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Expert Dos and Don'ts for When You and Your Partner Need a Relationship Break

How to do separateness right.

As a therapist who supports people in untangling the complex challenges of modern love, I spend most of my days working through relationship anxiety and uncertainty. My clients and I sit with questions like: "Am I with the wrong person?" and "what if there's someone better for me out there?"

These questions can be cyclical and oppressive, feeling nearly impossible to answer. One reason for this is that in a union between two people, there are three sets of needs: yours, mine, and the relationship's. There are times when all three leanings align, however, it is more likely that they will conflict and one or more will be neglected at times. Taking a break in a relationship can be an effective way to ensure your needs get met, either in or out of the relationship.

To make a fire, we must have oxygen. No matter how much fuel or heat the flame has, it dies out if it doesn't have air. The power of breathing room is that it alleviates the pressure to answer the question "are you in or are you out?" and creates space for new possibilities to emerge between the couple or outside of it. The most successful partnerships are not the ones who agree on all matters of the head and heart, but rather those who manage to find the sweet spot between autonomy and solidarity. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. Here, we explore how to do separateness, right.

Identify if you want a break or a breakup.

Relationships are about ruptures and repairs. However, if you're considering asking for a break because you're avoiding taking responsibility for your desire to end the relationship or are simply delaying the inevitable difficult conversation, know that you want to break up and not to take a break.

Make your intentions for taking a break explicit.

Reflect on what is driving your desire for a break. There are typically two reasons; the first is internal (yearning for personal reflection) and the second is external (feeling stifled in the relationship and therefore craving outside connections). Finding your starting point will help you plan for a more fulfilling journey.

Define the terms of your break.

Ensure you and your partner have a shared understanding of what a break means. Will you have sex with other people? Will you communicate with one another sporadically or regularly? Will you engage in couples therapy and meet once a week for this sole purpose? Making sure you're on the same page about what "taking a break" means can prevent a world of hurt and distrust down the road.

Take a social media hiatus while you and your partner are apart.

Seeing what your partner is up to will distract you from getting in touch with your own feelings about the break. Plus, you're setting up an unequal comparison of your internal messy world to their external glossy presentation.

Don't put pressure on the outcome of your break.

Taking a break in a relationship is all about seeing if you feel more like your authentic self with or without your partner. As humans, we learn through experience. Therefore, trying to determine the destination before embarking on the voyage will prevent you from taking all that you can from it.

Identify a check-in time frame.

Typically, effective breaks last a few weeks to a few months. Determine guidelines for checking in (in person) to discuss your findings from the break, as well as to alleviate anxiety about if or when you will hear from your partner during the break.

Experience your feelings without judgment.

The spectrum of emotion you experience while taking a break in a relationship may range from joy and peace to sadness and distress. Pay attention to trends instead of discrete emotions, as you are likely to experience a variety. Remember that feelings are not facts, they are transient and do not need to be acted upon, but they do need to be acknowledged. It takes courage to feel it all; however, if you blunt the negative emotions, you will blunt the positive ones too.

Nurture a "secret garden" during your time apart. 

Many of us seek relationships to avoid being alone. Instead of focusing on closeness, couples may find it beneficial to focus on their separate selves. This break is about you and your private zone. Take inventory of your needs, and identify which ones can be met outside of the relationship. What do you desire? What makes you feel alive? Notice the fear you may experience when asking yourself these big questions, but don't let it deter you from exploring them.

Reconnect with your partner intentionally.

If you decide to continue to experience life in tandem with your partner, you may be inclined to put the break behind you. Instead, consider bringing what you learned about your feelings, wants, and needs during the break into the next iteration of your relationship. There are three key questions to ponder and discuss before reintegration:

  • Do you need more space to be built into the structure of the partnership? Be transparent about your desire to be "alone together" more often.
  • What are two or three needs that must be fulfilled by your partner? Most of us have a laundry list of desires, however, our partners cannot meet them all. Putting this hefty expectation on another person has the propensity to siphon the air out the relationship.
  • What new experiences did I have outside of the relationship that I want to bring into it? Look at the reunion as a chance to relate in a new way. Desire dies at the hands of habit and routine, therefore it is essential to create novelties in long-term relationships.
Lia Love Avellino
Lia Avellino, LCSW, is a relational psychotherapist specializing in women's issues and modern love. Read more
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