It’s Murphy’s Law of relationships: Just when everything is trucking along perfectly, she lands an internship in another city. Or a semester abroad in Italy. Or even band camp for the summer. Whatever it is, it’s a chunk of time apart, and it makes you nervous. You have a right to be -- breaks often lead to breakups. But if you know that’s not what you want, there are things you can do -- both before and after the separation -- to keep your relationship on track.
B.B. (Before the Break)
“The key is to talk about it beforehand freely and openly,” says Nancy Pina, relationship expert and founder of Right Relationships TV. “Just ask her straight out if she wants to pick up where you left off when she returns and whether she sees long-term potential in the relationship.” This way, says Pina, no one is left guessing. If she thinks she’s in a committed relationship while you think it’s OK to date other people (or vice versa), well, suffice it to say that few relationships survive that kind of misunderstanding.
This isn’t an easy conversation to have, particularly for guys. After all, it might not go the way you want it to. But it’s good practice. Allowing yourself to feel vulnerable and to discuss your relationship with your partner are not just core life skills -- they’re the mark of a man. And there are practical things you can work out along the way, such as how you’re going to stay connected during the break.
“One of the keys to getting back together successfully after a separation is healthy communication while you’re apart,” says Pina. “Agree on how often you can be in touch, and what format -- text or email or Facebook or the phone. Otherwise you might hurt her feelings by not texting her as much as you used to when you were living in the same place.”
A.B. (After the Break)
So what about when she’s back? Pina suggests some simple gestures, like meeting her with flowers at the airport. “And a mushy card always helps!”
But it’s important to go slowly. According to Jennifer Curtet, lifestyle coach and professional speaker, there needs to be a re-acquaintance period after a long time apart. “You might get that slo-mo reunion at the airport and all the hugs and ‘I love you,’ but what about a week later?” she says. “We change a lot, especially when we’re young. Everyone wants to just jump in the sack and try to get back to where they were, but don’t assume that someone’s going to be the same when they return from a major trip.”
Keep things low-key and relaxed, so you both have the opportunity to feel comfortable and reconnect properly. A welcome-home party sounds like a great idea, but it will likely keep you separated or focused on other people. “The same goes for seeing a band or going to a movie,” says Curtet. “The important thing is to interact one-on-one, so consider options like a trip to a park or museum, or a meal in your favorite restaurant. You’ll get a chance to talk and discover just how she’s been changed by her trip.”
One of the byproducts of being separated is sensitivity, perhaps even jealousy. This is only natural; during your separation you both have experienced different things, perhaps having met and spent time with other people. But the antidote is easy: Create new experiences together. It could be as simple as reading the same book. Even better is to learn something new together. Ask her what she wants to explore and help make it happen. It moves your relationship forward, rather than trying to recreate the past.
“It could be anything,” says Curtet. “A pottery class, a dance class, or something like rock climbing, which relies on trust in a potentially scary experience. If she’s been in the third world, her values may be different. Perhaps you could help out in your community and feed the homeless. Ultimately, shared values make for a strong relationship.”
You both grow and change independently during periods of separation, so getting back together can seem like starting from scratch. The key is to appreciate the new 5.0 version of your partner and your relationship. Taking this opportunity to reappraise both can deepen your bond, which might be just what’s needed to get to the next level.