Wifey’s & Gentlemen,
Last week, I gave you a short and simple post that (I hope) was able to make you laugh and remind you to stop trying to compare your relationship to other couples! But what happens when we discover that we aren’t actually happy? Worse, what happens when we feel blind-sided by the knowledge that our partner might not be happy with us?
I know I’ve written other posts about how to survive a break up (& believe me, there will be more) but this week, I’ve been wondering about the true difference between a break up and taking a break. Once again, wifeys, I am forced to admit that I am crawling into foreign territory! While I’ve been through my share of pretty heart-wrenching break ups, I have never formally taken a “break” from a relationship before (does continually having emotionally detrimental sex with an ex count? No? Didn’t think so). 😉
I wasn’t surprised to learn that, despite my lack of “first hand” knowledge, there are so many opinions (professional or otherwise) that have been formed on the subject! Not only do we all have words of wisdom about what it means to be “on a break” but we also have theories, rationales, and excuses for why we do it and what behaviors are acceptable vs nonnegotiable.
So, let’s dive in!
Why Do Couples ‘Take A Break?’
If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it 10,000 more times: relationships are hard! There are countless, unique reasons why a couple begins to experience hardships and the very things that used to fuse them together begin tearing them apart. Going on a break is what some couples try to use as a ‘stop-gap’ between deciding if they should continue to stay together/work things out or if they should finally decide to call it quits. Though the reasons can often vary, it is the hope of both persons involved that their time apart will offer some much needed clarity about problems existing in the relationship and their willingness to work to resolve them.
If you’re anything like me (& lord help you if you are) you are likely asking yourself a million follow up questions:
Ms. Renai, how long is this break supposed to last?
How is anything resolved by being apart?
What kind of problems motivate someone to not want to be with their partner but not want to lose them at the time same?
How do I know if a ‘break’ is right for us?
Don’t worry wifeys, all of those questions are perfectly valid and exactly what you should be asking yourself if you are going to consider using this method. Moreover, the good doctors in the world of marriage and family therapy agree that these questions, in addition to setting your own unique terms and limitations, can sometimes bring understanding and positivity to the notion of a “break”.
When it comes to timing there is no ‘one size fits all’ standard. Some couples choose to set time limits (1 month, 1 week, 6 months, etc…) while others feel as though they will know when enough time has passed. Dr. Jennifer Baxt, DMFT writes:
Most often, couples who go on a break from each other will agree on certain terms and mutually decide on how long they would like to be out of contact for. It could be for a couple weeks, or even a couple months; the point is to get some quiet time from the other person and see if there is anything about the relationship or the person that each miss about the other. By being away from each other, both can learn what they are missing, or not missing from the relationship. By the end of their break term, they come together and decide whether they would like to continue together, or apart.
Okay, wifeys, there you have it! That seems fair and simple enough, right?
Is it ever really that simple? In a perfect world, two people in love might take a break to do everything that Dr. Baxt has mentioned. They spend time focusing on themselves, keeping out of contact, and revamping their lives around what is ultimately best for them. Tragically, the world, and most of the humans in it, are anything but perfect! There are many external factors and implications that go into a ‘break’ that not even the best intentions can foresee.
While we always hope that our partners have our best interest at heart (and vice versa, of course), the sometimes all-to-obvious truth is that while many people on breaks do what they can to stay focused on their future with their partners, distraction can easily take you or your loved one down a complicated road for which neither of you is prepared.
A friend of mine recently stated that, in her experience, a “break” and a “break up” were essentially the same thing; two people who can’t make it work & really want to do their own thing, usually only coming back together when they are feeling ‘desperate’ or ‘lonely’. Perhaps this is the ‘Ross & Rachel’ effect that she and several others have referred to when thinking about a ‘break’?
In a time when you and your partner are trying to take a mature and critical step in your relationship, a time when there should be no ambiguity or false expectations, how sure can we be that outside people/influences won’t alter the intentions?
I guess the bigger question is this: Is “hooking up” while on a break considered cheating? I suppose it depends on the terms. If you are on the kind of break where you and your partner have decided not to see other people and you do it anyway, you’re cheating (go take a look at some of my previous posts for some insight on the subject)! However, at times, the lines of a break can be a little more blurred and may have more to do with your own moral compass held up and venn-diagrammed (shout out to 3rd grade!) against that of your partner’s.
