Could my relationship break be temporary and successful?
April 20, 2011 12:25 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend have decided to go 'on a break'. I'm interested in hearing about how others have fared in such an arrangement.

We've been together just over four years, which have been amazing. We get on like a house on fire, are best friends and physically intimate, and have been operating almost since the very start on the assumption that we'd be together forever.

Therein, I think lies the problem. We got together at eighteen, and neither of us had any experience of relationships or sex. We had originally planned to delay our relationship for a while and see other people, but in the end the draw was too strong and we quickly turned into a fully fledged couple. Although we’ve never lived together (other than holidays) we’ve always spent lots of time together, and frequently spend the night together at hers or mine.

For the last few months, things had felt a little unsettled: I’m due to be taking a job internationally for about a year, and she was the subject of a serious crush by a co-worker. I think both of these things have made us (and particularly her) think more explicitly about our future and our basis. My rationale has been that we shouldn’t overthink the relationship and we’re together because we’re fundamentally happy on a day-to-day basis. It felt like we’d worked through the issues and everything was back to normal.

Yesterday though, she had a bit of a panic attack: she can’t stop thinking about the fact that we’re effectively ‘settled’, and she feels like she needs to be young and free, and that we should go on a break (we’d previously discussed this when discussing our long term future). This was obviously a shock for me, but I reacted positively and sympathetically and we had a great, long, honest conversation about it. She tells me that she doesn’t want to break up, that she loves me deeply, and that she has no desire to be emotionally/sexually involved with somebody else. I think she just needs to have the option of doing so: to feel freedom, and to assess our relationship from afar.

So we discussed specifics: a six month break, we’d talk weekly and stay honest about feelings for others, but otherwise enjoy total freedom to have a fling or a random hookup without the need to constantly inform. While I’m sad about the entire situation, I’m hopeful that we could reunite as a stronger couple in time. (I’m also very aware of the fact that there’s a significant chance of permanent break-up).

Has anybody here successfully navigated such a break? Or could there be a better solution to our issues with long-term commitment and freedom?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I have never personally known any relationship to recover in the long term from such a break.
posted by Aizkolari at 12:32 PM on April 20, 2011 [20 favorites]

She sounds like me, eight months ago, down to the age, length of relationship, etcetera. Actually, I'm almost positive I said "[I don't] want to break up, that [I] loved [him] deeply, and that [I have] no desire to be emotionally/sexually involved with somebody else."

Look, I don't want to make assumptions for you, but just break up. Chances are good she's having serious doubts – not about you, but those trickier existential doubts that come at the end of long-term relationships – and this break is probably permanent. I'm really sorry, and I completely understand because I've been there (if this were eight months ago I would have thought you were my ex), but just take a deep breath and get out there, socialize and find a way to be without her. Because you probably will be, at least relationship-/sex-wise. Take your job abroad. Have a good time. Don't get back together while you're abroad (if you're even tempted). And if, when you both return and both have matured, you want to get back together – then do so.

But don't plan on that happening, because it probably won't. But you'll be a stronger, better person because of it!
posted by good day merlock at 12:32 PM on April 20, 2011 [8 favorites]

I'll go ahead and chime in to thwart everyone else's likely negative responses.
When I was the same age as you, having been in a relationship for exactly the same time as you, my bf and I took a break. We kept in touch, shit he even lived two houses away from mine. I saw some other people, he didn't really I don't think (I'm not really sure), we kept in touch, we hung out in groups (we had all the same friends at that point), we slept together once, etc etc for a whole year. But we loved each other so much that we ended up back together. Given, three years after that we broke up for good for other reasons, but the time 'apart' I think helped us both to have a better sense of ourselves as individuals and of what we wanted out of the relationship. But we didn't ever allow jealousy to get in the way, so you that's something you should work on if you all are to get back together.
But you do have to allow for the likely possibility that you won't get back together. If you assume that you will, you will see everything that happens in the meantime as an obstacle to your reunion and that will just drive you both crazy.
Anyway, good luck! What happens will happen. And it won't be the end of things, promise.
posted by greta simone at 12:33 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ditto what Aizkolari said. Take this opportunity to date some other women, or be single for awhile, and grow a little.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:34 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

You've broken up, you've just decided to call it a "break" instead. It's semantics.

