A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: When is 'a break' really a break up?

Friend's Ross and Rachel navigated the confusion of what it meant to be on 'a break'. Photo / Getty
Friend's Ross and Rachel navigated the confusion of what it meant to be on 'a break'. Photo / Getty

Is there a difference between a break in a relationship and a break up? This is an often asked question in my counselling room, usually by the person who least wants a break.

We all know what a "break up" means: it's over, finished. Often heartbreaking and never easy but clear. A relationship "break", on the other hand, can mean quite different things to different people. As with any ambiguity, therein lies the problem.

When I saw Rachel a few weeks ago, she was white with anxiety and emotional pain. Joe had called a break after a difficult time in their relationship, she told me. It was "just a break" he had said, he just "needed some space". Rachel couldn't tell me how long the break was for or what the principles of it would be. Would they be in touch? Would they agree see other people?

To be disingenuous is never okay and messing about with other people's hearts by saying one thing, and meaning another, is cowardly and self-serving.

Calling a break up a break is not a way to create a gentler version of breaking up. And I had to wonder if Joe was seeking a "break" as an easier way for himself to leave the relationship.

Does doubt mean don't?

Uncertainty in a relationship is very real, and being honest about it carries no shame. Those first heady months of falling in love open up a new chapter. We can feel we have found our other half, and feel like we're brimming with visions for the future. A grand orchestra is playing and being alone is no longer on our map. Sacrificing aspects of the self is a pleasure - nothing feels more important than the dance of connection and the future it spawns. Then things get more serious, and, as in any good movie, the challenges begin. Lots of those things you were so attracted to in your partner, can suddenly seem problematic. So problematic in fact, that a sense of having lost a part of yourself can emerge and instead of one and one making three, it suddenly seems to make less than one.

An essential ingredient of change is loss and the fear of this loss can play a significant part in the lives of people who love each other. "I love that person but am I in love?" they ask.

And along comes an urge to step back, to reclaim "you" again. A feeling that everything is moving a bit too fast, and that rather than keeping the accelerator down there is a need to pull into a side road and contemplate. Not unusual. Does doubt mean don't? Not necessarily. But how do you know?

Just a week ago, Keith came to talk to me about his deep fear that Katie says she loves him, but her plans don't include marriage at this point. So now a new phase has been ushered in characterised by resistance and fear. Keith feels affronted by Katie's lack of commitment, and she feels pressured by his hurt.

Sleep and wellbeing can be taken hostage by doubt and guilt, and trying to describe it to one's partner can be extremely difficult. But it is very human to have doubts and there are ways to deal with it, without feeling so bad.

Communication about your feelings is an important part of this and if it is not getting you anywhere, because it is too hard to put into words, or because one of you is getting upset and defensive, then seek professional help. You might need help to construct the terms of a break if it is indeed a break and not a break up you are looking at. Finding strategies rather than pushing the issue under the carpet will be an incalculable relief to you both.

If, on the other hand, we are talking about a cycle of break ups and reunions, then this is an unhealthy roller coaster which often takes a toll on judgement and well being. The chemistry involved is stressful and addictive and typically non productive.

But needing space is legitimate. Integrity demands that a partner deserves nothing less than honesty and transparency.

Pressing pause

Firstly, decide what you mean by "a break".

• Agree on the terms: Is it for two days, two weeks or two months?

• Will you communicate with each other during this time?

• Examine euphemisms: Often comments like "free to date others" and "open relationship" are self-serving and anxiety producing. A pause in a relationship usually assumes the same terms that the relationship was originally being conducted under.

• Make sure your motivation is not about avoiding conflict because you want to "escape".

Absence makes the heart grow fonder or out of sight out of mind?

Sometimes those features which had become so grating - her loud laugh and over familiarity - are the ones you miss badly in company these days. It's not the fun it was.

Or you miss his bossiness about getting organised for holidays because it wasn't exactly relaxing finding that every room by the sea had been booked out over the long weekend. His insistence about organisation suddenly felt rather protective of the good times you had.

But maybe you are relishing the ability to be you on your own, to conduct yourself socially, to make bookings at your own pace and to rediscover a sense of yourself as an individual operator.

Missing your partner can lead to affirmative feelings, but if being out of the relationship feels better, the answer is likely to become clear that it is not the right time or person for you and nor is it alright to pretend that it is.

Ambivalence is a very common feeling, and pressing pause can help, as long as the intent and design of the break is transparent.

One client of mine told his partner he wanted time alone, so that he could find a way to be the best life partner in the world to her, the woman he loved.

Working through ambivalence is commonplace. Yes, it is a risk. But living authentically will always be a lesser risk, however, than dishonesty.

Ambiguity, on the other hand, isn't all right. It leaves the other partner wandering lost in a dense forest with no compass - you owe them far better than that.

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A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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