Do Breaks in Relationships Work?

Couple having a serious discussion at home

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In relationships, "taking a break" is a phrase used to describe what is typically meant to be a temporary separation. When your relationship feels like it’s going nowhere or you can’t quite figure out how to move forward, a break might seem like a great way to press pause on your relationship while you figure out what comes next.

The reasons for taking a break can vary, but the goal in mind is often to come back to the relationship with a renewed sense of commitment and passion. The question is, do breaks actually work? Is taking a break something that can help your relationship in the long run, or will it break your relationship altogether? 

The reality is that every couple is different and all relationships will go through periods that can be tough to manage. For some couples, it may be normal for the relationship to swing back and forth between an on-again, off-again situation. For others, a temporary break can sometimes turn into a permanent split.

Before you decide to pump the breaks on your relationship, it is important to understand whether a temporary separation will help more than hurt. Consider your reasons for stepping away and think about what you can do to make taking a break a helpful experience.

Does Taking a Break Work?

According to couples therapist and relationship expert Kathryn Ford, MD, healthy relationships involve a balance between varying degrees of distance while still maintaining contact.

"Often, we think of taking distance from a loved one as an unloving act and counter to nurturing a relationship. But the skillful use of closeness and distance is a very important part of intimacy,” she explains to Verywell Mind. 

Kathryn Ford, MD

In a well-functioning relationship, the two people are constantly varying the amount of distance. The right amount of distance is the amount that optimizes love and intimacy while minimizing harm to each person and the relationship.

— Kathryn Ford, MD

Taking a brief break is one way to create some distance in a relationship, but how much distance you need and how long it lasts can depend. 

Relationship Churning

Breaks may be needed at times, but sometimes they might be a sign of relationship instability. Researchers refer to this pattern of breaking up and then getting back together again as “relationship churn,” a phenomenon that tends to be more common among young adults.

According to one study, nearly half of participants reported breaking up and then later reconciling with their partner. For many young adults, this process of splitting up to spend time solo allows people to invest in self-discovery and pursue personal goals. Then when they are ready to recommit to the relationship, they may come back together, this time with new experiences and skills that ultimately benefit the partnership.

Taking a break may offer benefits in some cases, but some researchers caution that this type of relationship pattern might have a negative impact on the direction and outcome of future relationships. If you become prone to breaking up and then reconciling, it might make you more likely to cycle through subsequent relationships in a similar manner.

While taking a break comes with challenges and risks, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a helpful strategy when used appropriately with care and planning. Dr. Ford suggests that while breaks can sometimes be a risky move, they can sometimes be the right step for a relationship.

The key is to make sure that you are taking a break for the right reasons, establish clear ground rules, and use the time wisely to gain clarity.

Recap

Taking a break in a relationship is more common than you might expect, particularly among young adults. Such breaks can provide opportunities for growth that may help once a couple chooses to recommence the relationship.

Reasons to Take a Break in a Relationship

Sometimes relationships follow a linear path that starts with dating and eventually continues on a steady trajectory toward either a more permanent, long-lasting commitment or a breakup. But it isn't uncommon for relationships to take a much less steady path that often proceeds in a series of fits, starts, or even brief breaks.  

Your relationship might not follow a perfectly linear path, but that doesn’t mean that it’s doomed to fail. Taking a break at the right time and for the right reason might be just the thing to strengthen your connection in ways that can deepen your commitment.

Some of the times when taking a break might be the right choice:

When You Need Time to Focus on Your Own Needs

Ford suggests that breaks can be important if you need time away from the relationship to better understand your own needs. “There are times when we need to be apart to be more in touch with ourselves. This can especially be so when one of you is considering a major change in intimacy and commitment, either moving closer or, conversely, possibly ending the relationship,” she explains.

If one or both of you are not sure where you want to take the relationship next, taking a break might be a way to gain some perspective. Spending time apart gives you the space to think about what you want individually and together. Time apart may also help you determine if the relationship is something that will be part of your future.

When You’re at Odds

If it seems like you are arguing all the time and can't seem to reach any type of resolution, it is a good idea to step away temporarily. 

Kathryn Ford, MD

A break may be helpful when the two of you can’t successfully interrupt destructive dynamics. Changing habits of interaction requires you to inhibit, or stop, your old habitual behaviors. Sometimes in order to do this, you need a break for a re-set.

— Kathryn Ford, MD

Spending some time apart may help you think about your role in the conflict, give you time to consider other perspectives, and allow you to cool down and approach problems with a calmer mind.