Maybe you'll get back together at one point down the line, but 6 months is a long time in relationship years, especially when you're young. Mourn the relationship and then, when you're ready, try to enjoy being single.
posted by inturnaround at 12:37 PM on April 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

There is no such thing as a "break" in a relationship. You are either in the relationship or not. If you both are free to date other people, in what way have you not broken up?

The only difference is that you may intend to get back together at some point in the future, but intentions are not guarantees. Nor are stated intentions always the real intentions.

You should convey to her that you consider this a (preferably amicable) breakup and act accordingly.
posted by kindall at 12:40 PM on April 20, 2011 [14 favorites]

I've seen this work out really well for a couple I adore, so yes, it appears it can work. It's not my story to tell publicly, but feel free to MeMail me for details.
posted by synapse at 12:42 PM on April 20, 2011

Just to be part of the echo chamber. I tried the 'break' thing twice. Both times, in reality, it just meant we were breaking up, just in a very confusing, convoluted way.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:47 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've had this panic attack that your gf is having, and I've said the things she's said - that I didn't want to break up, that I loved him deeply, that I had no desire to be emotionally/sexually involved with somebody else.

And it was all true, if you took me super-literally - in the sense that I thought breaking up would be miserable and was not inclined to put myself through that; that I was so deeply fond of my bf then and our time together; and I couldn't even fathom being with someone else with the way my life was going and was frankly uninterested in attachments - so unappealing in my state of mind.

That those statements were literally true did not change the fact that inside I was screaming desperately to be someplace someone somehow different. I had no words for that, and your gf may not either, and the only language we seomtimes think we have to express this existential agony of "In my core, I want to be different, I want my life to be different, and this life that I envision may have no shape, rhyme or reason to it but I feel in my gut that it does not include you" is the woefully insufficient "I think we should take a break."
posted by sestaaak at 12:50 PM on April 20, 2011 [43 favorites]

A friend of mine had a high school sweetheart and they broke up for a while in or after college for a while (not sure how long). They have four kids and may be the happiest married couple I know.

These results are not typical in my experience.
posted by Pax at 12:54 PM on April 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Has anybody here successfully navigated such a break?

I have some friends that went on a "break" for some time that turned into a break-up. A few years later they reunited and have since married.
posted by melissam at 12:56 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think what you can take from this thread is this: sometimes you get back together, sometimes you don't. But regardless, if you're going to go on a "break" then you just need to break-up. That way you're actually on a "break" and free to do what you will - find yourself, have sex with other people, explore, etc. And then if you find you still want to be back together, then you'll get back together. But I wouldn't put official sort of constraints (timelines, terms, etc) on it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:00 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I know a couple who successfully took a break for around a year and now they are happily married. This couple was different in that they got together slightly later in life (mid - twenties)

Another case was very similar to yourself, the couple was high school sweethearts. They actually broke up for several years while in college. I think essentially they wanted to explore being single as well as other partners and relationships. They are now happily married.

I agree with other posters that most couples who take a break end up not being together. However, it's definitely not always the case!

Use this time apart to explore other relationships and enjoy single life!
posted by seesom at 1:03 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I took a 2 year break from a LTR around age 22 for similar reasons (felt too settled too early, etc). We'd been together for 3 years at that point.

After 2 years we did get back together and were together for another 9 years after that, 4 of which we were married.

Last year we got divorced.

I don't think the last line is related to the first line. So I guess I'd say the break was "successful", as it lead to a much longer relationship after the break. The circumstances that lead to the divorce were almost entirely separate and didn't arise until much later in the relationship, so I don't think the break was telling us anything useful about that.
posted by wildcrdj at 1:13 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have not seen relationships recover from this, but I suggest during the break you not keep in contact with one another. It will defeat the purpose of the break and make everything monumentally more painful.
posted by schroedinger at 1:17 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

You don't go on a break. You split up. You might get back together or you might not, but if you're on a 'break' from your relationship, your relationship is basically over.

That said, my sister broke up with her high school boyfriend , went to college for four years, got a degree, almost married another guy. After she got out of college, she moved back in with our parents, and got back together with the high school boyfriend, and they were married 9 months later and are still together and have two kids.

