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Jaime and Joe had one of those summertime romances that only exist in New York, filled with drinks that turn into lengthy dinners, evenings out with friends, and even trips to the gym that somehow still felt incredibly romantic. But for Jaime, who was a late 20-something working in public relations at the time, the relationship wasn’t just a summer fling. It felt like the start of something serious, until she sensed Joe pulling away. And then came the dreaded phone call. He couldn’t commit. He was overwhelmed with work. It was the quintessential “it’s not you, it’s me” speech.
It wasn’t easy, but it was a fairly clean break, except for the fact that they both worked in PR and inevitably bumped into each other at industry events. “My ego was a little bruised, but I always tried to sense whether there was still something there,” Jaime says. “And that literally went on for seven years.” Then, Joe was named to PR Week’s 40 Under 40 list and Jaime—who was just named to the list herself—took the opportunity to make a move by sending a friendly (but carefully crafted) congratulatory email. Last weekend—almost two years later to the day—Jaime and Joe were married.
Even when you suspect you’ve found The One, it’s totally normal for couples to go on a break (or even break up, like Jaime and Joe) and eventually rekindle the romance. Nearly half of all young adults in relationships will break up and spend time solo before getting back together again at least once. The on-again, off-again relationship is a staple for many 20-somethings because it’s often a time of self-discovery and personal growth, which can be directly at odds with long-term commitment, says Rebecca Hendrix, a marriage and family therapist based in New York. “I think it can be really healthy to separate, have some life experiences, date other people, go to grad school,” she says. “When you are ready, you’ll probably think of that person first.”
Therapists can list many benefits of going on a break: It’s a chance to rediscover yourself, build appreciation for your significant other (the whole “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” thing), and ultimately strengthen your relationship. But that still doesn’t account for how difficult and messy breaks can be. If you’re thinking about pressing pause on your relationship, there are certain steps you should take to avoid all of the confusion (like the seven years of “Do they still like me?” that Jaime experienced) and heartbreak, plus a few questions to ask yourself before deciding to get back together.
Before You Go on a Break
1. Discuss parameters and boundaries.
How often will you communicate, if at all? Are you seeing other people? Are you sleeping with other people? Are you going to tell each other about it? Chances are the boundaries of what you’re comfortable with will be different from your partner, so it’s important to hash these things out from the beginning, says Matt Lundquist, a clinical social worker in New York. “To leave those things up to chance, chances are it probably won’t work out,” he says.
2. Talk openly about jealously.
If you and your significant other are open to dating other people on your break, there are plenty of opportunities for jealousy to creep in. Maybe you see an Instagram of them with their arm around someone else or a cryptic tweet with heart emojis sent to someone you don’t recognize. Acknowledging that these moments will come up and the best ways to deal with them is an important step to avoid unnecessary heartbreak. “We all have to find ways to make peace with the fact that we’re not the only partner our partners have had,” says Jack Worthy, a couples counselor in New York.
3. Get ready to focus on you.
Spending time apart is a great opportunity for self-discovery. “If you spend your time pining away, that’s not going to yield a lot of happiness,” Worthy says. Learn how to be happy as a single person and organize your time outside of a relationship. The next time you enter into a relationship, you and your partner can add to that happiness, not create it from scratch.
Should We Get Back Together?
How do you know when rekindling a relationship is the right choice and when it’s better to cut ties for good? Lundquist often sees people who are unable to move on simply because they’re not willing to deal with the fact that the relationship is over. This can lead to an unhealthy pattern of breaking up and getting back together where nothing ever changes. To avoid that kind of tumultuous situation, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to decide whether you should get back together. Worthy advises that if you’ve spent honest time apart and you still miss the other person, it may be worth revisiting the relationship. Ultimately you have to ask yourself if your life is better with that person in it. During your break, he suggests asking yourself: Am I sad? Do I miss this person? Do I want to reach out to this person? Or not? Do I actually feel a lot freer?
If you do ultimately decide to test the waters again, go forth with intention—and caution. And don’t worry if things feel weird at first. That’s exactly what happened to Isabelle*, a 20-something actress in New York, when she got back together with her on-again, off-again college boyfriend. “It’s such a scary thing because it’s like, am I just being crazy?” she says. “Am I just feeling nostalgic and going back to something that’s comfortable?”
It’s easy to fall into the familiarity trap. Familiarity bias isn’t just talked about in psych 101 classes. It happens in real life, so you need to make sure enough time has passed for you to work on the areas in which you need to grow, instead of expecting a reunion to fix it. “Most of what goes wrong in relationships is that one or both people are trying to get needs met from a romantic partner that would be better met by someone like a therapist or by some self-discovery,” Lundquist says. “If that’s the case, you need to press the reset button long enough to do that.” The hard part is that “reset” takes a few weeks for some and a few years for others.
Of course we can never really know what might’ve happened had things played out differently. But those who come out on the other side of time apart gain a sense of confidence and gratitude that couldn’t be won any other way. “Now there’s so much more trust in the strength of the relationship because we’ve put it through so much,” Isabelle says. “But I think that’s what’s so nice about the relationship now. I just have such faith in it and I know it can withstand anything.”
In hindsight, Jaime says she wouldn’t trade those seven years of self-discovery and career building for anything. “I don’t think it could have worked any other time but now,” she says. “I don’t think either of us was ready. Timing is everything.”
*Name has been changed for privacy.