Dr. Cross, a PhD and consultant for magazines like Men’s Health and AskMen states that there is a huge negative stigma attached to ‘taking a break’ largely and realistically because men (in the context of the article, but this certainly applies to women as well) can sometimes interpret a “break” as a free pass to do anything they want! A break, though not intended to be a means of cheating and hurting your partner can be woefully misunderstood as a chance to ‘wild out’ without consequences, and we all know there is a long list of consequences that reach far beyond the allure of anonymous sex with a bar stranger or unlimited night’s out with your friends.
Still, I think that the idea of “cheating” is a pretty obvious fear when trying to decide if you’d like to take a break. What about the other, more subtle, outside factors?
In my own observation, I have noticed that almost 45% of the couples I have spoken with choose to ‘take a break’ because they are secretly hoping their partners will realize how tough life is without them. While absence can make the heart grow fonder, one man, an old acquaintance of mine, let’s call him “Paul”, shared his story with me. Paul said that when he and his boyfriend decided to take a break, he’d hoped that it would help his lover develop a deeper appreciation of the way Paul cared for him. Paul wanted his partner to feel the loss and sit with it for no less than 3 months, hoping it would drive the point home and whip his partner into shape. In many ways, Paul got exactly what he wanted. His partner’s life was much more chaotic and disorganized without him around to pick up the pieces. However, instead of waiting on Paul to return, his partner learned ways to rely on himself. At the end of the break, Paul’s partner didn’t want to get back together. He found that their relationship, for him, stemmed from deeper feelings of helplessness and insecurity; a discovery that would not have happened if not for the break. Paul’s partner thought it would be best to move forward on his own and find a partner that was his equal. Paul, though happy for his now ex-lover, was left to recover from a devastating break up that he felt he could have prevented.
Please, don’t get me wrong! This isn’t meant to be a cautionary tale! However, I think that sometimes couples who are taking a break can fail to realize that there is a good chance they’ll get more than what they bargained for, even when it was unintentional. How many times have we heard this type of story before? One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and during that break, you must have realistic expectations that your partner might enjoy the independence more than either of you thought. Moreover, you must have the realistic expectation that you yourself might not want to go back once the break is over, and you will need to be prepared to strap into full ‘break up’ mode if and when the time comes.
While all of these considerations are sad and depressing, it really isn’t all bad news! Taking a break while in a relationship can actually bring the two of you closer together again. When your partner has time to evaluate his/her priorities in life, he/she could come towards the realization that your relationship is even better than he/she thought,& you both can bounce back with a newly confirmed sense of commitment.
Need more professional opinions? Well…
Dr. Phil (who again I will repeat is an ACTUAL CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST WHO PRACTICED THERAPY OUTSIDE OF THE CELEBRITY TABLOID JOURNALISM LIMELIGHT FOR MANY YEARS!!) Yes, I was yelling that ;-), suggests that if couples are going to choose to take a break in their relationship, having a strategy is the absolute BEST option for future success. If you’ve ever seen that famously funny episode of Friends, ‘Ross and Rachel’ decide to take a break without setting out the terms! With no thought or consideration, Ross had one idea of what a ‘break’ meant in his mind while Rachel had another.
Though I cannot tell you guys what to do, I’m sure going to try! Please wifeys, please, if you can help it, do not go into a ‘break’ without having a plan. Furthermore, do not make a plan and then keep it to yourself! Talk it out! Have a strategy! & go into the situation with as much information as you possibly can.
Keeping that in mind, I have developed a tiny list of what I think might be a good starting point for making the best of your situation and taking your ‘break’ as seriously as possible.
Communicate clearly about the reason for your ‘break’ and the goals that you both want to accomplish during the break.
Taking a break does NOT have to be a foreshadowing of a break up. Both parties need to be on board with the solution and (please hear me) must clearly understand the reason why the break is taking place! Wifeys if you want to take a break from your lover because you’re not sure he’s ready for a long term commitment, great! But does he know that? Or does he think that you’re mad because you caught him watching porn? If you want to take a break from your partner because you have been feeling restless and want to spend some time connecting to yourself, awesome! But does she know that? Or does she think that you just want to see (sex) other people? Talk clearly and openly about why each of you is agreeing on the break and then decide what you’d like to get out of it! Taking a break without setting goals of having a clear ‘ideal’ in mind is like buying all of the ingredients for a cake and then leaving them in the kitchen, hoping they will bake themselves (hint: they won’t).