So if you end it on good terms, you might someday get back together, should life circumstances in the future permit. But I wouldn't count on it, and I wouldn't hold any illusions that you guys are doing anything but breaking up.
posted by empath at 1:23 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

This describes the conversation I had with my ex-gf almost exactly a year ago. She wanted to take a break and I said there's no such thing--you're either in or out. We were in a serious, four year relationship and would have been described as the 'perfect couple'.

She wanted to flake on making an actual decision, so I made it for us. Done. Over. It hurts like hell, but (my god) life has gone on and it's amazing. Sometimes I'm really happy she did this, but maybe it's because deep-down I know she probably regrets it. Or so I tell myself.

I probably sound like a jerk (I'm not!)...and that's why I created 'my_second_username'. It was worth the $5 to get this off my chest--woo!

I would suggest just moving on. Sorry, that's probably not what you wanted to hear.
posted by my_second_username at 1:28 PM on April 20, 2011 [7 favorites]

I can think of two couples I know who did this, or something like this, and got back together. One, it was because (I think) they didn't want a long-distance relationship but had to live apart for a while. The other was because she was much younger and he wanted to make sure she wasn't picking him simply because she didn't know what else was out there. I don't know if they called them "breaks" but in both cases it was sort of an amicable break-up, done for both partners' best interests, during which they remained friends. One couple is now married; the other I don't know what happened long-term, but they did get together again after the "break" was over.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:37 PM on April 20, 2011

As the above thoughts relate, yeah, I've seen these things end up with the people reuniting and with them going their separate ways. Never know.

She sounds pretty set in how it's gonna be and pleading, cajoling, etc., works roughly never so the best solution... for you: enjoy and make the most of the travel and new place to live and take things as they come with her, women you might meet.

No guess if your impending move is to a place far away and/or to a dramatically different place or if it's like moving from Seattle to Vancouver (which would be no small thing), but a big overseas move or one to a place that's much different tends to involve rare opportunities to do fun, interesting things; meet people with different perspectives; etc. And you'd be far from the first person to have a fling in those circumstances... or find true love.

Don't let those prospects suffer because your thoughts are tangled up with the gal.
posted by ambient2 at 1:50 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Breaks" are just "Break Ups" but end up more painful since there's less closure. Make it clean, add the "up".
posted by bitdamaged at 1:54 PM on April 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Don't let the statistics of this thread fool you. Couples who get back together after a "break" are a rarity. I'd say it happens less than 5-10% of the time, if that. However, when it does happen, it's memorable and it makes for interesting stories. It's one of the ways our minds work against us, and why that's what people are thinking to say.

Anyway, treat it as a full break-up, don't talk to her or agree to see her for at least those 6 months and possibly longer, and try your best to start afresh. If it is in the cards for you to be back together, it'll be long into the future, and most likely neither of you will be expecting it.
posted by Citrus at 1:57 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you guys discussed an open relationship?

My husband and I took a break about three years into our nine-year relationship. It was only for two weeks, though. Honestly, though he's the only person I've ever been with, and we got together when I was eighteen, taking the kind of break you're referring to never really crossed my mind. Sure, you sacrifice some things in being committed to someone young, but for me, what I gained in exchange was worth it compared to what I would risk to just have the experience of having dated around more.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:01 PM on April 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

There is no break - there is break up or don't break up, you are committed or not, there is no option of both, of having a comfort zone but still being free to do whatever you like. How do you navigate being kind of in a relationship? That sounds painful for both of you. I'd say break up, officially, and remain good friends. I'm sorry, I know that you would rather not hear that, it's just that I think it's a tough place, being only part way in a relationship where you've been so, so "together" before.

I had a break up that was intended to be temporary, and we never got back together. He moved and I went to a different school. In my quietest times, I am still sad about that one.

And then more recently I had a break up that was intended to be permanent, but we ended up starting to talk again as friends, and about a year later we both broke up with other people and got back together.

So I guess the answer is that you can't know, other than to know that right now this is where your relationship is. I say you enjoy that new job, and get the most you can out of the experience - even if a part of you wishes you were home with her and is a little sad. Really live it, your life for you and in a way that will make you a better person and happier down the road. That's the best gift you can give yourself or your relationship at this point.

