I’ve actually never seen the show Friends, due to a very strict upbringing in the cult of Friends Is a Stupid Show, No You Can’t Watch That, but if I have correctly pieced together the clues via Google, it seems that taking a break actually did work for Ross and Rachel. You want to know why? Because it’s TV.
Most of us are doing breaks wrong. For non-NBC-affiliated people like you and me, going on a break does not work. Breaks are for people who don’t want to work on the problems in their relationships. People who hope that time (and sleeping with two of their co-workers to see what that’s like) will magically fix the fact that your partner wants to move back to Branson, Missouri, even though you’d never live more than six miles from a Uniqlo.
But work, not time, is the sine qua non of relationships: the grueling, embarrassing, uncomfortable kind of work. And not just work but constant work, or at the very least upkeep. Relationship problems are not “fixable” like a leaky pipe is fixable. They require sustained, sometimes Sisyphean work. For most people, a break is like pulling your car to the side of the road because it’s making a sound, turning off the engine for a few minutes, and then, since you no longer hear the sound, starting up the car and going right back on your way. You’ve done nothing. When you get back together, you’re hit with the disappointment that, hey, this break did absolutely nothing to fix your issues.
People often justify their breaks by saying they need time to “think about” the relationship, when in reality it’s often either a test to see if you can survive the excruciating pain of a breakup (you for sure can) or to see if you can soften the blow of a breakup (you for sure can’t). The problem is that breaks aren’t breakups. They’re a weird purgatory between taken and single, where all your brain does is fixate on a person whom you’re not sure you’re supposed to be getting over. You’re denied the catharsis of a real breakup in favor of a melancholy rumspringa.
Breaks work just about as often as the ice cream machine on Chopped.
If you’re using a break to see if you can find better people, don’t! You can always find someone better than your partner of four years, a person whom you’ve seen be really mean to Time Warner Cable customer service and who always corrects you when you say “less” instead of “fewer.” New people are always on their best behavior. You’ve never had to share a bathroom with new people. New people are alluring, but you won’t learn anything about the viability of your own relationship by dating them.
Because Chrissy Teigen and John Legend did massage a break into a successful, beautiful marriage, we must address the times when a break can work (the Chopped ice cream machine, too, occasionally works). So here are the rules: Breaks are fine when one person has to go to rehab, or to the Maldives for a 10-month job assignment where you’re not allowed to call or text or write letters even. A break works when the problem is about one person and they need to address it alone, or when being in a relationship—any relationship—is not an option.
A break won’t fix one of you wanting to get married and one not. A break also won’t fix the fact that your love language is “fighting,” and it won’t change the fact that she slept with someone from her improv troupe last fall.