Is Taking a Break In a Relationship Always a Mistake?

Therapists share signs that taking a break is the right move, plus how to approach taking time apart.

Taking a Break in Relationships
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Plenty of people press pause and "take breaks" from their relationships — whether that means that they temporarily cut ties altogether or that they decide to change the dynamic of the relationship. Some partners choose to step away for a few weeks, while others choose to take long-term breaks that last months or even years.

While some people love the idea, others criticize the practice of taking breaks, arguing doing so just delays the inevitable (a permanent breakup) or causes confusing, boundary-bending scenarios (a la Ross and Rachel). And so a tricky question continues to spark debate: Is taking a break ever really the right move?

Is Taking a Break In a Relationship Ever a Good Idea?

Short answer, yes, taking a break in a relationship can be beneficial in some cases. Whether or not taking a break from your relationship is a good idea depends entirely on you and your partner(s), friend, or family member.

"A break is a great idea in any relationship if you are feeling the need to separate, but don't know how final you want that to be," says Rachel Wright, L.M.F.T., relationship, sex, and mental health therapist. "A break is the gray — it's the middle of a binary of 'together' or 'not together.'" Deciding how long to take a break (if at all) is a matter of assessing your situation.

The Benefits of Going On a Break In a Relationship

Even though the idea of taking a break may be painful, it can be beneficial in the long run. Here are three major benefits to giving yourself some space from a partner, friend, or family member.

Taking a break gives you the space to think clearly (and independently).

Sometimes taking a break can be a positive experience since it can give you the opportunity to think for yourself — especially if you need time to consider whether or not you still want to be in the relationship, according to Ashera DeRosa, L.M.F.T., a licensed marriage and family therapist. This is true whether it's a romantic, platonic, or familial connection.

"[Taking time] to determine whether or not you want to continue a relationship can be a proactive decision," explains DeRosa. "It provides each party with a break from their cyclical problems, so they might have more space to take accountability and to problem solve."

There's a reason you might feel more clear-headed during your time away. "When [you] take a pause, [you're] able to get clarity — because [your] nervous system can reset, and [you] can then understand what [you're] truly feeling about this person/this relationship without the fog of hormones and neurotransmitters," says Wright. (FYI, at the start of a relationship, your brain releases hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, which results in feelings of attraction, as Shape previously reported.)

Taking some time to take a step back can help you see things from a different point of view, which can ultimately result in personal growth, says Wright. The time away can allow you to decide on the next step in any relationship, whether it's a romantic one, a sexual one, or another kind of relationship, she says.

Taking a break buys you time before a full breakup.

Maybe you're not ready to slam on the brakes, but slowing down and coasting for a little while feels better than a hard and fast breakup.

"The bittersweet truth is that, sometimes, relationships dissolve after a break," says DeRosa. "For people that are intent on making a relationship work, this might feel like a con; however, I see it as a pro." That's because if a relationship really isn't working, taking the time to really consider the future of the relationship feels more intentional than a sudden split after a heated conflict.

The Drawbacks of Taking a Break In a Relationship

Despite the very valid reasons to let things cool off for awhile, taking a break in a relationship has downsides.

Taking a break in a relationship can culminate in growing apart.

Not all couples who take breaks will get back together. "It's hard and it sucks to miss someone," says Wright. "You may grow apart, but if you grow apart on a structured break, you were probably growing apart anyway."

That's because taking a break, in and of itself, isn't going to fix your problems, according to Frieda Birnbaum, Ph.D., a research psychologist and psychoanalytic therapist. The lessons you can pick up during that time apart — and a concerted mutual effort to work on things — are what's going to help. "Taking a break does not help heal the wounds," explains Birnbaum. "Results can be temporary, but the root cause still exists." You'll have to take actionable steps to solve an issue beyond just spending time apart.

A break can cause resentment if it's not mutually agreed upon.

Both (or all) people in the relationship need to agree that a break is the right move. Otherwise, the break might not be only a break after all. "You can't spring a break on your partner via ghosting," adds DeRosa. "That's really cruel and will not help your relationship in any way."

