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Taking a break in a romantic relationship
by Horsefeathers. December 1st 2013, 10:59 PM

Taking a break in a romantic relationship
By Robin (PSY)

Taking a break in a romantic relationship can either help or hinder a couple's ability to work through conflict; therefore, it is important to approach a break in a healthy manner, regardless of whether or not the decision to take a break is mutual. Various events can lead a couple to consider taking a break, such as a major life change or hardship (e.g., moving to another state or losing a loved one), an ongoing issue (e.g., an untreated mental illness or substance abuse), or an emotional betrayal (e.g., infidelity or withholding the truth/lying about something). The purpose of taking a break is to help a couple determine whether or not to continue their relationship and work through the conflicts resulting from such events. By following these suggestions, a struggling couple can increase their chance of resuming a relationship and become even stronger when all is said and done.

Communicate. "I want to take a break" is a statement, and while it communicates someone's needs, it does not take the place of an in-depth conversation about why a break is needed. The person who requests a break needs to be willing to calmly and clearly explain why they are making that request. The other person needs to actively listen to the explanation and refrain from interrupting or arguing with their partner until they have finished speaking. The person who requests the break needs to be willing to listen to their partner after providing their explanation, and be willing to entertain other ideas they may not have considered when deciding a break is needed. More information about effective communication can be found here.

Define. Many people are not clear about what happens during a break. A break can look different for every couple, so before agreeing to a break, both partners need to define and agree to the terms of a break. Some important questions to ask include the following:
  • How long will the break last for? Will we have a "deadline" or "check in" with each other on a regular basis?
  • Will we continue to spend time with each other? If so, how often?
  • Will we continue to speak to/text with/e-mail each other? If so, how often? If not, when will we resume contact?
  • Will we continue to call each other "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" during the break? If not, are we free to date other people?
  • When will we know it is time to end the break? How will we communicate that with each other?
One or both partners may not be able to provide answers for all of these questions right away. If that is the case, then it may be best to postpone a break and spend a couple of days reflecting upon these questions before resuming a conversation about whether a break is in a relationship's best interests. Both partners should participate in defining the terms and agree with the terms. Neither person should threaten or pressure their partner, or agree to the terms out of fear for how their partner might react. Negotiation and compromise are important components of romantic relationships; however, if negotiation is one-sided, or compromise negatively affects a person's self-esteem, then these components can ultimately hurt a couple's chance of working through conflict.

Reflect. Taking a break from a romantic relationship does not mean a person needs to take a break from reflecting upon their life and the direction it is heading in. Both partners can benefit from self-reflection during a break, regardless of whether or not they requested a break. When a person reflects upon something, they think deeply or carefully about every aspect of a situation. Both partners are more likely to be satisfied with a break if they reflect upon who they want to be as individuals and how they can reach their individual goals. Reflecting upon a relationship's strengths and weaknesses can also provide insight into why a break was needed and how additional breaks can be avoided in the future.

Socialize. Setting aside time for self-reflection is important, but a person should not isolate themselves from everyone during a break, as this can lead to feelings of depression. Family members and friends can provide emotional support and advice during times of uncertainty, which may aid in self-reflection. Loved ones may have different opinions about a break and attempt to push their viewpoints onto one or both partners. It is important to remember that every relationship is unique, and the people taking a break are free to accept or dismiss any opinions offered to them. Additionally, both partners should be mindful of romantic or sexual opportunities while socializing with other people, and avoid possible temptations if they would violate the terms agreed to by both partners. It may be best to abstain from alcohol and other drugs during a break, as they can lower inhibitions and increase the risk for violating the terms agreed to by both partners.

Decide. At some point, one or both partners will feel it is time to end a break. Ideally, effective communication will have been utilized, the terms of a break will have been followed, self-reflection will have taken place, and socialization will have provided some stability throughout a break. Regardless of the final decision, both partners can learn from a break and apply their knowledge to future conflicts. If a couple decides to continue dating, then they need to continue communicating, as failing to do so may result in more conflict and undo all the hard work that was achieved during a break. If one or both partners decide to end a relationship, then both partners need to seek out healthy coping techniques. A list of alternatives to self-harm can be found here, in the event that one or both partners struggle with urges to hurt themselves following the end of a relationship.
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