Set terms, conditions, and boundaries that make you BOTH comfortable.
Though I do not recommend it unless you are 100% confident in your love for each other and okay with the consequences, if you both are okay dating other people while on your break, say so. If one of you is okay, but the other is not, keep negotiating until you have found something that both of you can live with! Please, please, please, do NOT say you are okay with something if you aren’t. Please, please, please, do NOT agree to take a break for 3 months when you actually only wanted 3 weeks! Please, please, please, do NOT agree to keep your ‘break’ on the DL and then start an open-forum Facebook group that provides all the details!
Haha, all jokes & exaggeration aside, having boundaries is what makes any type of good relationship work. No one wants a friend, family member, or lover who constantly makes them feel uncomfortable or doesn’t respect their boundaries. Setting the stipulations before a break gives everyone a clear picture of what to expect and when.
Know the outcomes before finalizing the agreement
I know this might sound like a business contact, and in many ways, it is! Before you emotionally sign your name on anything, make sure you know exactly what can happen as a result of your actions. Are you prepared to lose your partner? Is he/she prepared to lose you? Are you both actually willing to do the work it takes to resolve your issues if you aren’t ready to let it go? Are you okay if your partner meets someone else? Do you understand that there is a chance that as a direct result of this break, more issues might actually arise? Check in with yourself before you say “yes” and sit with those realities for a while.
Design a “reconnection” plan
Just as you should be prepared for the worst, you should also be prepared for the best! You opted to take a break for a reason and hopefully that reason was because you want to come back to your relationship with a new outlook. When the break is over and you know you want to get back together, be prepared to talk about how you achieved your goals, what you discovered about yourself/your partner, and what you are prepared to do to make things continue to get better from there. If your hiatus was the result of a looming issue that still needs a concrete solution, figure out what you both are willing to do to find answers (counseling, self-help books, group activities, next steps). If your break was meant to teach each other about appreciation or experiment with what life is like without each other, determine your likes and dislikes from the experiment and understand how you will incorporate what you learned in your renewed situation.
Remember that Sometimes a Break is the WRONG choice
For some of you, there may come a time when you sit down to discuss the terms of a ‘break’ and your partner suddenly decides he doesn’t want to do it. Please try to remember that if you are forcing your partner to take a break (or if they are forcing you) that a break is not the answer. If one party wants time away and the other truly doesn’t then I hate to tell you this…but it might be time for a different conversation. Look at it this way, if you are telling someone you need some space and they do not share the same view, which has to be hurtful enough, you are now backhanding that 1st emotional bitch slap with a forced separation.
I’m not always comfortable giving direct advice, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that, in some ways (no matter how small) it is emotionally manipulative and wrong to do this. Bottom line, if you want a break and your partner doesn’t think it’s necessary, you owe it to them to be an adult and make the right choice: break up, or try to work it out together! The same goes for any wifeys out there whose partners are forcing them into a ‘break’. If that isn’t what you want, please let your partner know and find the strength to walk away if they are not listening to your needs.
Wifeys & gents, making the decision to take a break can be just as tough, if not tougher than making the decision to break up.
Now is the time to clarify your needs and really hear the needs of your partner. Taking a break takes a specific level of patience, humility, strength, and openness that not everyone is willing to grapple with when it comes to their relationship.
Please know, I am in NO WAY advocating that ‘breaks’ offer the best solution to relationship problems and, if I am being honest, as a future therapist, while I will ALWAYS support my clients’ wishes, this is not a direction I would steer many couples into unless we’ve exhausted a long list of other alternatives. This is not because I think breaks are silly or desperate or wrong, but because I believe that if you truly love someone and are committed to them the risks of a break can outweigh the benefits.
If you leave this long post with nothing else, please remember that cheating is not the ONLY thing you need to be mindful of during a break. Your partner has other people in his/her life that he/she will listen to and be influenced by. Your partner has hobbies and interest that he/she can and (likely) will begin to pursue in your absence. While this could be a wonderful and healing step in bringing you closer together, you must consider that fact that by ‘taking a break’ you are choosing to stall the process of growing WITH your partner instead of growing apart.
Until next week,
Carry on Wifeys!
Ps. Did you guys see/hear about what happened on Grey’s Anatomy last night?! I only watched the 1st season and that ‘ish’ still made me tear up! Damn Shonda…damn. 😦