Twenty-three years after Ross first shouted, “We were on a break!” in an episode of Friends, people are still debating what, exactly, taking a break means. Is “a break” just a gentler word for a total, if possibly temporary, breakup, which is how Ross took it? Or is “a break” a period of time in which you don’t see each other, but you don’t sleep with other people, which is what Rachel thought? Ross and Rachel make it clear: If you don’t define what “taking a break” actually means, that break can very quickly turn into a breakup. Not to mention the seven seasons of drama that followed.
So, Ross and Rachel are clearly an example of what not to do. But does taking a relationship break ever work? Ross and Rachel did end up getting back together, after all. But perhaps because no one can agree on what “taking a break” means, there hasn’t been a lot of research into the pros and cons of doing so. But one 2009 study of on-again, off-again relationships among college students found that on-off couples were more likely to report negative experiences, including communication problems and uncertainty, and less likely to report positive feelings, including love and understanding from partners, than other types of couples. And a 2004 study of young adults found that only one-third of couples who broke up and got back together again actually stayed together in the long term.
That said, relationship experts say that there’s a right and a wrong way to take a break — and that taking a break can even be beneficial for a relationship, depending on the situation. And if taking a break does lead to a breakup, who’s to say that that’s a bad outcome? Ending a relationship that’s not working for you is a good thing.
So if you want to take a relationship break that’s actually helpful, here’s how to do it.
Agree on what “a break” means
Learn from Ross and Rachel and define “a break.” Talk with your partner and agree on ground rules: Can you have sex with other people? Can you date other people? How often will you communicate or see each other, if at all? Will you unfollow each other on social media? Can you discuss the break with mutual friends? How about your families? This will be a hard conversation, but setting boundaries before you begin will make the actual break so much easier.
Work out the logistics
When you date someone for a while, your lives become super-interwoven. So in addition to having the “can we kiss other people?” talk, it’s a good idea to also have one big conversation up front where you work out all the details about what the more boring, “adult” stuff will look like post-break. If you live together, work out a schedule for who sleeps on the couch when. Decide whether you guys are still chill sharing a Netflix account. Pick one of you to go to that Zoom happy hour your mutual friends invited you both to last month.
The more you can decide up front, the better, since it’s best to limit contact on your break (according to Callie and Arizona’s therapist on Grey’s Anatomy, anyway). Of course, shared living situations can really complicate things, so don’t go into this lightly and create a detailed plan first.
Focus on yourself
Liz Goldwyn, founder of The Sex Ed, a multimedia platform for sex, health and consciousness education, tells Refinery29 that taking a break can be an opportunity to evaluate your own needs. “I’ve found with relationships that timing can be everything. People aren’t always in the same place with their needs and desires (commitment level, ambition, etc.),” she says.
As for the break? “It is not the end of the world to come apart to focus on yourself, your needs, and your evolution while letting your partner do the same. You may find yourselves closer than before, or come to a clarity you wouldn’t have been able to if you didn’t have space to breathe — remember that what keeps a flame burning is oxygen.” Now is the time to think about your needs and what you want out of your future, maybe with the help of a therapist. And this is a good time to order your favorite take-out and binge-watch that TV show your partner hates, too.
Evaluate the relationship
Getting some distance can help give you perspective on your relationship, Lisa Brateman, LCSW, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist in New York City, previously told Refinery29. “Taking a break can promote self-awareness when you’re removed from the situation of toxicity, and what’s not going right,” she said. “A break means some part of the relationship has to change, or it won’t survive.” Getting some space might help you evaluate your relationship with new eyes: How do you feel when you’re not seeing your partner regularly?
Make a plan
Sometimes, you need to do some work individually to be able to work better as partners, Anita Chlipala, LMFT, a relationship expert in Chicago, previously told Refinery29. For some couples that break up and then get back together, “it wasn’t that they weren’t a good fit, they just needed some information and skills to make their relationship work,” she said. “There should be a purpose to the break, and there should be things both partners should work on.”
For example, maybe you decide to attend therapy separately to figure out what you need in a relationship, or learn how to effectively communicate what you want. Chlipala says that after the break, you should be able to answer one big question: “What will be different?”
Reassess the relationship
When you begin the break, agree that after a certain amount of time — say, a month — the break will end. At that point, you and your partner will reassess your relationship. Whether you decide to stay together, break up, or even to extend the break for another month because you need more time to figure things out, it will be better than being in relationship limbo.
Maybe, during the break, you realize that the relationship isn’t working for you and you decide to end it. Tell your partner, and then begin focusing on reflecting and recovering.
But maybe you decide that you want to continue the relationship. For the break to be beneficial, you need to take action. Whether that’s beginning couples therapy, working on your communication skills, or something else, you don’t want the relationship to look exactly the way it did before. Something has to change, and now’s the time to make that happen.
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