“Maybe We Should Take A Break… ”

Ouch! Those words can startle even the most confident dater… here’s what to do if your sweetie says ‘em.

By Tracie Potochnik

“I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think I need a break.” When you’ve been dating someone special and the romantic future had been looking so rosy, these are words you probably dread hearing or saying. But taking a break — the midland between struggling in a relationship that isn’t working and calling it quits — can sometimes provide the distance that you need to make your
Usually, it means your partner is interested in someone else.
relationship stronger. Read on to learn when a break might be in order, how you can make the most out of it, and when it’s time to just break up.

Break, not broke
The most common reason for a break, unfortunately, is a predictable one. “Usually one partner wants to have sex with somebody else — either multiple somebody elses or one particular somebody else — but still isn’t in any way eager to let go of the relationship,” says Marny Hall, Ph.D., San Francisco Bay Area psychotherapist and author of The Lesbian Love Companion. Dr. Hall says this is often connected to an autonomy imbalance in the relationship, where one person is expressing all the emotional intimacy and the other is more independent and needs the relationship less. If both partners are willing to do the work, a break can provide time for a healthy rebalancing. Each person gets to consider and reconfigure his or her role.

In other cases there might not be somebody else, but you and your partner just aren’t getting along. Joe Kort, LMSW, a clinical social worker practicing in Royal Oak, MI and author of Ten Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Find Real Love, says, “If the conflict is so difficult and things are to the point where being together is more hurtful than helpful, couples often decide to take a break.” And while each partner might be tempted to place blame for the conflict on the other person, things are usually more complicated. As Kort says, “The call is coming from inside the house. I tell clients to follow their emotions into the past.” Whether it’s working through issues from your childhood or recognizing recurring relationship patterns, a break can provide time for one or both parties to work through individual issues that are sabotaging the relationship. (Of course, there is always the option to end things right after the word “break” is uttered. If one of you can’t stomach the idea of time apart — and the freedom that entails — then know that you can say no. It may be best to end things sooner rather than attempting a break.)

Rules and regulations
So let’s say both of you (one of you perhaps rather reluctantly) decide to take a break: Certain issues will require negotiation. Dr. Hall recommends setting a time limit for the break, usually of around three months. “The goal is to have the person who wants autonomy miss the other one, to bring out that intimacy yearning. The other partner needs to have enough time so she can think of herself as autonomous, and have her own life. You can’t do that in a weekend or two weeks.” Partners also have to work out whether they will be in contact and how often. Dr. Hall recommends having no contact aside from a possible monthly therapy session. However, Kort says that if you are trying to resolve conflict with your partner, safe communication — in which each person takes responsibility for his or her part in the relationship’s problems — can be helpful.

There’s also the question of seeing other people. If this is one of the motivators for the break, it’s usually non-negotiable. Dr. Hall says, “It would be like saying, you can go into the candy store, but you don’t get to taste any of the candy. The one who wants to leave won’t go for it.” The breakee can, however, drive a hard bargain on some of the specifics—Dr. Hall has had clients who agreed to conditions like “no pet names” and “no overnights.” But if your break is about resolving conflict, Kort says that seeing other people is risky. “The power struggle with a current partner can never compete with romantic love with a new partner. People often think things are better with the new boyfriend or girlfriend, when inevitably things will usually go the same way.”

How to deal during the cool-off time
A break can be trying for both the breaker and the breakee. The breaker usually feels intense guilt and suffering, often because of the pain he or she is inflicting on the partner. “Telling my girlfriend that I wanted a break was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Shelley Hughes, 32, from Boston. “I felt like such a selfish, horrible person to know that someone I loved was hurting, and it was my fault.” The breakee, meanwhile, is facing
“I had to break things off for good. It was the only way to move on.”
feelings of grief, loss, and abandonment. For this person, seeking solace in the arms of caring friends is key. Dr. Hall says to choose these people wisely, adding, “Often, parents are not good, especially if you’re gay. They may be altogether ambivalent and didn’t want you with that person in the first place.” Kort advises not to try to fight the break, as this will only make your partner want it more.

In situations where the desire to see other people has motivated the break, a key move for the breakee is a difficult one: going out on the town. Dr. Hall says, “It’s really a matter of will and determination to force oneself into social scenes where one can be attractive to somebody else. [Often, the breakee] stays at home and counts the days and can’t summon up the energy or the self-esteem to do the work. That’s the problem. They’re the key people, even though they don’t see that in this dynamic. They’re waiting for the other one to make up his or her mind, which is absolutely the wrong technique and strategy.” Once you realize what a catch you are, your partner might do the same.

Should I stay or should I go?
Eventually a couple will have to decide whether they’re in or they’re out, and sometimes breaking up for good is indeed the answer. If one or both partners don’t miss the other person when they’re apart, that’s usually a sign that the end is nigh. If the breakee is having an especially hard time, it might be time for him or her to take the reins. “If you’re miserable and counting the days and aren’t able to have a good time,” says Dr. Hall, “You need to have a separation that’s formal to restart your life. You should break up quickly.” Daniel Miller, 29, from Chicago, agrees. “I thought I could handle a break, but I couldn’t. As soon as I found out that my partner was seeing someone else, I flipped. I used the only power I had, which was to break things off for good. It was the only way I could move on.”

In the happy event that you end up back together, your work usually isn’t over. Beware of repeating the same cycles that caused the break in the first place. Typically, something needs to have changed for things to really work. “When a couple re-commits,” says Kort, “the struggle will be there all over again, if not worse, unless they understand what the conflict is really all about.” Dr. Hall also recommends structuring in “micro-breaks” with your partner — say, weekends away with your friends — to maintain your autonomy. “Own your partings,” she says, “not just your forever-after stories.” And, finally, if you do end up back together with your amour, avoid the temptation for cross-examination, especially when it comes to the subject of other lovers. Punishing the other person for his or her behavior during a break will only lead to further bad feelings between the two of you.

If you and the person you’re seeing do take a break, the reward can be growing together into a better, stronger place… just go in with your eyes wide open to the very real risks that are there, too.

Tracie Potochnik is a writer living in Providence, RI.
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