Seven words: “I think we should take a break.”
Cue: fear, dread, and disappointment. When the receiving party in a relationship hears this — likely after a we-need-to-talk moment — it’s bound to be nerve-wrecking.
That’s because for many of us, taking a break is synonymous with breaking up. It can also become a catch-all excuse — who can forget “Friends’” perhaps most infamous exclamation of “We were on a break!”? But in real life, when breaks are done right, they can save or repair relationships.
“Partners can become entrenched and trapped in cycles [of unhealthy behavior] and get cut off from who they are at their [individual] best — thriving with their hobbies, strengths and gifts,” says Coralie McEachron, LMFT.
When people in shaky relationships take a break, they can explore what their worlds are like without each other. Sometimes being one half of a couple, especially if you are codependent, means you forget what that’s like. A break can put into perspective each person’s true wants and needs.
I recently got back together with my partner of more than a year after a two-month break. My partner is sober and I am not. I thought I wanted to be “free” and “enjoy my youth” (read: party and date around). I did just that until I realized, after a breakdown, that it wasn’t at all what I wanted and that the lifestyle I threw myself into wasn’t sustainable.
Every time I thought about my partner during our break, I felt sad. It was painful. But I distracted myself as best as I could until I unexpectedly saw him out at a show and broke down in tears. We talked (and talked and talked), and decided to give it another shot. We are now stronger and better than ever before.
Near the end of our break and during the process of getting back together, I did some heavy reflecting. I quit using substances as a coping mechanism. I started seeing a therapist. I realized what I wanted: to be with him, to take care of myself, and to enjoy the love that I wasn’t permitting myself to accept.
According to McEachron, my experience is one side of the coin. “A break is a tool and, like any other tool, it can be used as a weapon or can be used to repair something.”
Karina*, 27, was with her partner, Taylor*, for about six months when they decided to go on a break. Their decision to take some time, however, stemmed from a very different place than mine.
Taylor also suspected Karina was having an emotional affair with a close friend. Karina admits to the friend sending her romantic texts, but she did not believe it was emotional cheating until after the break.
“The break lasted about a month,” Karina says. “I worked really hard to show my partner that I was entirely devoted to them and to tackling my issues. [Since then], I have been able to set the boundaries that I need to in order to respect my partner and myself, and the therapy and mental-health care that I am now receiving have already started to change my life.”
McEachron says, at the end of the break, both people should consciously decide to be with the other or agree to go their separate ways.
“If you choose your partner because you want to be with them and believe that having each other in your lives makes you both genuinely better, that’s powerful,” she says.
This was clearly the case for Karina. “I feel this ordeal has given me what I need to be a better person and a better partner,” she says. “Hearing that Taylor believes the same thing is the best and most rewarding part of all of this.”
That said, there’s a lot of work to be done to get to this point, and it’s important to be realistic about what can and cannot change after a break.
“Each couple is going to have inherent differences [amongst themselves]. Going back into the relationship thinking that that everything will change can set you up for failure,” says McEachron. “Focusing on what change is possible — with shared motivation and investment in addressing [specific issues] — helps create a relationship both people want to come back to.”
But when what follows a break proves to be more of the same or a regression, it may be time to call it quits.
Jenna*, 30, and her partner split up after four months of dating because her partner was feeling “suffocated” in their traditional relationship. Mind you, this was after he pushed her to become official and said “I love you” about eight weeks in.
“I suggested a break so that he could get some space and we could figure out what was best for us,” she says.
During the break, the two agreed not to date or sleep with other people.
The decision of whether to remain monogamous during a break is an important one, says McEachron. “Think about the ramifications of what may happen during a break for the trust of your relationship, and have both parties agree on what is and is not allowed,” she says.
“He stated that he was certain that we were not romantically compatible [after a few weeks] and ended things for the final time,” she says. “I was hurt but eventually realized it was for the best.”
Jenna eventually came to understand that their not working out was less about her behavior and more about his discomfort with being intimate after his last relationship, which ended badly. It seemed like, despite the break, her ex had little intention of working through his and their issues in the service of their relationship.
“Breaks can, but do not have to lead to breakups. Like anything, the intention with how they are done can be everything,” says McEachron.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.