Taking a break in a relationship can feel like a confusing grey area. You haven’t broken up, but you’re taking time and space away from each other. But do breaks in relationships work, or do they inevitably lead to a breakup?
We asked experts if taking a break in a relationship is healthy, and whether distance actually makes the heart grow fonder.
If you want to avoid a Ross & Rachel situation, it’s important to understand why you’re taking time on your relationship, and how to deal with the time apart in a productive way.
A relationship “break” is a temporary, mutually-agreed separation. Every relationship goes through ups and downs, and sometimes pressing pause can be necessary and downright helpful — as long as both people in the relationship want it to.
The reasons for taking a break in a relationship can vary.
“Some reasons might be to reset the relationship in some way, gain clarity about your own need and goals, and assess feelings for a partner with distance that may lend perspective,” says E.J. Smith, a licensed counselor.
You might feel the need to take a break from a relationship if you and your partner are stuck in a rut, or feel like you can’t move forward. Perhaps you keep having the same argument over and over again, or you have vastly different life goals and need time to reflect on whether your commitment to one another is strong enough.
Sometimes, a couple might decide to go on a break if one of the partners is going through a big life change and wants to find themselves, or if they are struggling with their mental health and need space to focus on wellness and self-care.
Taking a break in a relationship can provide both partners with an opportunity for growth that may help their relationship in the long run. By taking a step back, it can allow both partners to reevaluate their relationship needs, and what they want from a long-term partnership.
According to one study, young adults who temporarily broke up with their partner and used that time for self-discovery learned new skills that benefitted the relationship when they got back together.
Whatever the reason, the goal of a relationship break is to reassess how you feel about one another, work on your issues, and gain perspective on your relationship to figure out what comes next.
A relationship break means different things to different couples, but if the boundaries of the break are agreed, it’s more likely the time apart will be beneficial to the relationship. There is a huge debate about whether relationship breaks are just a trial separation, or if there is really something valuable to be gained from space from your loved one.
“That depends on the couple, what their intentions are, and why they want to take a break,” says Kristin Davin, a licensed psychologist at Choosing Therapy.
Taking a break from your relationship can work, but only if you and your partner agree on the why and how of the break. In a long-term relationship, this time apart can give you a renewed perspective on why you may be disconnected, as well as provide the clarity needed to reconnect.
“A break can also provide more information regarding what's the best direction to take. When one partner says they need a 'break' for the other person it can mean a red flag. But for most people, it's a temporary situation (unless one person is not being completely honest about their feelings),” she adds.
A relationship break only works if you and your partner are on the same page and both want it, so you should talk about why you want the break in the first place and what your expectations are.
In some cases, people can take a relationship break for the wrong reasons, as they want to postpone the inevitability of a breakup. However, wanting to date other people should not be the purpose of a relationship break, as you’re likely just wasting your partner’s time.
“Discuss what the goals are so that at the end of the break, each person has had the chance to take measurable changes that are healthy for the couple,” says Davin.
Simply spending time apart won’t make your relationship issues magically disappear. So for the break to help your relationship, you both need to take the time to work on yourselves, reflect on the relationship, and learn new tools to help you deal with your issues.
“Having clear communication about what the break is or isn’t intended to accomplish is important,” adds Smith.
“It’s also important to discuss ground rules about what you agree to do (or not do) during your time apart. You will also set a time for when you will reconvene to discuss your relationship.”
Before you hit the breaks, agree on some ground rules — such as how long the break will last, whether you’re allowed to check in with each other, and whether being intimate with other people is allowed. Setting boundaries will help you stay focused on the goal of the break and avoid any ambiguity.
Relationship breaks don’t have an exact formula or an exact time frame, with all the parameters decided by the couple themselves.
“The amount of time for a break should be agreed upon by both parties,” says Davin.
“Usually anywhere between a few weeks and a month is a good parameter. This allows each person to decompress, take a step back, and look at the relationship a bit more objectively.”
It’s best to have a ballpark figure in mind, so your relationship timeout results in the opportunity to reconnect, rather than emotional distance.
“Yes absolutely,” says Smith. “If a couple mutually decides to take a break and commits to utilizing that time well (for introspection, for re-discovery of self, etc.), I think they can reunite afterward.”
Taking a break in a relationship doesn’t have to be a precursor to a breakup, but only if you set clear objectives for the time you spend apart, and both commit to improving the relationship.
For example, rather than attending couples therapy together, you can take the time to individually work on yourself, and take these learnings back to a healthy relationship.
Other times, yes, a break can lead to a permanent break up, if that's what you and your partner decide what’s best for you. In some cases, this time apart can simply highlight your lack of compatibility and hopefully, you can both part ways without too much heartbreak.
“Often, the relationships that don’t survive are those instances where the break was a stepping stone to a break-up rather than an end unto itself,” explains Smith.
“Most of the time, clients imply that the break working means ‘getting back together’. And that may or may not happen,” she adds.
“I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. I don’t look at the success of my work with couples as graded on a scale of ‘stayed together’ and ‘broke up’, but rather that a couple comes to a mutually understood conclusion as to where the relationship is headed. Sometimes it really is the end of the road, and I think it’s important to normalize that breaking up is actually okay.”
Your relationship might not survive a break if you or your significant other aren’t able to respect the boundaries you set, or because one of you decided they didn’t want to move forward with the partnership.
“A relationship can survive a break if there are clear rules/goals around the break,” adds Davin. “Oftentimes, couples take a break without discussing what the break will and will not look like. A common problem with breaks is there are no rules, especially around dating. If the goals and rules are not expressed and agreed upon, then it often causes more problems.”
At the end of the day, every couple is different, as is every relationship. A couple can survive a break if they’re doing it for the right reason, agree on clear ground rules, and use their time apart to gain clarity on their relationship.