By: Debby Gullery/ YourTango.com
Like most things, it’s complicated.
All long-term relationships and marriages have their challenges.
People change. Circumstances change. Someone loses a job or gets sick, or the need for a big move comes up.
Change is inevitable, and every change brings with it opportunities for growth along with challenges to face. Each new challenge necessitates re-negotiation and recalibration in a relationship if it’s going to thrive. Even the most successful, healthy relationships require constant adjustment.
Sometimes, however, a couple reaches an impasse — a time in their relationship or marriage where they feel stuck and unsure of how to proceed. Sometimes things get so toxic and unhealthy that both partners feel emotionally overwhelmed.
At a crossroads like this, couples will often consider taking a break from each other and the relationship.
As a relationship coach, people often ask me if this a good idea or not. My response is always the same — proceed with caution.
When things are particularly strained and painful, taking a break can seem like the smartest and easiest thing to do, but it rarely is.
Taking a break can actually be detrimental to your relationship for at least the following reasons:
- Feelings fade: When a couple is apart, it’s easy for the emotional connection between them to dissipate. Especially if your partner is causing you great anguish. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes.
- When you stop investing, things go south: Couples navigating long-distance relationships understand this concept well and quickly discover that they need to work extra hard to keep the connection between them strong. Relationships need constant investment. When we don’t see or interact with each other often enough, things usually go south.
- Relief trumps effort: The relief people feel when taking a break can easily turn into running away from the challenge, instead of working on themselves and the situation.
The only way to prevent these pitfalls is to plan the break carefully. Taking a break without a well-thought out structure in place for what will happen during that break, usually proves disastrous. Rather than a step towards healing, it most often becomes the first step towards ending the relationship.
Before you and your partner consider taking a break, ask yourselves this question: ‘What are we trying to accomplish by taking a break?’
If you can’t answer this question clearly, don’t do it!
If you can answer it satisfactorily, you will have set the tone for how helpful or not helpful taking a break might be.
Just remember that there is an implicit expectation that taking a break means you plan to get back together at some pre-determined time in the near future
Here are seven tips on how to make taking a break in a relationship useful and productive for both of you:
1. Make sure you both agree that taking a break is a good idea
Your success has a lot to do with whether or not a couple has both agreed to take a break. When you’re in agreement, it’s easier to make goals and stick to them.
If one partner is pushing for a break, and the other one isn’t into it, that is often a clue that one person is already leaning out of the relationship.
2. Create structure for the break
You need to create a well-thought out and mutually agreeable structure for the temporary separation.
If you live together, details like where will each of you live and who will pay the bills need to be discussed and decided on before the separation begins.
It can be helpful to work with a therapist, mediator or coach who can help you set up a structure like this.
3. Decide on a specific time frame
Have a clear time frame about when you’ll start and end the time out.
Don’t start the time apart and then ‘see how it goes’. That will always go south.
4. Develop mutually agreed upon rules for communicating with one another
Rules of conduct have to be really clear from the beginning.
Will you communicate with each other during the time apart? If so, how often and in what ways?
This needs to be decided at the outset because you or your partner will likely change your minds about this several times during the break.
5. If you have children together, be sure to account for their needs
If you have children together, it is crucial to consider how the separation will impact them.
Their emotional security is your responsibility and first priority.
6. Have clear rules of conduct
Decide up front what is allowed and not allowed during the break. Your expectations need to be clearly expressed and negotiated, especially when it comes to seeing other people.
Vagueness in this area can be catastrophic.
7. Discuss what each of you will be working on during the break
Without clear goals and a structure to accomplish them, most of us tend to go to the lowest common denominator. To counteract that, it’s important to clarify your goals, both as individuals and as a couple, and exactly what you will be working on during the break.
Separation can be complicated and tricky, and working on your relationship while you continue to live together will almost always bring better results.
But in situations where temporary separation really seems like the best course of action, when there is abuse or the threat of abuse, or when one or both partners are depressed or addicted, for example, a structured break can be especially beneficial.
Couples will always stand a much better chance for healing and success with careful planning and professional support.
Debby Gullery is a relationship coach who teaches simple strategies people can begin using immediately to improve their most important relationships. She is the author of Small Steps To Bigger Love, a practical and easy-to-use book for couples seeking to be more intentional and loving. Visit her website for more.