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Sex + Relationships

“We’re Just On a Break”: What It Means, When to Do It & If It’ll Work

As we all know, relationships aren’t always cut and dry. Sometimes, couples need time apart to reconsider the relationship. However, this time apart does not mean they are breaking up, it means they are ‘taking a break.’ That clarifies it, right? The term ‘taking a break’ is probably purposely ambiguous – it can mean whatever you want it to mean in terms of your own relationship. So when do you take a break instead of break up? Does anyone ever take a break and then continue with a successful relationship? With the help of relationship coach and psychotherapist, Toni Coleman, LCSW, CMC, we are answering these tricky questions!

Define Taking a Break

Since the term is so ambiguous, I polled a few college students from across the country to hear what they believe is the definition of taking a break:
“It means that a couple has taken time off, but they will probably get back together in a few weeks.” – Claire, University of Missouri
“I think it means that the couple is essentially broken up, but one person is still holding on so they keep the label for a little while to make it easier.” – Will, University of Michigan
“I just think it’s an excuse to hook up with other people, but still have a relationship as a backup plan.” – Edgar, Fashion Institute of Technology
“It means that one person needs to explore his/her options, whether it be through hooking up with other people, finding a new hobby, focusing on his/herself. Whatever it is, they can’t do it while in a relationship, so they need some time.” – Monica, Washington University 
Clearly, the meaning of taking a break varies from couple to couple, and there is no one “true” definition. “Taking a break means agreeing that you will not see each other for a specified, or even unspecified, period of time,” says Coleman. “Usually this includes an agreement that both are okay with the other seeing other people. Sometimes it is not stated, but one or both individuals have this intent and assume it is understood.”

When Do You Take a Break?

“In general, taking a break should not be used unless one or both individuals have real doubts, or there is an issue that points to a basic problem or potential problem that taking a break could actually help to clarify and offer information to help them decide their rightness or wrongness for one another,” says Coleman. While there is no hard and fast rule for when a couple should take a break, there are a few situations that merit taking time off from your relationship.
You’ve Only Been With Each Other, and You’re Considering Marriage

Even though we’re young, there are couples who are talking about marriage. If you’ve been with your boyfriend for years, and have only been with him, it might be worth it to consider taking a break. “My boyfriend and I took a break to make sure that we were the ‘one’ for each other,” says Hannah, a student at the University of San Diego. “I wanted to see other people so I could be sure that my relationship with my boyfriend was everything I thought it was. It worked for us – we ended up back together after a few months of seeing other people who were wrong for us.”
There Was Infidelity
Even in the most committed relationships, mistakes happen. If you or your boyfriend cheats, it could be time to take a break to reevaluate what you want from the relationship. Cheating is a breach of trust, and it will take time to rebuild that. You need to make sure that you are willing to forgive, and you could benefit from some time apart from your boyfriend to make that decision.
“If a break is agreed upon after infidelity, it is often because there is insecurity about the health and potential for the relationship, and taking a break will help both people to decide if they are happier with or without one another,” says Coleman. “Often, one is and one is not and taking a break will highlight this.”

You’ll Be Apart For An Extended Period of Time
There are tons of amazing opportunities that pop up during college, and some of these require an extended period of time apart from your boyfriend. Whether it be studying abroad, an internship in another city, a service trip, etc., extended time apart puts a huge strain on not only your relationship, but also on each of you as individuals. It might be a good time to take a break if only to fully take advantage of whatever you are doing during that time apart.
“If both agree that dating long distance won’t work well for them, then taking a break and seeing how they feel on their own, which often includes dating others, can be a way to test the strength of their connection and desire to make the relationship work, in spite of some temporary distance,” says Coleman.
You’re Interested in Someone Else
While this probably doesn’t bode well for your relationship overall, there are times when you develop small crushes on guys who aren’t your boyfriend. “I had been spending a lot of time with a guy in my class, and I started to really like him,” says Monica. “Nothing happened, but I decided to take a break from my boyfriend so that I could figure out why I was interested in other guys because that wasn’t fair to me, my boyfriend, or our relationship. In the end, I didn’t end up with the new guy, but the break showed me that I was okay without my boyfriend, so we officially ended things, too.”

Personal Crisis
There are times when things happen that are completely out of your control, like a death in the family, a personal trauma, an academic mishap, etc. During these crises, it may be worthwhile to spend time apart from your boyfriend to focus on your own life. Relationships require hard work and dedication, and your time may be better spent on yourself during a personal crisis.

Then What? 
It can be tough to approach taking a break with your partner since it tends to have a negative connotation. “Honesty is very important,” says Coleman. “While it’s not always necessary to share every small negative thought, it is important to be clear about what you believe the issue is and why you are proposing taking a break. Openness in discussing how this break will work is important. This allows the partner to decide what they really want and can handle.”
It’s important that you and your boyfriend define what taking a break will mean for you. “The terms need to be spelled out, even though they may not be completely followed,” says Coleman. “Certain things should be discussed and agreed upon if possible.” Here are a few questions you should ask:

  • Are we free to date other people?
  • Are we free to hook up with other people?
  • Are there limits on how far we can go sexually with other people?
  • How long will our break last?
  • Will we talk during our break?
  • When will we reevaluate what we want?
  • Why are we doing this?
  • What is your expectation for me, for you, and for our relationship?

“Men and women do not necessarily see taking a break differently,” says Coleman. “Men may be guiltier of suggesting a break when they really want out, and women have great instincts about these things. Therefore, if a guy proposes taking a break, a woman often hears this as his saying he wants to break up. I think this is true most of the time. However, women are guilty of this as well, but are more likely to tell their partner that they are unhappy and considering ending the relationship.”
Coleman explains that taking a break can be a positive thing. It allows you to focus on yourself, evaluate your honest feelings about the relationship, and to date others if you meet someone you have an attraction to. “If they go through the process and come out knowing they want to be together, they will be stronger for it,” says Coleman.
However, Coleman also cautions that taking a break is sometimes used as a way to avoid being honest with someone or is entered into with falsely stated intentions. “In my experience, taking a break usually ends in a breakup,” says Coleman. “People take breaks and meet someone more compatible with them or someone they develop strong feelings for. A space is created and someone new comes along and fills it. I always caution couples about this when they are considering a break.” Yet, Coleman counters that as long as the partners are open and honest and have a clear goal for taking a break, it can be a positive thing.
You can continue a successful relationship after taking a break just as long as you honored your word, you truly evaluated what you wanted from the relationship, and you are ready to move forward as a couple with a renewed sense of commitment. Good luck, collegiettes!
College students from across the country
Toni Coleman, relationship coach and psychotherapist, LCSW, CMC

Allie Duncan is a senior, class of 2013, in the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. She is specializing in Strategic Communication within the Journalism department, while also pursuing a Textile and Apparel Management minor. In addition to writing for Her Campus, Allie is a member of Kappa Delta sorority - Epsilon Iota chapter, the Publicity Director for Her Campus Mizzou, a Campus Representative/Intern for Akira Chicago, a Contributing Writer for Chicago-Scene magazine and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. She spent the 2012 summer as an intern at Tory Burch, and the 2011 summer as an intern at Vogue magazine. A Chicago native, Allie enjoys shopping, watching reality television, cupcakes, expensive shoes and reading magazines. She hopes to eventually land a job in fashion public relations while living in New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago.
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