One of the relationship questions I am often asked is: “what do I do–and what does it mean–when my partner wants to ‘take a break’? “
To the person hearing it, it usually doesn’t sound like a good thing. For the person saying it, it can be a relationship saver–in the right conditions.
“I think we should take a break,” has a much different feel and impact than “I need a couple of days to myself.”
Big difference that is not just words. “Take a break” has become an almost lethal phrase in today’s relationships.
Usually someone suggests taking a break to do one of three things:
- Spare your feelings. “Take a break” sounds so much softer than “This is over.”
- Hedge their bets. “I want to go out and have a look around, but, I can always come back and pick it up again if I don’t find something better.”
- Genuinely step back to reflect and re-assess. “Things are a little rocky for me, and I need to get my thoughts and feelings, wants and needs, together.”
The first two approaches are unfair. They are based on a lack of self-awareness, poor communication skills, and a lack of respect.
The third approach has merit and wisdom, as long as the break is not long. Two weeks is enough.
In a real relationship—not one based on convenience or hooking up—you walk together. You talk together. You figure things out together. You trust and respect each other. You know that, if your partner asked for a break, it would be because s/he had to honestly do some sorting out of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, expectations, or needs. It wouldn’t be because they wanted to spare your feelings, or hedge their bets. It would be because s/he cares about being honest in the process. It would be because s/he is respectful of the relationship. It could be a good thing.
A couple I’m working with are dealing with big issues. All the issues have tremendous impact on their decision and ability to get married. Each issue has the potential to be too much for the relationship: kids, blended families, high-conflict ex-spouse, finances, acting-out teens. They came in this week overwhelmed. It was evident to me that they needed to “take a break.” I suggested they take 72 hours without seeing or talking with each other.
The man quickly tried to negotiate a shorter time. The woman looked at me clearly telegraphing she needed the whole seventy-two hours. Why? Because they have lost sight of the big stuff. They are overwhelmed by the day-to-day, the next crisis that diverts their energies. They agreed to the break and they left with valuable homework. I’ll see them at the end of the seventy-two hours, homework done, and ready to reconvene about the big stuff. They absolutely needed a break. It’s a positive for their relationship!
What if you’re just dating and your date suggests taking a break?
That’s a sign that there’s some re-considering of the relationship going on. If you haven’t been dating more than four to six months, that’s likely the “sparing your feelings” approach. And, yes, it could be completely honest and just what is needed. Only you will know which is true.
Because you have no commitment in a dating relationship, it is a time of enjoying, reflecting, and assessing. This is especially true once the hormones settle down. Yes, it is appropriate to step back and see if the relationship is really for you. In that case, “taking a break” needs to be a designated period of time and no more than two weeks. If you can agree to that, and honor the need to get some perspective, then it is honest.
Unfortunately, many of the people who write to me for advice think that “taking a break” has no deadline. People use it as an opening and an opportunity to look around and see if they can do better. With no designated time, it is just a “spare the feelings and I’m out of here” substitute. It doesn’t work well.
What really saddens me is that I get so many questions from young people–and a few not-so-young people–who ask me the fatal question: “How do I get him or her back?”
Really? I know it is a loss and you’re hurt and upset. But, why would you want to win someone back when they clearly want to be gone? Yes, you cared about them, but, it is more likely that you think getting them back would validate you.That’s the big problem. You have to stop and give your head a shake.
Why would you want someone who doesn’t want you? What’s up with that? People with good self-esteem simply would not do that. They would say good-bye and realize that they dodged a bullet! I recently posted this on Facebook because it really applies: “Loving someone who doesn’t love you is like waiting for a ship at the airport.” Think about it!
What if you’re in a committed relationship–or married–and your partner wants to “take a break?” Something’s gone sideways. This is even more a sign for concern because you don’t take breaks from commitment. It’s like pregnancy: you are or you are not pregnant. You are or you are not committed. There are no breaks. You work things out, and you might take a few days apart to do that.
Sure. Taking time apart to reflect, think, and feel helps you know who you are and what you need and want. No doubt. That doesn’t fall into the “take a break” category in my books. Retreats with purpose strengthen relationships and commitments. That’s what I was asking that couple above to do.
When I’m working with a committed couple and one has asked to “take a break” and is not suggesting a few days apart to collect themselves, I know that person is questioning his or her commitment. Be careful with the “take a break” thing. It can ruin your relationship. If that’s what you’re going for, you’ve started well. All the red flags of trust, respect, honesty, reliability. and safety run up the flagpole and flap in the breeze.
Those words, “taking a break,” often create relationship issues.
They are often taken as code for I’m drifting away, If that’s not what you intend in a relationship, be very, very clear. You don’t want to create relationship problems. Saying them can be the beginning of the end of something good.
If you want to end it, be honest and just do it. Don’t pretend you’re “taking a break!”
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Disclaimer: All advice, insights and suggestions made here are not to be construed as psychological or legal advice. Any actions you undertake as a result of reading any article, book, video, ebook or blog post from Rhoberta Shaler, PhD, are entirely your own. Having worked with individuals and couples for more than twenty-five years, she offers her insights and opinions for your consideration only.