Yes, Taking A Break In A Relationship Can Work: What You Need To Know
"We're on a break" are the infamous words of many on-again, off-again couples that just can't seem to get themselves together—literally.
For some, staying happily committed is a moving target. Some couples keep giving it a shot no matter how many times they miss the mark. But can breaks cause permanent damage to a romantic relationship? Does it weaken the bond that connects you by pressing the pause button, or is it possible to bounce back stronger than ever?
Here's what it means to take a break in a relationship, when it works, and when it doesn't.
What it means to take a break in a relationship
The best-case break scenario is created when two committed partners mutually agree to pause their relationship for the benefit of one or both parties. The break could be prompted by forced or voluntary geographic distance, temporarily increased responsibilities at work or with family that would make it difficult to maintain the normal rhythm of the relationship, or needed time for introspection and self-care.
This type of break does not normally lead to a breakup. Assuming there's been no serious emotional damage inflicted by either partner, the couple can rest on their solid foundation and feel a level of confidence that the relationship will resume as soon as reconnection is possible. Couples in scenarios like this one experience a sense of security because their trust is usually intact before the break begins.
In less ideal situations where partners find themselves at extreme odds with each other, taking a break can closely resemble an adult "timeout."
Hurt or frustrated partners retire to their respective corners in hopes of examining their behavior and resolving to make changes to the relationship or simply move on from it. It's likely that emotional injuries may have occurred from betrayal, toxic communication, or inconsistent efforts. These offenses may prompt one partner to initiate the time apart regardless of the other partner's wishes.
It's more likely that a break sparked by conflict will lead to a breakup if the conflicted couple doesn't do the work needed to ensure they can come back to a better relationship.
When it's a good idea to take a break
Most successful long-term relationships experience peaks and valleys. I'd like to highlight two scenarios in which it would be a healthy idea to take a break in order to prevent an actual breakup:
When your partner or relationship dynamic shows you that you have some growing up to do
The success of some relationships is all about timing and maturity. It's possible to begin a relationship with someone that proves to have long-term potential if only one or both of you could evolve a bit more in certain areas.
You may feel a strong connection and enjoy spending time together, but some differences pose as barriers and can cause you to question whether the relationship can go the distance.
A few examples of these would be significant age gaps, mismatched earning potential, cleaning habits, views on boundaries, and readiness for marriage or children. Taking a break can provide the time and space needed to evaluate your true compatibility or ability to compromise.
Becoming more financially stable, finishing a time-consuming work assignment or academic program, or doing individual work in therapy are also reasons you might take a break with the hopes of coming back to an even healthier, more satisfying relationship.
When your relationship is taking a toxic turn that could do more harm than good
It's not uncommon for some couples to try to take a break just before they reach the point of no return. You or your partner may suggest a timeout if your strong feelings for each other are consistently overshadowed by communication problems, trust issues, or unmet needs. This attempt to stop the relationship from sinking may be futile if you can't successfully get to the root of your issues and develop healthy tools for resolving your problems.
When it's not a good idea to take a break
There are times in a relationship when taking a break could be dangerous. It's important to acknowledge when pressing the pause button could lead you further down the path to a real breakup. These key factors can make it riskier to take a break from your relationship:
When trust is broken or fragile in the relationship
One of the dangerous times to take a break in your relationship is when trust is already at an all-time low. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. If you or your partner has fractured the trust in some way, then it's worth exploring the reason behind the breach.
Taking a break to examine whether the relationship is where you truly want to be prior to doing any further damage is a risk that may be worth taking.
When either of you is emotionally or sexually vulnerable
Even when the trust is intact, there are times when the relationship dynamics may cause partners to be more vulnerable to temptation from outside influences.
If you attempt to take a break during a phase when either of your emotional or sexual needs aren't met, then it may be more difficult to curb distractions and focus on your current relationship goals.
When what you really want is a breakup
Some people say they want to take a break when what they really want or need is to just break up. This can happen for various reasons: Sometimes you're just afraid of pulling the trigger to really end things while other times you know that you want to end your relationship but don't want to feel like the bad guy in the situation.
It may be tempting to try to ease out of the relationship by staging a break, but this can create an even more painful situation by preventing your partner from moving on to find a better fit or to simply heal more quickly. If you know that there is no hope for restoring the relationship after a break, then agreeing to take one may make you the bad guy after all.
Rules for taking a break in a relationship
The most important rules to live by if you find yourself on the verge of a break are:
Clearly define the purpose, expectations, and goals of the break
Develop a shared definition of the break. How long will it last? Do both of you wish to remain exclusive or date other people? How much contact, if any, should you maintain? These and other questions are essential to discuss prior to starting. Setting clear boundaries and expectations can prevent misunderstandings that could cause damage to the relationship.
Explore the cause of the break
Timing and distance may cause an involuntary break, but usually breaks are sparked by budding concerns and injuries that have occurred along the way. Take the time to sort through the dynamics that led to the break and understand your role in creating them.
If you are encouraging a break as a way to soften the blow of an imminent breakup or to explore a relationship with someone else, consider being honest about where you stand. Your partner will appreciate you preventing them from wasting precious time under false hopes of reconnecting.
Use the time productively to make improvements or decide it's time to move on
You can increase your chances of creating a healthier relationship if you develop some structured ways to work on the problems that led to the break. Attending therapy alone or as a couple, reading books, watching videos, and listening to podcasts are ways to get new information for your specific concerns.
If having too many outside influences is the problem, then taking time to step away to get in touch with your inner voice, wants, and needs can also be therapeutic and helpful in reaching your relationship goals.
Ultimately, taking a break doesn't have to spell the end of your relationship if you can agree to specific goals and expectations up front and heal any wounds that left damage. Make sure the changes are more than skin deep, or you may find yourself back in "timeout."
Weena Cullins, LCMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist with over 15 years of experience working with individuals, couples, and families. Her clinical advice has been featured at NBC News, The Huffington Post, Insider, Redbook, and many more mainstream media publications.
Cullins speaks to local, national, and international audiences about relationships, money matters, parenting, and the role of spirituality in achieving your personal goals, and she serves as a moderator/facilitator for community-based panel discussions sponsored by local nonprofit organizations. She previously worked as an adjunct professor and clinical supervisor at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she obtained her master's degree in family studies, and she has intensive clinical training in working with trauma survivors. She uses empirically validated treatment modalities like cognitive-behavioral therapy and emotion-focused therapy with her clients.