DEAR DR. JENN,
My boyfriend and I love each other, but we have been fighting a lot lately and he wants to "take a break." I don't understand how this will help our relationship — it feels like it's only going to lead to us breaking up for good. If we decide to try this, what could a healthy break like? TLDR: Should I agree to this? —Broken
I'm with you. As a psychotherapist, I am not a big fan of couples taking a "break." In a young relationship, it is often a sign of incompatibility, immaturity, or poor impulse control. The best way to grow is to face the issues together head-on, ideally with a therapist.
To me, therapy — not hiding from one another — is always the first line of defense for struggling couples. I actually recommend all couples do six months of weekly couples therapy. I find this helps people conceptualize their relationship differently, learn new tools, improve communication, identify their triggers, and reduce volatility. This neutral professional can be your go-to person for any issues that arise in the future. (If you don't have insurance or feel you can't afford therapy, keep in mind there are mental health clinics all around this country that see people based on their ability to pay.)
While a temporary separation, aka "going on a break" isn't always the kiss of death for a relationship, in my clinical experience it's only helpful in very specific types of situations. Here's what you need to know about when and how to take a break in a relationship.
When is a break (instead of a breakup) a bad idea?
Most of the time, I see people take a break for the wrong reasons. I have seen too many couples use it as revenge to hurt, scare, or abandon a partner when they are angry. This is cruel and never helps heal a relationship.
I have also seen people suggest a break when they really don't want to be in the relationship, but don't have the courage to leave. This is the emotional equivalent to amputating an arm finger by finger. It elongates the pain and suffering.
Sometimes, one person doesn't want to be in the relationship but is simply afraid to be single, and uses a "break" as a way to line up their next boyfriend or girlfriend. Needless to say, using someone to help you avoid sitting in your own skin and learning to appreciate your own company is unfair to them — and it will only keep you stagnant.
Other times, people want to take a break in order to see if "the grass is greener" and date other people. This is ridiculous. You cannot compare the novelty and excitement of a new person to someone you have spent years with, whether you share a mortgage, deal with the day-to-day challenges of parenting or run a household together, or whatever your version of committed long-term love entails. The adrenaline, endorphins, and serotonin of a new encounter will blur your judgment.
Can taking a break ever help a relationship?
I am not a fan of taking a break in newer relationships. It sets a bad precedent of running from the relationship when things go wrong. There are, however, some situations in which taking a break can be helpful, especially in a long-term relationship.
One example: If both parties feel like they've hit their breaking point — they have so much anger and resentment that they are fighting at home constantly — it can be helpful to take a break from that volatile, stressful environment. This is especially true if there are children in the picture.
In situations like this, it can be helpful for one person to move out, maintain whatever commitments they have around monogamy, and continue to work on the relationship in intensive therapy until they build the skills to move back in together peacefully. The key is that they still want to work through it.
What I do wholeheartedly recommend instead of taking a break? Taking a loving 'time out'. Most couples can benefit from a cool-down period after a fight. What's key is that you tell your partner where you are (for example, a friend's couch) and are clear that you're coming back once you've had time to cool off.
Want to try taking a break anyway? Here’s what you need to know:
While I'm generally not a fan of taking a break (a practice breakup for all intents and purposes), if you are going to try it, it's important to be transparent. Here are five key ways to set yourself up for success if you're taking a break with the hopes of reuniting with your partner.
1. Be upfront about the rules of the ‘break’.
You don't want a Ross and Rachel situation where someone steps out of line and spends the rest of the (presumably reunited) relationship defensively screaming, "We were on a break!" Have a discussion about whether or not you will date other people (dating others does not tend to work and usually results in jealousy and heartbreak), how much information you will share with each other if you hook up (again, more pain!), and if there are lines you don't want each other to cross.
2. Establish a goal for the break.
Are you doing this so you can work on yourselves individually? So you can sample the single life? So you can get a little distance to assess if this relationship is something that has a future? Figure this out for yourself, and talk it out with your partner. If you're not on the same page, then a break probably won't be effective at all, and you may want to consider a permanent breakup instead.
3. Determine how much contact will you have.
The rules of engagement are important. Are you going cold turkey on communication for a period of time? (I have yet to see both parties keep this commitment.) Are you only seeing each other in couples therapy to work on the relationship? Is texting or email okay? What about phone contact?
4. Keep your break private.
Don't announce it on Instagram or change your Facebook status! This invites questions, outside opinions, and drama. Keep this clean and focus on your predetermined goal.
5. Set a time frame.
How long is this break going to last? Having a plan to reconvene to discuss and evaluate as a couple is one of the things that differentiates a break from a breakup. If there's no end date, be honest about what this "break" really is and ease both of your pain a little by saying it out loud. If there is an end date, once it arrives, you have a LOT of talking to do to discuss what you felt and learned during your time apart. Most importantly: Did you find out you want more of it? Like, indefinite amounts?
The bottom line on taking a break:
If you truly both want to be in this relationship, my recommendation is that, instead of taking a break, you spend some time investing in it. Get yourselves into couples therapy. Put down your phones and spend face-to-face time together connecting every day. Read some relationship books or listen to some podcasts together that will help you learn and invite conversation.
And please, for everyone's sake, cut someone loose if you don't want to be with them. Their person might be out there waiting — and so could yours.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.
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