Love is easy…said no one, ever.
In fact, the typical relationship is filled with moments of inane bickering, financial stress, periodic jealousy and downright boredom. (Ever hear your husband drone on and on about that time in 2005 when he caught a huge trout? No? Just us?)
For most successful couples, there’s a compulsion to soldier on, bite the bullet and stick it out for better or worse. Or, there’s a fight or flight response: If it ain’t working, let’s split up.
But is there a middle ground? Can taking a break in a relationship actually be the thing that saves it?
First of all, what is a break?
Unlike a breakup, a break is an agreed-upon period of time that a couple takes away from their relationship in order to reassess their values both together and apart and come to a decision about whether or not they want to be together.
Says Birch: “Breaks should not be indefinite. If you choose to go on a break, set the date when you’ll come back together for a check-in. Anywhere between two and four weeks of no contact or very minimal contact is a good place to start, but it could be longer.”
And while some people may choose to explore casual dating while on a break (ever heard of a Rumspringa?), Birch maintains that the best thing you can do is focus on yourself: “During this time, you’re not dating others. You should be dealing with your own challenges head-on, healing any personal wounds and assessing your partner’s place in your life, what they need from you and if you truly want to be in this relationship, period.”
Why should you take a break?
Per Birch: “A successful relationship break allows you to do a couple things. First and foremost, you can focus on the problem at hand without feeling the constant burden of a disappointed partner. (Some easily overwhelmed people feel crippled to handle their ‘life stuff’ when they feel they are constantly letting down the person they love.) Secondly, you’ll find out how much you really miss your significant other. If it’s been weeks, and you don’t miss them at all, or you’re more productive and happier without them, maybe it’s time to break up. On the flip side, if your partner’s absence suddenly makes you see all the ways they improve your life, you can return to the relationship with a renewed commitment to communicate, show your partner love and work toward balancing the partnership with all other obligations.” In essence, it helps you gain perspective.
When is a break a good idea?
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the matter, there are instances where taking a break in a relationship is more likely to aid in your eventual reconciliation. “You should consider a break when you’ve lost perspective on the relationship, or something else is preventing you or your partner from giving the relationship the time and attention it deserves,” explains Birch.
This might be something external, like a big move or a job change, that has put pressures on the amount of energy you can give one another. But it can also happen if you’ve been together forever, especially if you first started dating at a very young age. We know one couple who got together during freshman year of high school and had never been apart since. In their mid-20s, they decided to take a break. It’s not that they weren’t good together. It was simply inevitable that one or both of them became curious about what else was out there, and if their relationship was suited to adult life. (And good news: After the break, they came back together, decided to get married and now have an adorable daughter.)
Extreme stress, unrelated to the relationship, can be another valid cause for break-taking. Think: a severe illness or a familial conflict. We spoke to one woman who asked for a break with her boyfriend after getting a breast cancer diagnosis, because she just didn’t have the headspace to manage both her treatment and a romantic life.
Birch elaborates, “It’s tough, because partners expect to be prioritized. But it’s not always possible to prioritize your significant other in every day or every season of your life. It’s not that there’s a lack of love, but there is a lack of attention and care. Sometimes, you need to change your perspective in order to get a better view on what you have.”
When is a break a bad idea?
While it never hurts to try a break before officially breaking up, there are instances where it’s less likely to work, say the experts. For instance, “If one of you wants to date other people, because you think there may be someone better out there for you, it’s best to break up, not take a break,” says Birch. The reason? Quality dating takes time, and the first rule of taking a break is that you need to have an end-date in mind. In other words, you can’t give dating (The apps! The mind games! The excitement!) due diligence if you’ve got a note on your calendar to get back together with your ex. “If life leads you back to your partner in due time, that’s amazing. I’ve seen that narrative happen. But let the person go, free and clear. And then pursue other people,” says Birch.
Similarly, a history of cheating might be a red flag, both because serial cheating is a tough habit to break and more specifically because you might not be able to trust your partner while you’re in your no-contact period (unless, of course, that’s part of your arrangement). “You may just wind up anxious about them the entire time you’re apart,” warns Birch.