LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIPS can be fun and fulfilling, but they also come with challenges. Sometimes a little conversation is all you need to smooth out interpersonal friction, but other times, you and your partner might need some space to reflect. If you and your partner keep revisiting the same conflict or if you’re struggling to make a major decision together, your relationship might benefit from taking a break—which is different from breaking up.
“When you take a break, both parties are leaving the door open for a repaired or stronger relationship,” says relationship and sex therapist Catherine Dukes, LCSW.
Taking a break might not be the right choice for every couple, but if you and your partner are craving a fresh perspective, it could be worth a shot. Here’s how to decide if taking a break is right for your relationship, and how to ensure that your break is smooth and generative.
What does “taking a break” mean?
“Taking a break” is exactly what it sounds like—you’re pressing pause on your relationship for a designated period.
“A couple may decide to take a break for logistical reasons,” says relationship and sex therapist Rachel Zar, LMFT, CST. “Maybe one person is moving out of the country for a finite amount of time or has another obligation that would pull them away from the relationship, but a break may also be for emotional reasons. Maybe you’re uncertain about the relationship and feel that some time outside of it would bring you clarity.”
A break might involve zero contact between partners, or there might be some limited communication. Partners might date other people during their break, or they might decide to stay single. What’s most important is that couples decide together what their break is going to look like and how long it will last before they reconvene.
You don’t have to be a monogamous couple to pursue a relationship break. Polyamorous and non-monogamous partnerships can also benefit from a period of distance and contemplation. Regardless of the number of partners involved and the reasons for taking time apart, each partner needs to clearly state their expectations in advance.
What are some benefits to taking a break?
“Taking a break from a serious relationship can benefit each person as individuals,” Dukes says. “Partners can get clarity on what they want and what they’re each bringing into the relationship.”
During a break, each partner gets a chance to reconnect to the person they were before the relationship and investigate the relationship’s effect on their well-being. Is the relationship adding value to daily life? If not, what needs to change?
A break can also give couples space to do self-work “that would be more effectively done on your own before returning to the relationship,” Zar says.
What are some downsides to taking a break?
During a break, partners might feel lonely or insecure. The process might feel logistically complicated, especially if there’s a shared home or children involved. They might also experience a loss of trust in each other, “especially if they’re not following agreed-upon guidelines for the break,” Dukes says.
A break might also lead to an actual breakup, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Deciding to end a relationship after taking a break is a valid and often necessary decision—especially if the purpose of the break was to gain clarity about the relationship,” Zar says. “If you’ve discovered that you can’t show up the way you’d like or that your partner no longer meets your needs, you have met the goals of your break. Though time and distance may help you get to a place of calm and understanding, it doesn’t mean you have to return to the space that caused you heartbreak to begin with.”
If you’re thinking about taking a break from your relationship, here are tips on how to make the most of it:
Clarify your reasons for the break and your objectives beforehand.
“If you’re opting into a break, it should be with clear intentions about what you hope to do with that time,” Zar says. “Each of you need to be able to articulate how a break would be beneficial to your relationship and what you’re each needing from each other on the other side.”
To ensure you’re on the same page, Zar recommends writing out a list of goals for the break that you and your partner can review together.
Establish clear boundaries in advance, and stick to them.
Will you and your partner date or have sex with other people during your break? Will you stay in touch, schedule regular check-ins, or fully cut off contact? Will you tell other people in your life about the break? When will you get back together and share your insights? Think through your desires and make a plan with your partner.
“It’s important to get really specific about expectations for the break to avoid any unexpected betrayals,” Zar says.
Make time for intentional reflection.
“Couples should reflect on how they feel about themselves in the relationship versus how do they feel on the break,” Dukes says. “Do they miss their partner, or do they feel lighter? Has the relationship run its course, or is the break signaling that this relationship is amazing and needs to be repaired?”
Journaling and talking to friends and family can help you work through those questions. Zar also recommends seeking out an individual therapist who can help you navigate whatever feelings arise.
“It can be tough on your own to distinguish how much of wanting to get back together after a break is based on missing that primary attachment object and how much of it is because things have actually shifted enough in yourself and in your partner that you trust that this relationship will feel different,” she says.
When you come back together, find a new beginning.
“Don’t think of the reconciliation as coming back to the same relationship,” Zar says. “If you do, you’re bound to get stuck in the same patterns.”
Instead, think of coming back together as starting a new relationship. Share needs you’ve uncovered during your time apart and strategize on how you can best support each other.
“Consider working with a couples therapist to help you create a new relationship that’s sustainable,” Zar suggests.
If you decide to take a break, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.
“Calling for a break is not a test to throw out hoping your partner will chase after you,” Dukes says. “If you believe that a break would be a helpful experience, share your wants with kindness and respect and listen to your partner’s concerns so you can negotiate a break that’s healthy and transparent.”
Ro White is a Chicago-based writer. You can find Ro’s work in SELF, VICE, Cosmopolitan, Thrillist, and more.