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What Is a Break in a Relationship?

Taking a relationship break doesn’t have to mean breaking up for good

There might come a time when you and your partner agree to take a break in your relationship. You don’t want to break things off completely, but you feel like your relationship is in a deadlock and some time apart could help. 

So, what does “taking a break” mean in a relationship? And more importantly, how can you avoid a Ross-and-Rachel situation? We asked relationship experts. 

What it means to take a break in a relationship

Fundamentally, taking a break in a relationship means you and your partner have agreed to spend some time apart and re-evaluate your relationship. 

There’s no textbook definition of a break in a relationship, though — you and your partner will have to discuss what it means, and what the ground rules are. 

Does a break mean you’re single?

You might be wondering: is a break a breakup? The short answer is no, a relationship break doesn’t mean you and your partner have called it quits. 

Taking a break in a relationship means you’ve agreed to press pause to gain some clarity and reassess what the relationship means to both you and your partner. You may decide to break up for good once the break ends, but being on a break is not the same as breaking up. 

Is it healthy to take a break in a relationship?

“It can be healthy to take a break in a relationship,” says E.J. Smith, a licensed counselor. “Some situations or some people need space to achieve clarity.”

There are many reasons to take a break from a relationship. Some couples might choose to take a break because they’re having relationship issues or going through a rut, and they feel like time apart would help. In other cases, one partner might have doubts about the future of the relationship and needs time to reevaluate what they want.

You might feel like taking a break from the relationship to find yourself, says Smith. “Sometimes partners believe that being in a relationship requires constant companionship or even enmeshment, where one or both partners take on the emotional experiences and needs of the other to the extent they lose touch with their own,” she explains. 

“This [...] can be pretty damaging and it can be a complex cycle to break. In such instances, taking a break can help you reset your emotional compass and rediscover yourself and your needs.” 

Taking a break from your relationship might give you the time and space to work on life goals, career aspirations, or mental health. “In the best-case scenarios, when the break ends, you can rejoin your partner as a whole individual who is in touch with your emotional needs, values, and beliefs,” says Smith.

How long should a break in a relationship last?

The exact length of a relationship break will vary from couple to couple and depends mostly on why you’ve decided to bookmark the relationship.  

“It’s difficult to prescribe a universal amount of time for a break in a relationship,” explains Smith.

“The length of the break needs to be articulated and understood by both parties. More important is that the length of time needs to be proportional to the goal or match purpose for the break.”

You and your partner should agree together on how long the break should last — there’s no right answer. 

What are the rules of a break in a relationship?

There is no clear-cut definition of a break in a relationship, so it can be a confusing thing to wrap your head around. That’s why you and your partner must agree on some rules before you go on a break. 

After all, the reason why Ross and Rachel’s break didn’t work out is that they weren’t on the same page about what it meant. Sure, it made for seven very entertaining seasons of TV, but real-life relationships need communication to succeed. 

1. Think about why you need a break 

The first thing you should do is discuss the break with your partner and talk about why you want a break. “Many couples I see in my practice tell me they’ve considered the possibility of taking a break but often struggle to articulate the goal of that break,” says Smith. “What will you do? How will you know if the break has served its purpose?”

Sit down with your partner and talk about what problems you’re facing in your relationship. Would time apart really benefit you and your partner, or can you explore a different solution? 

2. Establish some ground rules together 

Before you take a break, sit down with your partner and come up with some ground rules together. 

During the break, are you allowed to stay in touch or is all communication off-limits? Can you date other people? If so, is sex with other people allowed? Will you discuss the break with your friends or family, or will you keep it private?

“Create boundaries and enforce them,” says Dr. Jeannelle Perkins-Muhammad, a licensed marriage and family therapist who recommends working out the logistics of the break. If you live together, have a joint bank account, share a car, or have children, how will you navigate life admin and responsibilities during this time apart? 

“Whether it’s agreeing to financial obligations, holidays with family, or visitation with the children, it’s important to establish how changes impact the relationship,” she explains. “For example, if you’re still enjoying the physical intimacy of your marriage during a separation or accepting gifts, ceasing to do so may feel like rejection, and yet continuing can cloud your judgment.”

3. Agree on a timeframe  

How long will you be on a break? You can keep the deadline flexible, but you should at least be on the same page. There’s a difference between a three-week break and a three-month break, so make sure you and your partner are aligned.

“Taking a break can mean anything from a weekend of vacation in different places to moving into separate homes for an agreed period,” says Dr. Perkins-Muhammad.

“Anything longer than nine months without progress in marital therapy, change in behavior, or a decision to stay together can be permanently damaging to the marriage,” she adds.

If you feel comfortable doing so, pick an end date where you can check in with one another and assess whether the break can end, or whether you need more time apart. 

4. Reflect on the relationship 

During the break, use the time to reflect on the relationship. Ask yourself what you want out of it, how you want it to change, and whether it’s worth saving in the first place — we put together 10 relationship questions you can ask yourself

“Relationships can survive separation or bounce back from the brink of divorce if each partner is willing to make an internal assessment of themselves,” says Dr. Perkins-Muhammad.

“The majority of what couples react to is seen in the relationship scripts they’ve prepared prior to entering the marriage. These relationship scripts are laced with unarticulated expectations that lead to resentment when the expectations aren’t met.”

“Let’s be honest, there’s no way to guarantee the agreed-upon separation will not lead to [a breakup],” says Dr. Perkins-Muhammad. 

“One of you may discover that it’s best not to continue. At the end of the day, you want your partner to be happy, just as you hope for happiness. Don’t drag out the process. If you know you want out, say so and go. Though it can be tough to move on, it is important to do so as amicably as possible.”

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