- Laurel Steinberg, PhD, New York City-based relationship expert and psychotherapist
- Susan Winter, relationship expert and author of Allowing Magnificence, Older Women/Younger Men, and Breakup Triage
- Tammy Nelson, PhD, licensed sex and relationship therapist and director of the Integrative Sex Therapy Institute
Below, get a recap on the purpose of a break and how to go on one successfully. And then, experts answer how long should a relationship break be in order to snag optimum results.
What is a break in relationship?
For starters, it's not the same as a breakup. Rather, in its most simple iteration, a break is solo time away from your partner for the purpose of gaining clarity about what isn't working in the relationship.
"A break in a relationship can be helpful to sort out how you feel about a person," says relationship therapist Laurel Steinberg, PhD. With that absence, you get to ask yourself certain soul-searching questions, like "Do I miss him? Am I wondering what she's doing right now?" It's a time for re-evaluation, therapy (if you see fit), and introspection.
What a relationship break crucially isn't, though, is a pattern. And since distance can make the heart grow fonder, it's easy to fall into a problematic cycle of relationship breaks becoming regular. "It takes space, at times, to miss someone, to appreciate what you have, and to remember that you love your partner," says relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD. "Sometimes separation happens before you remember to say you’re sorry. But if you find you have to break up, repeatedly, and you are in an on-again, off-again relationship just to find the spark you lost or to have great makeup sex, maybe think about what you actually want. Are you breaking up to make up?"
If so, you're probably not on a productive relationship break—but you could be.
When you're taking a break, be clear about what the guidelines are
"An effective and functional break involves an agreement with terms and conditions," says relationship expert Susan Winter. "Both parties acknowledge that they're still a couple, still exclusive, but have embarked upon doing the interior work needed to bring their relationship to a better place."
Winter says prior to going on a break, there are four main ground rules to establish first. First of all, whether or not being on a break means you're free to see other people depends on your understood partnership contract. And if your relationship is strictly monogamous and you've made no change to your relationship contract, going on a break certainly shouldn't be regarded as a hall pass to cheat.
True breaks last for the duration of a pre-set amount of time that's agreed upon in advance.
Second, you want to establish what level of contact you want to adhere to during your break. There isn't a right or wrong choice, but if, for example, you anticipate that receiving regular texts from your partner may lead you to feel some level of anxiety, it might be best to err on the side of less contact. You also want to determine what task is to be accomplished during the break. Let's say you feel like your career is getting sidelined in favor of your love life. If that's the case, then you'd be wise to focus on your career goals during this time.
The final joint decision to make, before you part ways, is to set a clear timeline: True breaks, says Winter, last for the duration of a pre-set amount of time that's agreed upon in advance.
So, again, how long should a relationship break be?
Here's the deal: You basically want a break to end before it becomes a full breakup. "A break could be any length of time, but past a point, it becomes a 'breakup,'" says Dr. Steinberg. "If you don't want it to be considered a 'breakup,' then the break shouldn't be more than a season, or three months long."
So what if the seasons change, you reconvene, and you still have doubts about the relationship? You may think that having your emotions on neutral means powering through, but staying stuck in relationship purgatory can be just as grueling as breakup hell (if not infinitely worse). Make no mistake: Breakups can be a nightmare, but so is not giving yourself a real chance to move on.
"If you can't figure out if you want to have the person in your life by then, then that is a significant finding—one that means you aren't right for each other, or that you aren't right for each other during this phase of life," Dr. Steinberg says.
What it doesn't mean, though, is the end of the world. Rather, just try to think of it as the start of a new opportunity.
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