Taking a break can actually be a good thing in a relationship. It all depends on how you use that time apart.
In 1997, the line “we were on a break” became famous almost overnight from the hit sitcom “Friends” — and it’s still a very popular meme today. But as a result of this popular TV show, many people may think that relationship breaks either don’t work or are just a precursor to a more permanent breakup.
In reality, that doesn’t have to be the case.
Sometimes, when you’re in the middle of a relationship crisis, pressing “pause” might actually be a good thing.
In short: yes — as long as both people in the relationship want it to.
“Space can heal a relationship,” explains Jason Polk, a licensed clinical social worker and couples therapist in Denver, Colorado, “especially if the couple is currently toxic or verbally abusive to each other.”
That’s why some couples therapists might even suggest a break or taking space to a couple. For example, Polk says he sometimes suggests it if a couple has intense fights in front of their kids.
Taking time apart can allow you both to think about the issues in your relationship, cool off, learn new coping strategies, and come back together with a different lens or perspective that can be difficult to have when you’re together and actively fighting through your issues.
“When people are trapped in a vicious or unhealthy cycle and their nervous systems are activated, and their brains are hijacked by emotion, it can be hard to think clearly,” says Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, a licensed psychologist in New York and California.
A little space, therefore, can give couples time to create a plan to work through their issues in a healthier way.
Taking time apart doesn’t have to be a precursor to a breakup or divorce.
In fact, says Omar Ruiz, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Wellesley, Massachusetts, denying a break could be worse. “If people refuse for someone to have space, then they are more than likely to actually push their partner into breaking up.”
The key is to establish the rules and parameters around the break ahead of time — something that Ross and Rachel didn’t do in the TV show “Friends.” That’s because a break only works if you make the most of your time away from each other and you’re both on the same page regarding the purpose of the break.
Being on the same page includes setting the boundaries of the break, such as whether the two of you are expected to withhold from being intimate with other people.
“Just taking time away will not make the issues and problematic dynamics in your relationship magically disappear,” Ruiz continues. “If [the couple] spend time away with the intention to work on themselves and come back to improve the relationship, it can be useful.”
However, if one of you just wants space to grieve the relationship and has no intention of learning new tools to deal with your issues, space won’t help anything.
That’s why it’s important to set firm expectations before you separate. Polk recommends deciding on a timeframe for the separation, for example, setting a firm date for when you’ll both come back together and decide whether you’ll stay together, take more time apart, or break up.
Ultimately, this depends on what you and your partner decide is best for your relationship.
“Space can be from a couple of hours to a couple of days or weeks,” says Ruiz, though he generally doesn’t recommend his clients take longer than 3 to 4 weeks. “The timeframe that is being considered should be reasonable for both parties to agree with,” he says.
Polk, meanwhile, says he has seen longer — up to 3 months — as long as both agree on it.
“There is no universal number [for how long to be apart],” says Peck, “but I would suggest that it not be so long that partners actually just disconnect from the relationship and start living independent lives.”
“Yes, I have seen it create an increase in appreciation for each other,” says Polk. “When someone leaves, you may realize all they do for the household, family, and you.”
“It may also connect someone to the consequences of a negative behavior,” he adds. For example, it may help you realize the ramifications of not changing habits that upset your partner.
Taking time apart might also change how you communicate with each other about your needs. It might also help you both set better boundaries.
However, sometimes, Polk admits, “you may also realize that the relationship [isn’t healthy] and you’re better off ending it.”
If you and your partner decide to take space, here are some tips for making the break work best for both of you:
Explain to your partner why you want to take time apart
“If someone doesn’t intend space to mean breaking up,” says Peck, “they should share the rationale for the space they are taking:
- What will it help with?
- What will they use the time apart to work on?
- What will be possible with space that is difficult now and getting in the way of improving their relationship?”
Consider going on dates with each other
“When we don’t see someone and we don’t connect with them, our brain starts to prune those neural networks and we feel less close to them,” Peck explains. “We need to keep the connection alive in order for the relationship to have a shot.”
That’s why taking some time to talk on the phone, meet up, or even go on lunch or dinner dates, can be a good idea even while you’re taking a break.
“Be intentional about seeing each other,” says Polk. “If you two put your best foot forward during this time, it can create a sense of reconnection and rediscovery — like when you first started dating.”
Spend time with friends and family
“Spend time with the ones you love and care about,” says Ruiz. “It is easy to disconnect yourself from this group of people when you get caught up in the newness of a relationship. Reconnect to folks that you feel disconnected from.”
Prioritizing seeing friends and family can help you reevaluate what you want, think about who you were before the relationship, and even talk with others about what you’re going through. It can also help you feel less alone during this time of uncertainty.
“If you do not already have a routine, start going to the gym, take a walk, go for a hike, join a fitness, Zumba, or yoga class so that you can focus on what your body needs to feel balanced and refreshed again,” says Ruiz.
Peck agrees. “Spend time doing things that you love and that make you feel like you,” she says. “Engage in hobbies and passions. The more you connect to the essence of who you are, the more empowered and positive you will feel.”
Peck continued, “We make the best decisions when we feel grounded, resourced, and optimistic rather than from a place of fear, insecurity, or anger.”
Consider going to individual therapy
“Using an outside, professional perspective cannot be underestimated,” Peck explains. “Professional support will give you a space to unpack all the good, the bad, and the ugly without judgment.”
“Getting therapy will also help to be able to see if the relationship is unhealthy, toxic, or abusive,” she continues. “Because these relationships involve coercion, manipulation, and control, it can be difficult to know what is happening when it is happening. Taking time away can be helpful to examine these dynamics.”
Taking a break in a relationship might seem counterintuitive — like you’re choosing to run away from your problems rather than address them. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
For example, if you sprain your ankle, continuing to walk on it won’t allow your ankle to heal. Similarly, having the same unproductive arguments day in and day out without giving each other space might keep any relationship issues you have from having a chance to heal.
“In all my years of working with couples, I have seen relationships work after lots of difficult situations,” says Peck.
But, she adds, she’s also seen people come back from a break and decide to call it quits. Either way, the break can give you the time to think clearly and reconnect with what you want so that ultimately, you live a healthier, happier life.