As much as I am loathed to reference the already wildly over-referenced “WE WERE ON A BREAK” Friends episode, it’s a damn good example of when taking a break didn’t really work out. Why?
Well, Ross and Rachel decided to take an undefined break from their relationship and Ross immediately boned someone else.
Now, this probably would have been fine if they’d set clear boundaries and rules as to what their “break” entailed.
They, however, did not. Which led to a whole load of bullshit and issues we were forced to watch them unpick for seven long seasons.
So when should you take a break from your relationship? How can you make sure it is actually useful rather than destructive? And what rules should you have in place? I spoke to Simone Bose, a relationship therapist and counsellor at Relate.
When to take a break
“Some of the clients I see are genuinely stuck at an impasse, and their arguments are so complicated and emotional that they’re really entrenched in it,” Simone tells me. “They actually do want to save their relationship but feel so lost by it. They love their partner but their patterns are so negative they don’t know what else to do expect have a break.” This, Simone says, would be a situation in which a break could be helpful.
And if you’re noticing you’re focusing on your partner and not seeing your friends as much, or giving less time to your own interests, a break may be the answer. “Sometimes people become very enmeshed in a relationship and lose their sense of self and judgement. They lose their balance in life, and it’s about rebalancing,” she adds. “You might even lose self-esteem too and aren’t sure of who you are because you’ve taken on so much of the other person.”
As long as both partners are clear on the logistics of how the break is going to go down, Simone says she believes it’s a healthy way to deal with these issues.
“Usually, getting that space gives them time to reflect separately helps,” she explains. “If the couple doesn’t get that, they start arguing again because they haven’t had time to heal. To get through it, they have to untangle all the negative patterns and understand where they’re coming from.” And a break – done right – should do just that.
Telling your partner you want a break
Don’t just go in there all Ross and Rachel style and have a screaming row. “You should be very clear that it’s not because you don’t love the person, but that you need this space to work on yourself,” Simone says. “Do it with love and make that person feel assured that you love them. Explain you just want to start seeing your friends a little bit more, or go and do some activities independently, or see your family more.”
Set the rules
“Both partners have to have their needs met in this, and the rules need to be clear,” she says. “You always find in a couple there’s one partner that has a more anxious attachment style who needs more physical contact and to know things are OK. Then there’s the ‘avoidant’ partner who’s usually more cut off and distant in times of conflict. This is why you need to be on the same page, to make sure you’re both getting what you need.”
If the true aim of taking a break is to work things out and ultimately stay together, Simone recommends staying in contact over the course of the separation. “Otherwise you’re pushing each other away,” she says. “Having zero contact is not a good thing if you’re trying to make your relationship work.”
Agree on how often you’re going to talk, via which method of communication, and stick to it. Simone adds, “One person, if their attachment style is more anxious, might need to have a phone call a certain number of times a week. And the other person needs to try and be considerate of that, even if they themselves need space.”
Set a time period
It’s hard to know what a useful period of time will be, as it will differ from couple to couple. As a general rule, three months works Simone says. “I wouldn’t say a year or anything like that, start off with three months to see how it goes. If it gets beyond six months then you’ve got to question what’s happening there.
“Set the amount of time that suits both of you, but enough to give you space so you are able to repair those negative patterns. When you’re always together you’re not able to have that space to think and appreciate what you’re missing.”
Sleeping with other people
À la Friends, if you’re in a monogamous relationship it’s also very wise to be clear about whether you’re going to be getting with other people while separated.
“You have to both be on the same page about that,” she says. “If I had clients that were both saying they wanted to see what else was out there, and they were quite sexually experimental anyway or quite open in that way, I would say, ‘OK if that’s what seems right for both of you, and you agree, fine’.
“But if one partner wants to sleep with other people and the other feels uncomfortable, I’d get them to think about what their motivations are, and the pain they could cause the other person in doing that. I’d ask, ‘What are you actually trying to do in this relationship? Are you being honest here?’ Sometimes people aren’t necessarily honest with themselves about what they really want.”
What to do next
Remember that in the time you spend apart, it really is meant to be about reflecting on how you feel when you’re not with your partner. Simone also recommends counselling as a way to try and heal. “It will help the conversations be really constructive when you do meet each other or have contact,” she says.
While she admits that what was meant to be a temporary break can result in a proper break up for some couples, it’s often because one of them secretly wanted to end it in the first place.
“Usually it’s when they’ve used the separation as an ‘out’,” she says. “That’s why you should always try and be as honest as possible early on, so it doesn’t hurt someone so much by stretching it out.”