And if the break is agreed upon, the terms of the break and what you wish to gain from the time apart (e.g., whether you'll date other people) should also be mutually understood. "If you don't agree with your directions, then it's time to reassess your goals," says Birnbaum.

When to Take a Break In a Relationship

Still trying to figure out if a break is the best move for you RN? Here are some signs that taking a break could work out.

Your relationship is generally healthy.

If your relationship is healthy, taking a break with the intention of reuniting can be helpful. In a healthy relationship, you're more likely to feel respected and supported, which can make the idea of spending time apart and reuniting feel doable.

However, entering a toxic relationship can cause a multitude of issues, both mental and physical. If your partner is physically or emotionally abusive, a break isn't likely to repair your relationship or, more importantly, end the cycle of abuse. If you find yourself in an unhealthy or toxic relationship, a mental health professional can help you determine if the relationship is salvageable, or how to safely end the relationship, as Shape previously reported.

You've found the right person, but it's not the right time.

If you're with someone who could very well be right for you, but the universe has other plans for you at the moment, perhaps taking a break is all you need.

With a relationship, taking a break isn't always about changing destructive patterns, says Birnbaum. "Even good relationships need time apart to reflect, or [the people may] have different interests," she says. Maybe you decided you need to travel for a while, or maybe your partner is not in an ideal headspace to be with anyone else right now. The same applies with friends — you might realize you're fine with drifting apart from a former pal when you no longer have as much in common.

How to Approach Taking a Break In a Relationship

If you do decide to take a break in your relationship, there are some steps you can take to ensure that the break goes as smoothly as possible.

Be clear about your expectations.

Talk about how much you plan to, well, talk — if you'll detach completely for a little while or still want to keep in touch with regular check-ins. And, perhaps most importantly, be frank about how much time you need to take so your partner(s) doesn't feel like you're stringing them along, or vice versa.

"For a break to be successful, both partners need to understand the assignment," says DeRosa. "You're taking a break to assess whether or not you want to continue with the relationship and to try to change your own patterns within it for the better."

And be honest about whether or not you will date other people, and whether or not you'll share your experiences with each other. Even if you choose not to date other people, it needs to be clear that you are not single during the break, says DeRosa.

"Both parties are still in a relationship and need to respect the boundaries of the relationship," says DeRosa. "It's not okay to download Tinder or to call your old hookup buddy (unless you're ethically non-monogamous and that has always been an okay thing to do). The purpose is to get space, not to sabotage the relationship."

Finally, decide together how long you expect the break to last. A week is a good amount of time for both parties to work through their feelings without losing the inertia of the relationship altogether, believes DeRosa. However, breaks can last much longer when people are navigating uncertainties such as long-distance situations or differences in life goals (i.e. kids or no kids). You should also consider how you'll contact each other in case of an emergency, adds Wright.

Learn from the break.

It's no secret that taking a break in a relationship can be emotionally challenging, even if you're theoretically all for the idea. "Breaks can be really difficult," says DeRosa. If you realize, for example, how much you depend on your partner emotionally, it's important to learn from that info, she says. If you've lost yourself to the relationship, that's a serious issue you'll need to address after the break, says DeRosa.

A break is an opportune time to journal or do other reflective self-care activities, recommends DeRosa. When you're ready to meet again, you should meet on neutral ground, so that you can talk about what you learned from the break and determine whether or not there's a mutual desire to find a path forward, she adds.

Know when it's time to say goodbye.

If a break is causing stress to you or your partner, or it doesn't seem to be working for your relationship for one reason or another, consider ending the relationship altogether.
"If one or both parties have decided this is the end of the road, part ways and take care of yourselves individually," says DeRosa. "It's not a good idea to try to be friends while mourning the relationship."

If you decide to stick together, create some actionable, tangible goals that will show mutual effort, recommends DeRosa.

Moral of the story, entering that "gray area" between together and separated may allow you to grow, whether you're giving yourself space from a romantic partner, relative, or close friend. But before you initiate a break, it's helpful to weigh out the pros and cons of taking time apart and to communicate your expectations.

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