When Circumstances Require It

Ford also notes that sometimes taking a break is necessary due to the demands of the situation. For example, you might need to take a break if you are going to have to be physically separated due to circumstances such as for work or other reasons.

While you might opt to maintain a long-term relationship, this doesn’t always work for everyone. “Discuss this openly and be clear about expectations, especially as regards other romantic/sexual connections,” Ford notes.

No matter what the reasons, it is important to recognize that sometimes taking a break can ultimately result in a permanent breakup. If you decide to try taking a break, be aware that this might be the outcome and prepare yourself for what you'll do if that is the case.

How Often Do Couples Take Breaks?

How often do people take breaks in relationships? Statistics are hard to come by and many of those available may not necessarily reflect current trends. However, some older studies suggest that almost half of adults will break up and later reconcile with a partner at least once in their lifetime.

Taking breaks doesn't just happen among dating couples. Estimates suggest that around 6% to 18% of married couples have separated at some point in their marriage. Sometimes married partners start these uncouplings intending them to be permanent, but what they turn into is an unintentional way of taking a break in the midst of a long-term commitment.

In such cases, taking a break when needed might be an intentional way of resetting a relationship that bypasses much of the anger, heartbreak, and conflict that often characterizes a normal breakup.

How to Take a Break Without Breaking Up

So what can people do to make a break productive so they can move forward in a positive way, whether they ultimately get back together or end things permanently? If you decide that a break is the best option for your relationship at the moment, there are some steps you should take beforehand.

Set a Time Limit

Before you agree to take a break, set a time limit on how long the break will last. The length of a break depends on your relationship and the reasons you're doing it. Make sure that you give yourself enough time to adjust to being apart and to focus on your feelings during this time.

Also, make sure that you lean on the other supportive people in your life during your time apart. “Stay connected to the other people in your life, especially those that support your goals for the break,” suggests Ford.

Establish Ground Rules

Having ground rules during a break is essential. You both need to establish what is acceptable behavior during this time. Is it OK to date other people? Or have sex with others?

How to Set Ground Rules for a Break

Relationship expert Kathryn Ford, MD suggests that you should keep the following in mind as you set ground rules:

  • Talk about what you both want and need, including ground rules
  • Focus on minimizing the damage to your relationships and to yourselves
  • Be realistic about your expectations

Ground rules for your break are there to protect the relationship as well as each individual in the relationship. "Even if you are considering leaving, you have been in a caring relationship with each other.  It will be important during the break, as during the relationship, to find ways to take care of yourself, while also behaving well toward the other person," Ford explains.

Whatever you decide, it is important that you are both on the same page so there are no surprises. Ford notes that following the rules that you have agreed upon is essential.

Ground rules typically focus on topics such as how much contact you will have with each other as well as with other people both romantically and/or sexually. The goal of these rules is to help make the break successful, minimize any damage to your relationship, and allow you to continue your responsibilities (including in terms of child-care if you have kids together).

Use the Time to Reflect

The purpose of the break is to work through what you are feeling, whether you are trying to figure out your goals or deciding if the relationship is deserving of a more serious commitment. While you are apart, use the time to reflect on your feelings, goals, and desires. You might spend time talking to a good friend, writing in a journal, or speaking to a therapist.

Kathyrn Ford, MD

This is a time of learning. Pay attention to your feelings and thoughts, especially about this relationship.

— Kathyrn Ford, MD

Make a Decision

Once the agreed-upon time has elapsed, come back together to discuss what the next steps will be in your relationship. Talk about what you learned during your time apart and how that might affect your relationship going forward. 

At this point, you might feel excited to resume your relationship, but you might also feel like talking to a couples therapist would be helpful. In other cases, you both might agree that ending the relationship for good is the best option.

Recap

Before you take a break, communicate your expectations and set a time limit. While you are apart, be sure to follow the ground rules you agreed on and take care of yourself. 

A Word From Verywell

There are many reasons why you might want to consider taking a break in your relationship. It can be a way to reset the relationship, gain clarity about your own needs, and even help foster a healthier relationship with your partner. The key to making it work is to approach it with care and intention, making sure to understand your reasons for stepping back and creating expectations for what will happen during the break.

When done well, a break may help you better understand your needs, goals, and connection to your partner. As Ford explains, “Taking a break is an interruption of contact, but need not be an interruption of your caring and compassion.”

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