Love is easy…said no one, ever.
In fact, the typical relationship is filled with moments of inane bickering, financial stress, periodic jealousy and downright boredom. (Ever hear your husband drone on and on about that time in 2005 when he caught a huge trout? No? Just us?)
For most successful couples, there’s a compulsion to soldier on, bite the bullet and stick it out for better or worse. Or, there’s a fight or flight response: If it ain’t working, let’s split up.
But is there a middle ground? Can taking a break in a relationship actually be the thing that saves it?
Yes and no, say the numbers. On the one hand, a 2012 study out of Kansas Sate University concluded that 37 percent of cohabiting (but unmarried) couples have broken up and gotten back together. (The number dips to 23 percent when you look at married couples.) So that suggests there is hope for the “break and regroup” scenario. On the other hand, that same study found that folks who break up and get back together are less likely to report happiness down the road than those who had never broken up to begin with.
Still, if your relationship has hit a crossroads, and you’re not certain whether you should part ways or keep on keeping on, a “break” (in the iconic parlance of Ross Gellar) is worth considering.
We checked in with Jenna Birch, relationship expert and author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love, to learn more about when taking a break in a relationship works, when it doesn't and how to take one successfully.
First of all, what is a break?
Unlike a breakup, a break is an agreed-upon period of time that a couple takes away from their relationship in order to reassess their values both together and apart and come to a decision about whether or not they want to be together.
Says Birch: “Breaks should not be indefinite. If you choose to go on a break, set the date when you’ll come back together for a check-in. Anywhere between two and four weeks of no contact or very minimal contact is a good place to start, but it could be longer.”
And while some people may choose to explore casual dating while on a break (ever heard of a Rumspringa?), Birch maintains that the best thing you can do is focus on yourself: “During this time, you’re not dating others. You should be dealing with your own challenges head-on, healing any personal wounds and assessing your partner’s place in your life, what they need from you and if you truly want to be in this relationship, period.”
Why should you take a break?
Per Birch: “A successful relationship break allows you to do a couple things. First and foremost, you can focus on the problem at hand without feeling the constant burden of a disappointed partner. (Some easily overwhelmed people feel crippled to handle their ‘life stuff’ when they feel they are constantly letting down the person they love.) Secondly, you’ll find out how much you really miss your significant other. If it’s been weeks, and you don’t miss them at all, or you’re more productive and happier without them, maybe it’s time to break up. On the flip side, if your partner’s absence suddenly makes you see all the ways they improve your life, you can return to the relationship with a renewed commitment to communicate, show your partner love and work toward balancing the partnership with all other obligations.” In essence, it helps you gain perspective.
When is a break a good idea?
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the matter, there are instances where taking a break in a relationship is more likely to aid in your eventual reconciliation. “You should consider a break when you’ve lost perspective on the relationship, or something else is preventing you or your partner from giving the relationship the time and attention it deserves,” explains Birch.
This might be something external, like a big move or a job change, that has put pressures on the amount of energy you can give one another. But it can also happen if you’ve been together forever, especially if you first started dating at a very young age. We know one couple who got together during freshman year of high school and had never been apart since. In their mid-20s, they decided to take a break. It’s not that they weren’t good together. It was simply inevitable that one or both of them became curious about what else was out there, and if their relationship was suited to adult life. (And good news: After the break, they came back together, decided to get married and now have an adorable daughter.)
Extreme stress, unrelated to the relationship, can be another valid cause for break-taking. Think: a severe illness or a familial conflict. We spoke to one woman who asked for a break with her boyfriend after getting a breast cancer diagnosis, because she just didn’t have the headspace to manage both her treatment and a romantic life.
Birch elaborates, “It’s tough, because partners expect to be prioritized. But it’s not always possible to prioritize your significant other in every day or every season of your life. It’s not that there’s a lack of love, but there is a lack of attention and care. Sometimes, you need to change your perspective in order to get a better view on what you have.”
When is a break a bad idea?
While it never hurts to try a break before officially breaking up, there are instances where it’s less likely to work, say the experts. For instance, “If one of you wants to date other people, because you think there may be someone better out there for you, it’s best to break up, not take a break,” says Birch. The reason? Quality dating takes time, and the first rule of taking a break is that you need to have an end-date in mind. In other words, you can’t give dating (The apps! The mind games! The excitement!) due diligence if you’ve got a note on your calendar to get back together with your ex. “If life leads you back to your partner in due time, that’s amazing. I’ve seen that narrative happen. But let the person go, free and clear. And then pursue other people,” says Birch.
