This Is the Difference Between a Breakup and a 'Break'

What do you still owe a partner when you take some time apart?

Posted Jan 17, 2016

pio3/Shutterstock
Source: pio3/Shutterstock

Whenever I teach my Love 101 class at the University of Miami, students ask me the same question: What's the difference between a break and a breakup?

It seems like the answer should be obvious but I don't think it's as obvious as it may initially seem. So, let me try to offer the best answer I have here.

When you break up with another person, another person breaks up with you, or you agree to break up, you have no intention (at the time) to continue the relationship. The relationship is over. Perhaps there can be friendship but the relationship there once was is done. You do not intend to continue seeing each other romantically at all. (Things are completely different if you mutually agree to go from having a monogamous relationship to having an open relationship, but that is a separate question.)

A break in a relationship is entirely different. People sometimes take breaks in relationships because the relationship isn't going well, or because one of the parties has become romantically interested in someone else. Further, a break is often limited to a specified period of time—two weeks or a month, for example. Once both parties in the existing relationship agree to, or accept, a break and specify its duration, the expectation is that each will go off to give the relationship some serious thought, to think about whether they can change things or whether the relationship should end.

A break is not a breakup: It's a pause from the other person—a period to think without having to be around the other person during the thinking period. Since a break is not a breakup, it's not a phase that changes the fundamental rules of the relationship: If the relationship had been exclusive, or monogamous, then it still is exclusive during the break.

Otherwise, a break would just be a breakup.

During a break none of the rules of the relationship change, except that you don't see the other person for the agreed-upon amount of time. Each person gets their time to think about whether the relationship should continue—but they do not go out to test the waters and see whether there are better fish in the sea. They don't cheat, and they don't backstab the other person by spreading bad rumors about them. They treat them as their ongoing romantic partner with the exception of having minimal contact with them.

Once the break is over, the lovers will need to get together and discuss whether they can save the relationship. If they can, the relationship continues. If not, a real breakup may take place. But this latter phase of sitting down to discuss the relationship—whether on FaceTime, via Skype, or in person—is a necessary step before things can move on and before the relationship can either continue or cease to be. Until a couple takes that step, the fundamental rules remain in place.

Berit "Brit" Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love