"We Were on A Break!" Is there such a thing as a break?
You're likely familiar with the line in the '90s show Friends where Rachel is furious with Ross for "cheating" on her, and he defends himself by trying to explain that they weren't together at the time of his alleged betrayal. How does it happen that one person can feel cheated on, and the person who was accused of being unfaithful didn't even think they were together at the time? Enter: the murky waters of a "break."
People seem to want it to be space from someone you're exclusive with without actually breaking up. Perhaps it means that you actually are fully broken up but for a specific purpose—one or more of you needs to work on some healing in your own life, for example—with the understanding that you plan to get back together. This may or may not mean that you're "allowed" to see other people. Whatever the case, there is some sort of implied or explicit promise of returning to one another whether you break up fully or not. The fact that there are so many definitions combined with the increasing lack of ability to communicate clearly in dating makes for a highly confusing and quite often painful experience when taking a "break" in a relationship.
It's tempting to give a clear definition of a break to try and clear up the confusion, but, of course, there isn't one everyone would agree on. It seems more important to guide people in decision-making around taking a break, including how to define it for themselves, so that they can avoid the painful, though obviously entertaining, situation Ross and Rachel found themselves in. The most important thing in and throughout navigating a break in a relationship is clarity. The first thing to consider is what motivates you to need some form of change in your relationship. Defining your need, whether it's just for space, for pursuing healing, whether you need to set a boundary or see some behavior change in your partner before you can re-engage. Still, you're not planning on seeing anyone else, or some other reason can help you decide how to define what you mean by "break."
The biggest question will be whether or not "taking a break" means that you're allowed to see other people. If you want your relationship to survive the break, you will need to be on the same page about whether or not it's okay with the other one if you see other people during your break. Depending on the situation and reasons for needing a break, the ability to see other people should be an ongoing conversation. Feelings and minds can change, especially if the reason for the break has to do with one or both of you needing healing or seeing a change in behavior from your partner. If you cannot agree on whether or not it's okay to see other people during this break, the break will quite likely turn into a breakup. It's not about whether it's okay to see other people—only you and your partner can decide what fits your situation— it's about whether you and your partner agree on whether it's okay to see other people.
It might be impossible to put a timeframe on the break, so if you can't, it would be a good idea to set times that you will check in with each other. If your intention is to get back together or preserve the relationship, which is why you'd decide to take a break rather than break up. In that case, the relationship needs a minimal amount of attention to survive the lean period you'll be putting it through. It may be arbitrary, but if you're not able to talk at least once a week, if only for a check-in, which could be about the relationship or not, then you might want to reconsider precisely why it is that you aren't breaking up all the way. "Breaks" can be used to avoid the painful feelings breakups inevitably bring, but avoiding a breakup that needs to happen often results in prolonging the pain. It can be nice to set a regular time on your calendars to have these for stability; it signals to each other that you are still important and intend to maintain and resume the relationship when the conditions for doing so have been met.
In addition to checking in with each other about anything at least weekly, times to check-in specifically about the relationship, especially if a need for changed behavior is the reason for the break, can be really helpful. One of the main purposes of these check-ins could be around feelings about seeing other people, as those feelings can change quickly. These may not have to be as disciplined, though it depends on what both of you need. It's pretty common for women to need structure, which helps us feel secure and deal with our anxiety, which we are more prone to than men for many reasons. If you decide not to set a regular schedule for these check-ins, scheduling the next check-in at the current check-in would provide both the openness that taking a break connotes and the structure to signify the value of the connection between you two.
Ultimately, a break in a relationship is what you and your partner make it. If you're asking what a break in a relationship is, pursue that question directly with your partner. Ask them to communicate clearly with you why they need it, what they think a break is/how they define it, if seeing other people is okay or not, and how often you can check in with them. Overall, a break should never be used to string someone along. Clarity is kindness; it is how you honor the other person. Get clear on your needs, intentions, boundaries, and requests, then approach the subject of a break with openness, curiosity, and a readiness to commit to stewarding your connection through the time of distance.