Yes, it can happen that you get back together, it totally can. And it could happen that you don't. So you can't focus too much on the outcome, you have to deal with where you are and what the circumstances are, and what comes will come. Sometimes focusing on the future has a way of giving it more import than it should have.

Hang in there, I know this kind of sucks and it's tough. But you'll navigate it.
posted by mrs. taters at 2:18 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've known at least three couples that have successfully recovered from "breaks." Usually what happens is they break to "experience other people," realize they were crazy to give up the best thing in their lives and that experience is overrated, and get back together.
posted by walla at 4:09 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't let the statistics of this thread fool you. ... I'd say it happens less than 5-10% of the time, if that.

Got a cite on that? Sorry, but pseudo-objective "percentages" are annoying.

I agree with lots of people here, don't go on a break, break up. And maybe if you're both up for it later you'll get back together.
posted by wilful at 4:16 PM on April 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Most of the advice on this is correct, OP. You're done. Sure, there is the occasional person who goes on to have a lifelong romance after such a break. There are also people who get past their SO having three affairs. But that's not the way to bet.

If it happens, great. But you need to move on.
posted by Justinian at 4:46 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

The weekly communication doesn't sound right to me...
If you are on a break, then make a break-- micromanaging the communication isn't going to give either of you much room to explore the world.
posted by calgirl at 5:42 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I guess technically my boyfriend Josh from high school and I are 'on a break'. Don't tell my husband. Or his wife and kids.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:56 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

After 8 years, we tried a break.

Then we broke up.

Anybody who suggests going on a break should be forced to endure the complete hundred seasons of Friends to get a sense of how absurd the idea is.
posted by Ultrahuman at 8:09 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing you want to talk to her weekly to make sure she doesn't forget you and/or to sort of keep tabs on what she's doing. In my experience, this kind of thing backfires. As many above have suggested, you're better off cutting communication entirely. That way, she's more likely to feel like she really got the freedom she's looking for, and you guys have a better chance of ultimately getting back together.

Best not to focus on the future, though. Make a clean break, don't communicate, and try to enjoy your year abroad. Maybe you'll both want to get back together later, maybe you won't, but you'll get much more out of the next year if you don't keep hanging on via weekly phone calls.
posted by sunflower16 at 9:37 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think she just needs to have the option of doing so: to feel freedom, and to assess our relationship from afar.

Never grant someone a freedom with the expectation they won't exercise it. A few months down the road, they likely will. Then, you will be hurt and jealous and surprised, but can't even be properly angry.

Nthing a clean break is best. Definitely make sure to be on the same page concerning your relationship status.
posted by Triton at 3:07 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have a good friend who was on a break with her boyfriend. They still talked but didn't date, for a year I think, and then got back to together and have a very strong relationship today.

It's not impossible but I agree that it probably doesn't happen often.
posted by bearette at 5:56 AM on April 21, 2011

I got together with a girl when she was 17 and I was 19, we both fell very deeply and genuinely in love, and stayed together for five years. I'm now 30. I still count her as one of my closest friends and confidantes. During our "break", of a year while she went overseas, we both started dating other people. I've never stopped loving her, but while we have slept together once since then, I don't believe we'll ever get back together. So it goes.

In contrast, I have a friend who fell in love while on a high school exchange student trip to Finland. When he had to come back to Australia, he and his now-wife arranged that while they were apart they were both welcome to see other people. Both did. He ultimately went back to Finland to get her, years later, and they're now happily married back here in Oz with two kids.

There's no guarantees here. Risk is inherent to the situation. What you both learn from your experimenting may lead you back to each other, or may not. I think it's important, if you're young and wondering "what if...", to give yourselves a chance to resolve those feelings.

Good luck.
posted by chmmr at 7:44 AM on April 21, 2011

Regarding couples who get back together after a break, the reunion may not always be a positive thing. "Going on a break" with my now-ex-husband, instead of just breaking up, made it too easy to get back together because we were constantly being drawn back into our comfort zone when we should have been experiencing our new lives to the fullest. We ended up married, but unhappily. Just another data point.
posted by spinto at 9:32 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

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