ever put up with that?’ or ‘Why did I make such a big deal about such small things?’”

Another reason you may consider a break is if you feel you’re not at the right place in life to be in a relationship. Maybe you want to work on yourself, be at a particular point in your career, or move out of your parents’ house. You don’t have to be in a perfect place to be in a relationship, but a break can give you time to figure out if you’re ready to fully commit.

There’s another reason for a break that can be hard to acknowledge: you’re worried you’re not really right for each other, but stay out of fear. “Fear can look like a lot of different things,” says Chlipala. If you’re staying in the relationship because you’re afraid of being alone or you catastrophise what your life would be like without your current partner, it could be time for a break. “Once you’re on a break, you may realise things aren’t as bad as you thought they would be on your own,” she says.

Tips for taking a pause

Here’s what to do for a smooth and productive time apart:

Don’t panic

It’s not always easy sharing your life with another person, and you’re inevitably going to run into problems. Most problems in relationships can’t be fully solved but that's not as bad as it sounds, explains marriage and family therapist Kongit Farrell. “It's more about how you choose to work through those problems and the approach you take. A break is just one approach.” Many couples have unrealistic expectations for long-term partnerships. You're going to hit bumps, and that’s perfectly okay. A break can help you untangle issues around communication and problem-solving.

Work out the logistics beforehand

Before a couple goes on a break, it’s important to delineate the “why” so that you’re not wasting time. “What do you hope will be different once the break ends?” asks Chlipala. “For example, ‘I need to manage my anxiety better so that I don’t pick unnecessary fights.’”

The exact temporal parameters can vary from couple to couple, but 3 weeks apart is a good baseline to set. Why three weeks? “You need about a week to let your body and mind adjust to not being around someone that you've been in a relationship with,” says Farrell. “Then another week to sort out or identify your feelings or thoughts. And then you might need another week to actually figure out your plan.”

Set the ground rules

Are you going to date or sleep with other people? How often can you communicate? Can you do check-ins about how you’re doing or feeling? These are all questions you and your partner should consider so you both understand the expectations of the break and nothing catches you off guard. One important thing to keep in mind, from Farrell: “If you do want to only do 3 weeks, you shouldn't really be dating anyone else. You should take that time for yourself because the period is so brief.”

Take time for reflection

If you are truly committed to working through the problems in the relationship, set some goals for this time apart. “You want to know what you and your partner will work on during this break and your plan of action,” notes Chlipala. That can mean anything from seeing a therapist on your own to reading self-help books to journaling. If a specific incident precipitated the break, try writing down what happened, how it made you feel, and what you would prefer in the future. But it’s critical that both parties take time for reflection. You shouldn’t have to convince someone to stay with you and that can indicate that the relationship isn’t right.

As you reflect, try to evaluate the impact of the issues you had. It’s easy to take a partner for granted and only focus on the parts of them that annoy you. “When you’re alone, it can wake you up to what you didn’t appreciate in the moment,” says Chlipala. Maybe they’re so much fun to cook with but it drives you crazy that they never do the dishes. A break can help you figure out why you’re annoyed – does it feel gendered, or like they don’t respect your space? Understanding the root of a problem can help you both grow.

Another part of reflection is exploring how you handle being apart. It makes sense to miss your partner — a stable figure in your life is suddenly less present. However, it may be a sign that you’re codependent if being away from them for three weeks gives you anxiety, makes you depressed, or if you compulsively break the rules you set about separating.

Use checkpoints

The timeline of your break will be dependent on the context of your “why,” but checkpoints allow you to touch base about progress and reflections. This can mean checking in at the end of each week, or after you’ve both gone to see a therapist. Checkpoints will hold you and your partner accountable for staying on track with what you agreed to work on. “You don’t want to leave the break totally open-ended and feel like you’re putting your life on hold,” says Chlipala. Checkpoints can also act as a good indicator of whether you’re ready to end the break. However, if you’re the only one committed to these checkpoints it could show that your partner isn’t ready for what you need.

Come back together to make a decision

Coming back together does not have to mean staying together, but it’s still important to have a discussion. If you can resolve the issue together, great. And if not? “I would recommend the couple—or even one partner if the other refuses—find a good couples’ therapist who is directive and can teach information on what it takes to make a relationship healthy and fulfilling,” says Chlipala.

The answers you find during a break may not be what one or both partners really expect, but they can be what’s best for you.

 

 

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