Trial Separation: Do Potential Benefits Outweigh Real Risks?

By Jessica Reynolds
Chicago Tribune.

When a relationship stops being what it once was and loses its pizzazz and compassion, couples have a few options.

They can air their grievances and work to fix the underlying problems. They can say so long and start anew.

Or, if they are unable or unwilling to do either of the above, they can “take a break.”

What exactly this entails varies by couple, but implied in this approach is at least a sliver of hope that the relationship will continue, but only after both partners spend some time apart to figure out if their hearts are still in it. Consider it pressing the pause, not the stop, button.

While taking a break, or separation as it’s called specifically for married couples, might make it seem like a couple is committed to salvaging a flagging relationship, several experts said it just delays the inevitable.

“When most people say they want a break, what they’re really saying is, ‘I want to break up, but I don’t know how to do it,'” said Los Angeles-based dating coach Evan Marc Katz. “If you’re that far down the this-isn’t-working-for-me road, you’ve pretty much made up your mind. You just don’t have the courage to say so.”

Sometimes people find it easier to turn the problem into a process instead of solving it with a clean-cut declaration. They remain in relationships they know aren’t working either because of fear, inertia or comfort, Katz added.

In theory, a break is meant to give both partners the latitude needed to honestly evaluate the relationship and decide if it’s worth saving.

In reality, spending time apart only further inhibits a couple’s ability to “actively deal with the issues that led to the suggestion to take the break in the first place,” said Toni Coleman, a psychotherapist and relationship coach based in McLean, Va.

It’s easy to not fight with someone when you don’t see or speak to that person for two months. You’re also likely to forget about all of his or her annoying quirks that drove you berserk. But if you eventually pick up where you left off, don’t be surprised if the problems stuck around.

“People often return from the break with renewed hope, and yet once again face the disappointment that the same issues remain glaring in their faces, unchanged,” said Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist based in Beverly Hills, Calif. “Taking a break is really a form of avoidance.”

But a break could be the appropriate antidote for couples who need to be reminded of how much they mean to each other or need space to mature as individuals before building a life together.

Sometimes, breaks can be logistic, say, if one partner relocates to another city for a job. A person embarking on a temporary chapter such as graduate school or a religious journey may want to experience it alone, but they don’t want to fully sever the tie with their current significant other, said Paulette Kouffman Sherman, psychologist and author of “When Mars Women Date” (Parachute Jump Publishing).

Some tips from the experts, if you do decide on taking a break.

Define it. If you have any expectation to get back together in the future, both people in the relationship should set the ground rules for the duration of the break. Can you get involved with others? Will you still call and text each other whenever you please? What’s the time frame? These questions need to be asked, Sherman said. “Be clear and honest with each other about what that time is going to look like.”

Requester, beware. Often, couples may arrive at the agreement to take a break together if the lull in the relationship is too obvious to ignore. But when it’s only one partner who wants the break, he or she should be warned that the pendulum of power may swing during the course of the supposedly temporary separation. The partner who proposed the break initially might go crawling back, only to find that the other person has moved on. “Don’t assume the other person is just waiting for you to decide you want to get back together,” Coleman said. You may be asking for trouble. The act alone of requesting a break could do irreversible damage to a relationship, especially if the other person feels blindsided by the news. “Even voicing that you want to take the break can jeopardize the trust and bond, because one person might think everything was going smoothly,” Sherman said.

Don’t be too quick to change who you are. Partners on the receiving end of the “I want to take a break” announcement shouldn’t approach the separation with the assumption that they can erase the issues that existed before if only they change themselves. “If you are the partner who has reluctantly agreed to the break, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can do all the work and reinvent yourself in order to get the relationship back,” Coleman said. “You can’t change your partner’s mind just by being the person you think they want you to be.”

SIDEBAR: Re-evaluating a relationship
Couples who feel like their once-healthy relationships have started down a rocky path shouldn’t immediately think taking a break is the answer. Experts provided suggestions for how to help revive a romance that’s derailed, as well as the red flags that say it’s time to wave goodbye.

Express your feelings in the moment. “Do not allow anger and disappointment to build up inside you,” advised psychotherapist Fran Walfish. This will lead to an explosion, like someone declaring they need a break, when discussing each problem along the way could have thwarted the separation altogether.

Don’t assume problems will fix themselves. Time can heal some wounds, but this isn’t a philosophy to follow if you want a relationship free of resentment and pent-up frustration. Address each problem head-on. Seek a couples counselor if you can’t facilitate discussion yourself, said psychotherapist and relationship coach Toni Coleman.

Don’t let your relationship become “on-again, off-again.” Couples who decide to take a break once shouldn’t let it become a habit. Coleman said she sees this pattern far too often with couples who “stay together for the wrong reasons,” break up and then get back together hoping the situation will be different, only to find it is the same. Continually breaking up and getting back together prevents both partners from finding healthy relationships.

Don’t try to relive the past. “If you (reminisce) about the way things were at the start of your relationship, it’s time to move on,” dating coach Evan Marc Katz said. The first few months of a relationship are the honeymoon phase, where each person presents his or her best self. But the time thereafter allows each person to show their true colors. If you don’t like the person you see, it may be time to pull the plug.

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