Being in an on-and-off-again relationship can be emotionally taxing if breaks and reunions happen randomly, without warning. But if you are able to take space from a partnership in a mindful, purposeful way, a break can actually help you evaluate what is working and what isn’t. If you communicate thoroughly, a break doesn’t have to mean a breakup and it can be a positive step towards strengthening the partnership overall. While there’s no rulebook for taking a break from a partner, here are a few steps you can take to ensure that any intermission is healthy, productive, and encourages growth.
Determine when it’s time to take a break — and when it’s not
Should you take a break just to take a break? Absolutely not, Dr. Brenda Wade tells O.school. Wade is an internationally recognized relationship expert, author, and trainer. She is also the founder of the Modern Love Revolution. She tells O.school, “That old method doesn’t work, because then people go back to the relationship, but the problem that spurred the break hasn’t been solved.” This begs the question: when is a break appropriate?
If you find yourself in one of the following scenarios, you may consider starting the conversation with your partner about pressing pause.
- You’re experiencing a lack of communication, unresolved issues, or boredom. If these problems fester for too long, they can lead to resentment and contempt which can damage your relationship long term.
- One party needs time to sort through individual issues. Sometimes, a relationship can take away from focus on one’s individual needs and growth.
- There has been infidelity. The partner who has been betrayed may need space to experience the full range of grief emotions before continuing a relationship.
- Doubts or commitment issues have crept in. You may want to take a break if one or both parties aren’t feeling fully committed to the partnership.
- One partner desires alternate sexual experiences. If you feel unwilling to settle into a relationship before having certain sexual experiences, you might consider a break to explore with other partners.
There are wrong reasons to pump the brakes on a relationship, too. For example, if you’re initiating a break to gain the upper hand in the relationship, or because you want to see your partner grovel to win you back, you should reconsider your motives and whether or not the relationship is working. But, if your reasoning behind temporarily parting ways is sound, and you’re clear with your partner that a break does not have to equal a breakup, there’s no reason you can’t have a beneficial hiatus.
5 steps for a successful break
After determining that taking some space is right for your relationship, you’ll want to approach the break mindfully and with intention. Here are a few steps you can take to ensure the break is successful and helps partners find clarity through the process.
1. Initiate the right way. If you think you need to take a break, broach the subject in person, rather than via text or over the phone. “When you chat over the phone, there’s a tendency to hide desires or try to be cool,” relationship counselor Carmel Jones tells O.school. “This is a conversation where it’s imperative that everyone is on the same page. So make sure it’s in-person.” When you start this dialogue with a partner, make sure to discuss your intentions for any time apart. Explain what you hope to gain from this space, how you want to spend the time, and how you’ll evaluate the way the break has made you feel. Ask your partner these questions too, and make sure you’re aligned on goals from the offset. This will set the tone for a purposeful hiatus, rather than just a means to an end.
Additionally, create space for this conversation that’s not in the heat of an argument. You’ll want to be in the best mindset to openly and honestly convey why the break is needed, while clarifying that it does not have to culminate in a breakup.
2. Set some ground rules. The guidelines you establish will ultimately depend on why you need a break in the first place. “Let’s say you are taking a break because your work is suffering,” says Jones. “It might not be necessary in that case to allow for external sexual or romantic relationships to come into the break. However, if the objective is to explore other connections or single life, that needs to be made clear. If that is the case, what is allowed? Is sex allowed? Dates? Hangs? Make sure you and your partner clearly define the boundaries of this break.”
3. Determine a timeframe. There's some debate amongst psychologists as to whether setting a timeframe can be helpful to a break, but Jones is a believer in a deadline. “A healthy option is a month or a month and a half. I say this because during breaks, usually one partner isn't 100 percent comfortable with the break and might be allowing it because the alternative might be a break-up,” she explains. Setting a timeframe gives that partner a chance to know when they’ll be connecting again. It also gives both partners a chance to fully explore their allotted options without fear that the break will end abruptly.
4. Go no-contact. According to Jones, cutting off contact with your partner is essential to making the most of your break, even if this seems difficult. “Sometimes, breaks are useful for learning how much you miss having your partner in your life,” she attests. “Give yourself a chance to experience that longing.” If you’re struggling with urges to contact your partner, block their social media accounts and avoid the temptation to drive by their house or their place or work. The more safe distance you can create, the better chance you have for beneficial reflection about the relationship.
5. Come back together with clear goals. At the end of your time away, revisit your intentions from when the break began. Discuss those initial goals for taking space and determine whether they’ve been met. Dr. Wade believes that taking a break will be most successful when you go into the reunion with a specific, measurable result in mind. For example, if you’ve taken a break to explore alternative sexual relationships, make sure you’ve utilized your time apart to do so, and come back to your partner with discoveries and observations from your time apart. This way, you’ll be able to resolutely discuss whether the break has led you closer to your partner, or helped you realize that you might need to end the relationship and move on.
The bottom line
Taking a break does not have to cause permanent damage in your romantic relationship, or even weaken the bond between you and a partner. If you communicate clearly and act intentionally, it’s possible to bounce back stronger after a break. However, if a pressing pause leads you to realize your relationship has run its course, it might be time to consciously uncouple and move forward on good terms. Even that result can be positive, however, as it means you’ve come to a place of clarity on what is right for you and your partner. Whatever the result, know that taking some space in a relationship can be a good thing if done with plenty of intention and communication.