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Does Taking a Break From Your Relationship Postpone the Inevitable?

04/03/2015 10:06 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

For some couples, it makes sense to take a break if they use the time to honestly evaluate their relationship. If a couple assesses their commitment and decides that their marriage is worth saving, a cooling off period can be an effective way to give each other some much needed breathing space. It's highly beneficial for couples to have a timetable for their separation period and to agree upon goals.

When a relationship no longer meets one or both partner's needs, they might agree to take a break with the idea that they'll work on their problems. If a couple is in a long-term marriage, they might believe their investment of time and energy into the relationship is a good reason to try to work things out. One thing is almost certain: If one or both partners don't change, then the relationship will not improve.

For some couples, a separation may be a reasonable alternative to divorce if both partners are willing to work on themselves. A planned marital separation can sometimes save a marriage. According to author Tinatin Japaeridze, what some refer to as one's "need for space from a partner" is a legitimate cry for just that -- space. She posits that both men and women sometimes need quiet time to find what's vital to their relationship.

Based on my clinical experience, marital separation can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can allow a couple time to deal with the issues that are pulling them apart without the emotional intensity that comes with living together. If planned in a thoughtful way, they can agree to meet regularly to work on their issues and air their grievances. Implied in this approach is hope that the relationship might repair and continue if both partners are on the same page. Some refer to this break time as pressing the pause rather than the stop button.

On the other hand, time apart can cause some people to further detach from one another and be disappointed when they reunite and find the same patterns of annoying behaviors exist. This is especially true if one or both partners don't take responsibility for their part in the breakdown of the relationship.

Many experts advise that taking a break only delays the inevitable. For example, Erica, age 36 and the mother of Joshua and Lucy says: "Ryan and I were just too scared to breakup but knew things had gotten too out of hand. We were screaming at each other every day and our kids were suffering."

A break can be a healthy antidote for a couple who commits to working on their relationship with the intention of dealing with the issues that divide them. The phrase "absence makes the heart grow fonder" characterizes couples who don't have extremely high conflict or abuse and are receptive to counseling to work on their communication and connection patterns.

8 tips for taking a break from a relationship:

1. Set boundaries and expectations. This includes ground rules and expectations such as talking about the duration of the break. Discuss whether you can date others. Can you text or call each other daily? Is it okay to have sexual intimacy with each other? Is it okay to stop by each other's residence unannounced?

2. Making an agreement to have regular counseling sessions -- focusing on working on your relationship patterns will greatly enhance your chances for success. Your counselor can help you decide how often you should see each other, if sexual activity is acceptable, etc.

3. Be clear, honest, and vulnerable about your concerns and what the break will look like. Don't worry about pleasing your partner because this is the time to assert your needs.

4. Be cautious and don't assume that your partner wants the same things that you do. Remind yourself that your relationship broke up for a reason and people don't change overnight.

5. Be honest with your children, but don't give them too much information or false hope. If your children are younger than age 12 say something like: "Mommy and daddy need time to figure out how to get along better so we're going to try living apart. We both love you and will make sure that you see a lot of both of us. Kids older than twelve can handle a little more information, such as: "We're not sure if we're going to work things out, but we want to give it a try." Never express negatively about their other parent or bad mouth them.

6. Taking a break does not mean dating other people while you're living apart. It's impossible to build trust -- an essential aspect of intimacy -- if you're romantically or sexually involved with someone else.

7. Take this opportunity to learn more about yourself so you can recharge your batteries and view your relationship with a fresh perspective.

8. Stay positive and connected with your partner. A planned separation needs to be a reprieve from bickering, disagreements, and frequent communication. It's important to stay in touch with your partner in old and new ways such as cards, letters, and/or a weekly dinner out.

If you want to test out whether absence will make your heart grow fonder, give your partner space. Respecting each other's boundaries is crucial to finding out if divorce is a better option than separation. Setting a tentative timetable can help both people evaluate whether taking a break has caused them to feel more optimistic about building a life together.

Truth be told, divorce is a painful experience for adults and children but is sometimes necessary if there is infidelity or abuse -- or if the damage to the relationship is beyond repair so couples are caught in a web of high conflict. While infidelity is a serious threat to a marriage, it doesn't have to lead to divorce if the underlying issues are dealt with.

In closing, consider taking a break as a time to determine whether your relationship is worth saving. It can give you and your partner a chance to respect one another's view of your problems -- even if you feel that they're wrong or shouldn't feel the way they do.

Let's end on Tinatin Japaeridze's words: "Both time and distance have been known to refuel love and longing for one another. Simple but true. Again, absence does make the heart grow fonder. On the other hand, if during this time apart, you realize that you hardly ever miss your partner, if might be a clear sign that you may, sadly, be approaching the end of the long and winding road. Letting go may no longer be an option but instead, your only viable solution."

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