Similarly, a history of cheating might be a red flag, both because serial cheating is a tough habit to break and more specifically because you might not be able to trust your partner while you’re in your no-contact period (unless, of course, that’s part of your arrangement). “You may just wind up anxious about them the entire time you’re apart,” warns Birch.
If you’ve tried a break in the past, it may also be time to call it quits. After all, “relationships do not have on/off switches, and you can’t keep checking in and out of someone’s life, loving them on terms that are convenient,” says Birch. “Being in a partnership means actively and consistently supporting someone through the ups and downs. If you can’t seem to stick together through the lows and need to constantly take a timeout, then that’s not much of a support system. One break can be really perspective-changing; many breaks is a dysfunctional dynamic.”
Short story: If your reasons for a split are less external and more fundamental to the relationship itself, a break may simply prolong the inevitable. A better course of action, if you’re really hoping to make things work, is counseling or therapy, which enables you to work through your problems rather than avoid them.
Any tips for making a break successful?
Again, the success or failure of your break is really up to you. But here are Birch’s ground rules for making it productive.
- Set a date and time when you’re going to revisit the relationship. This is especially important for people with anxiety or abandonment issues, since it gives assurance that they’re not being ghosted and that they will have clear communication at some point in the future. Two to four weeks is usually a good timeline for your first check-in, depending on what you think you need.
- Know why you’re going on this break. What do you hope to accomplish when you’re done? Do you want more of a commitment from your S.O.? Better communication? A chance to try living alone? A period of time to deal with a family crisis? It’s important to articulate what you’re hoping to get out of the break, so your partner can mull over the questions that need to be answered—and hopefully provide you with some of his or her own.
- Journal every day. It might sound woo-woo, but by writing down how the break is going and what you’re feeling, you’ll be able to sum up your thoughts at the end of the trial separation. Are you totally devastated and missing your better half? Energized by seeing friends you typically don’t get to hang out with? Disappointed that you’re kicking ass at work but can’t tell your boyfriend about your wins? Write about it in your journal and, on the eve of your first meet-up with your partner, read back (or summarize) your entries. If you’re honest and take the activity seriously, you’ll end up with a lot of clarity that will help the two of you move forward.
- Prioritize yourself. This may be difficult if your reasons for a break have to do with stress or illness, but to the best of your ability, provide yourself with as much self-care as you possibly can. Have you fallen into unhealthy habits? Missed a month of workouts? Need a facial or pedicure? Need to call your mom? Do it. Fill your life with positive activity so your primary focus is you and try your best not to dwell on your missing relationship, which may be uncomfortable, but isn’t necessarily bad. Stay busy, check things off your list, and allow yourself to organically recognize what makes you miss your partner the most. This will motivate you to bring more effort back to the relationship, should you choose to give it another go.
How should you decide whether or not to stay together post-break?
Just remember: A break is about each of you exploring what you need. If you tackle the above head-on and both come back at the end of it having missed the other one and seeing a path toward reconciliation, then that’s a sign that you should continue to try to make it work. And if you don’t, well, that’s informative too. Says Birch: “It should be a clarifying and rejuvenating experience. When you come back together, it should be with the intent of forming a stronger commitment if you both want the same things. But be willing to let go if your partner can’t give you what you want or if they do not return with more investment than when they left. After a break, you should feel like you accomplished a lot, emotionally and pragmatically.”
And how should you start this conversation with your partner?
Well, since you already made a calendar date, at least you know when it’s happening. Now, pick a location (a neutral coffee shop is always good) and come with your thoughts or journal entries ready to discuss. If the break has made you think you want to break up for good, be firm but compassionate; no kindness is ever done by perpetuating false hope.
But if you do want to come back together, show what you’ve learned and how you’re committed to making the relationship stronger. Per Birch, “When you end your break, let your person know how much you missed them, what they do for you that really adds value to your life and the little, specific things you know you can’t replicate. Be vulnerable and complimentary. Tell them all the ways you love them, and how you want to love them better in the future. Don’t expect anything in return—there’s always a chance they won’t feel the same way—but remember that self-disclosure often promotes closeness and intimacy.” In other words, honesty is key, and a healthy break should leave you with some sadness, no matter where you net out.
Gut-wrenching? Sure. But sometimes the best relationships come with their fair share of heartache.