The Healing Power Of Taking A Relationship Break

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Thanks to the immortal words of Ross Geller, taking a relationship break carries certain connotations (most of them negative). Agreeing to some time apart to reconfigure what each partner wants from the relationship is routinely branded the kiss of death for romantic endeavours – the precursor to a breakup. What is rarely discussed is the potential for individual growth, healing and a reevaluation of shared goals for the relationship.
Counselling Directory member Sean Tierney cites these as important factors to consider when it comes to discussing a relationship break. "For people who are perhaps unsure about the future of the relationship, what they want, what that future looks like – having the space and time to reflect separately can be healthy and useful for personal insight and to understand who you are, as a person, when not in the relationship." He adds: "It can help us reflect on who we are, it can give us space to consider how important the relationship is, how balanced it is and, indeed, where we'd like to see changes."

We both learned how codependent we had become and the space allowed me to stand on my own two feet for the first time.

A desire for wider reflection led 29-year-old Claire to enter into a break with her partner of three and a half years. Both unhappy in their jobs and the cities they were living in, their solutions took them to different countries, culminating in a two-year break. Although it was a difficult decision, Claire says that the distance made things clearer. "We both learned how codependent we had become and the space allowed me to stand on my own two feet for the first time. We had been together since my second year of university so I hadn’t really experienced being alone as an adult."
This search for independence rings true for 36-year-old Kelly, who went on a break with her now-husband after four years together. "We were in varying degrees of a long-distance relationship and the pressure of my final year at university led to us deciding to spend some time officially apart so we could be selfish and could focus on ourselves," she says. The break only lasted six months but Kelly says it helped the young couple massively. "We could have remained together and slowly let the relationship fall into resentment. Instead, the time apart made us a far better couple in the long run," she says.
While some relationship breaks revolve around life circumstances, others are a response to the relationship going off course. Thirty-year-old Danielle's decision to take a break from her partner of four years came from a heavier place. "I was putting myself under a lot of pressure as I had been incorrectly diagnosed with BPD (borderline personality disorder) and had also been diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and autism," she says. "He was stressed because he was working shifts and never seeing me and I wasn't listening even when we were arguing. It just became so toxic because we both didn't know what to say or how to say it."

He was in a better job and I wasn't suffering from PTSD anymore so the external pressures were off. We clicked and fell in love again and we were able to communicate that.

After deciding that a break was best and starting counselling, Danielle says she saw the experience more clearly. "I learned that communication isn't easy and that if two people are struggling they both need therapy to learn how to communicate better," she says. When it came to reuniting two years down the line, Danielle says that the work they had each put in was evident. "He was in a better job and I wasn't suffering from PTSD anymore so the external pressures were off. We clicked and fell in love again and we were able to communicate that [to each other]."
Although a combination of personal growth and circumstantial changes helped bring them back together, Danielle says she is taking the refreshed relationship one step at a time. "We agreed to start seeing each other but not live together," she says, adding that her partner still has work to do when it comes to communication and trust. They are moving in the right direction though, and Danielle's partner has agreed to see a private therapist after denying requests for couples therapy. "For now we are taking it slow, and that works for us," says Danielle.
Navigating reunification may feel overwhelming but according to Sean, it's useful to focus on how the relationship changes will be implemented and make sure they are communicated clearly and empathetically. "To ensure the changes stay consistent, there could be a two-pronged rationale: communicate how the changes are working, feeling and practically helping and not being too fixated on all the changes staying in place," he says. "Some may feel less important in practice and some may feel vital to maintaining a healthy, balanced relationship."

We were able to set new expectations, appreciate each other more than we had previously and know we were fully committed.

For Claire, reuniting with her partner after two years meant working around logistical changes. Theirs is now a long-distance relationship. "In a way, it’s been an easy transition from our new, independent lives as we’re in different countries. But if anything, being long distance has made our communication better than ever and we set time aside every day for each other," she says. Meanwhile, Kelly says that coming back together after six months apart meant working to implement newfound life lessons. "We were able to set new expectations, appreciate each other more than we had previously and know that we were fully committed," she says.
Like many relationship-related decisions, going on a break isn’t to be underestimated and there is no one-size-fits-all formula for success. This means keeping an open line of communication in regard to the future of the relationship. "You can’t put any timelines on it," says Claire, highlighting the importance of a clear set of guidelines from the start. "Set boundaries for talking and decide early on whether you both feel comfortable staying in touch because we all know seeing your ex 'thriving' on social media can be upsetting."
Kelly agrees, having experienced her share of "mixed emotions and 'friendly' coffees" during her six-month pause. Her advice? Make sure that both parties are clear about why the break is taking place. "This should be based on individual needs rather than focused on any failures you see in your partner," says Kelly. "That way you can spend the time apart making sure you are moving forward personally, rather than expecting – and relying – on the other person to change."
A break has the potential to end in two very different scenarios but for some people, it can be absolutely the correct decision to ensure a healthy future for the relationship. "At the time it was the most difficult and upsetting time in my life because we still loved each other a lot. Looking back on it now, however, it was a positive experience as we’re now both very clear on what we want in this new stage of our relationship," says Claire.
Reflecting on her situation, Kelly feels the same. "When we got back together, the renewed commitment was even more significant than before – especially as we were so young when we met. I think it enabled us to be more honest with each other and communicate better," she says. The only problem they faced was navigating their loved one's opinions. "Some friends and family thought it was a bad idea to get back together, mainly because it rarely works. But we knew that if we did, it wouldn't be a decision taken lightly." Nine years of marriage down the line, it seems to be working out.
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