For many of us, our first exposure to the concept of taking a break in a relationship was Ross's “we were on a break!” outburst. Through high school, college, and early adulthood, we saw our friends go on breaks with their significant others, or went on them ourselves. Breaks can be messy and emotional, but sometimes they are a helpful option for evaluating the future of a relationship.
A break is like a time out for a relationship, where both people agree to pause the relationship for a period of time. What does taking a break mean for your relationship? Is it warranted? Or just a pit stop on the road to breaking up? It depends on the situation, but experts say that breaks can be beneficial for both personal mental health and the well-being of a relationship—when done correctly.
When should we take a relationship break?
“An important time to take a break is when we feel we’ve lost touch with ourselves or our own compass,” says relationship expert Karen Bridbord, PhD, a Gottman-certified therapist. “A break is ideally for when you feel you don’t know what you want or are confused.”
This confusion can come from interpersonal tensions, the stress of long-distance, or outside factors like work, school, or family that are putting strain on the relationship. Breaks typically work best for couples who have feelings for one another and are still willing to continue the relationship once the issue is resolved.
Breaks are less likely to work if there is a glaring incompatibility or dealbreaker, or if one partner needs has an untreated mental health disorder that is placing stress on the relationship. “Taking a break is usually about connecting with oneself and doing the work that needs to be done within a relationship and with one's self,” says Bridbord.
Even if you feel you have the best of intentions, it’s important to know if you are taking a break for the right reasons. “Try to assess whether you’re being avoidant,” says Bridbord. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to pull away from romantic partnerships, especially once conflict arises, rather than seeking resolution. While there are times that conflict means you should step away from a relationship, no relationship is impervious to conflict and sometimes they just need some troubleshooting.
Feel like you need space from your partner? Here are some tips for approaching a break in a healthy way.
Have a strategy.
Going on a break is an opportunity to both see and do things differently. “The point of a break is to see things from a different perspective,” says Bridbord. “In order to have a different outcome, you need to develop deeper insight.”
Reflecting on the reasons for the break, both on your own and with your significant other, can help you determine what you want to get out of it. “You need to have a strategy so you can achieve success,” says Bridbord. Maybe you want to determine if you were with this person because it was convenient, or maybe you want to work on yourself outside of a relationship. Determining what you want and how you will get there will set you up for success.
Lay some ground rules.
Before initiating a break, have a discussion with your partner about ground rules, preferably in person. Be clear on what your break will look like and how certain rules will contribute to your shared strategy. Will you follow one another on social media? How often will you communicate, if at all? “Think about whether you can meet your goal if you’re having constant contact,” says Bridbord.
During your initial discussions, make sure to set clear boundaries about what is considered an absolute deal breaker for you, such as dating or hooking up with other people. “I think a lot of couples struggle with boundaries in breaks,” says Bridbord. “Conflict often comes from crossing boundaries.”
Work on yourself.
To get the most out of a break, it should be a time of personal reflection and self-care. This could include therapy to help you work on your wants and needs in relationships, as well as any personal issues you may be struggling with. As Bridbord says, “Your relationship to someone else can only be as strong as your relationship to yourself.”
Even with the most careful and open planning, breaks can be a time of stress and uncertainty. Be gentle with yourself. “It's definitely a time to break out the fuzzy slippers,” says Bridbord.
Give yourself time.
“Taking a break should allow you to assess how you feel being away from your partner,” says Bridbord. “Are you feeling relieved or are you missing them?” Sometimes it can take time to really assess how you feel spending time away from the relationship.
If the point of a break is to achieve a certain goal, it should give you enough time to meet this goal. Personal reflection and working on yourself can take time. Going into a break with a set time limit can actually contribute to feelings of pressure and stress, so it’s best to be open-ended and establish check-ins to discuss how you’re feeling as the break goes on.
You may naturally feel the break coming to an end as you start to realize you either want to stay together or go separate ways for good. The more you follow these guidelines, the more certain you may feel about making the right decision for you and your relationship.