Should you 'take a break' from your relationship? A relationship counsellor sounds in on when and how

Expert advice for making it more than a bridge to the end.

Expert advice for making it more than a bridge to the end

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In the right circumstances, "taking a break" can save a relationship in trouble or make a good relationship even better. But it's often thought of as a coward's escape, a way of breaking up without actually facing what you're doing. But how can we tell one from the other? Janna Comrie is a therapist and couples counsellor. We asked her for advice on when it makes sense to take a break and how to make it work.

Don't "take a break" instead of breaking up

"We should take a break" is a common euphemism for "leave my life, but quietly" because people often do it when they actually want to break up. Breaking up is tough, and Comrie told us that many believe that taking it in steps will help accustom their partner to being without them, making the final break less painful. "The problem with this," said Comrie, "is that it's absolutely backwards. It's usually more painful." Rejection hurts no matter what and starting with half-measures won't change it. By taking a break you generate false hope, which prevents the other person from beginning to get over you, prolonging the pain.

Worse, says Comrie, it adds a whole new reason for the rejected person to feel bad about themselves. "When people are strung along like that, they often feel lied too, and feel foolish or naïve for having believed that there was a chance in the first place." Taking a break as a path to breaking up altogether adds humiliation to pain. It can make the person feel that they are not just unloveable, but also stupid for believing that you might still want them.

It's also common to propose a break as a way of forestalling or avoiding being dumped. Being rejected hurts. It can make us feel lonely, unworthy, and desperate. And when faced with catastrophe, negotiation is a natural response: "Let's not be hasty! How about we just take a break and talk about this when we've both had time to think about it." Breaking up can be a major decision. Aren't "taking our time" and "thinking about it" mature and reasonable things to do?

According to Comrie, "this sounds so reasonable, and that is the problem. The reality is that people who initiate break-ups have already been thinking about it for a long time and have come to a decision." If you're trying to break up with someone and they propose a break, don't let that throw you off course. It sounds reasonable but it's likely to just prolong the pain. On the other side, if someone is breaking up with you, they've already made their decision. Don't put yourself in the position of having to argue someone into being with you. Comrie told us that this is a bad idea even if you win the argument because "you deserve to be with who actually wants to be with you."

When to take a break

Taking a break should never be used as a prelude to break-up, but there are plenty of times when it's actually the best thing for a relationship. The concept of a break should not, in itself, cause panic.

One way of thinking about a break is in terms of "space." All couples need some amount of physical and emotional space. People in couples can have different places of work, different friends and hobbies, take separate vacations, and maintain different places of residence. Some people simply enjoy a significant amount of time to themselves. "It's important that both partners have the freedom to do the things they want or need to do, whether it's going to the opera with friends or travelling alone to Europe for three weeks. As long as it's done from a position of respect, it's a very healthy thing. A lot of times that allows you to enjoy your partner even more than if you spent all of your time together, so the space actually contributes to the relationship."

Sometimes, happy circumstances call for a greater-than-usual amount of space. For example, a job opportunity that takes one partner abroad for a long time can be a fair reason to press pause on a relationship. But usually, Comrie told us, it's life challenges that provide the rationale for a romantic break. "Outside stressors can come along. You may be having a hard time with your job, you may be struggling with addiction or grief or financial difficulties." At these times, intimate relationships can feel like an additional burden or source of stress. Comrie told us about a couple in which one person was just coming out with an addiction problem and the other was dealing with the loss of a family member. "They knew they wanted to be with each other but… their needs were clashing with each other. They were dealing with different things at that time and they knew they had to take a break in order to make it work. That was an appropriate time to take a break." They took some time apart, and by the end of it they were dying to get back together and had a stronger relationship for it. 

This may seem counterintuitive. Isn't part of the point of a romantic relationship that we support our partners in their times of need? Isn't "taking a break" in these cases just bailing out with the going gets tough? Sometimes. But, Comrie said, it depends on the circumstances. "There are times when you want your partner when you're facing difficult times, but there are times when you are facing external problems and both of your needs cannot be met by each other."

How to make "taking a break" work

So how to make "taking a break" work? Comrie gave us three essential tips.

1. Only do it for the right reasons: Comrie says that taking a break works when you know you still want to be together, but are faced with temporary circumstances that are best faced apart. It has to be a reason that taking a break might actually help you overcome. Don't take a break if you really want to break up. Don't take a break if you're facing problems that can't be solved or would be better solved together.

2. Communicate: It's not enough to know in your heart that you need some extra space and then say "Babe, I'm heading out. Sit tight, I'll call you six months." Instead both members have to agree on the goals and meaning of the break ("to deal with X, Y, Z, and get back together in Q amount of time.")

3. Set clear terms and stick to them: Most breaks don't mean complete isolation. "To take a break with zero contact is actually just breaking up," Comrie says. "You need to agree on how you will stay in touch, how you will communicate, etc." For some couples, this means living apart but speaking on the phone every night. For others, it could mean a weekly or monthly date night where they catch up and show that they still love and support each other. According to Comrie, "Breaks work best when both realize that what they need is not what their partner needs and where they stick to the agreements of the break."

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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