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Couples whose 'break' didn't mean 'breakup' dish on what made it finally work

Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a clinical therapist, and the author of three books, among them, Love Lessons from Bad Breakups and The Complete Marriage Counsler. She gives love advice on programs including Today and HuffPost Live, conduct...

Sometimes a ‘marriage sabbatical’ is just the thing to save a troubled marriage

The term ‘on a break’ remains synonymous with Friends’ Ross and Rachel. But the term can be much more than an excuse for infidelity. It can lead to a second chance.

Three couples give the inside story on their relationship pause:

1. “Spending all of 2014 in China saved our marriage”

An unintended but extremely welcome byproduct of Ann’s impulsive relocation from Boston to Shanghai to teach English (“It was a dream come true!”) was the ultimate salvaging of her 16-year-old marriage. The now 48-year-old says, “I had been unfulfilled in my relationship for many years.” Ann's discomfort had been on a slow boil. After only a few weeks, she came to see the depths of her dissatisfaction with her husband.

In China, Ann spent a lot of time journaling. She came to see she’d let her marriage, indeed her life, “just happen” for a long time. Drifting rather than taking action.

More: Beware of the couples' Christmas crisis that can torpedo your marriage

After her yearlong contract in China ended and she returned to the States, Ann and her husband were able to talk “on a very deep level for the first time in forever.” She says, “We both took responsibility for the state of our marriage and have been working more intently on keeping it alive. We show affection to one another in large ways and small.”

The lengthy separation allowed the couple to approach their “old” relationship with a totally new perspective.

2. “How a six-month breather stopped our bickering”

Abby (name changed), 38, sighs, “After 15 years of marriage and two children we hardly spoke unless it was to argue about whose turn it was to pay the Bloomies bill.”  The love wasn’t gone but their relationship was at a stalemate. Abby’s solution: “I asked Bob to temporarily move out so we could get our bearings.”

What distinguishes a break from a breakup is that the couple agrees on ground rules.

Abby and Bill agreed not to date others, to meet with me for weekly couples' sessions and to level with the children that Mom and Dad were taking a break. I suggested they initially not put the pressure of a time frame on the separation.

At first, their agreement was to communicate only during the couple sessions. After a few weeks, they began having dinner together after therapy. Planned dates followed.

Abby says, “We began to have fun again together, to remember why we fell in love in the first place. We weren’t just co-parents and co-owners of a house, we were individuals who each brought interesting elements to the table.”

More: After years of abuse divorce was my only option

Elements such as the ability to be spontaneous. Abby says, “We necked in a car all night like teenagers. It was such fun but physically uncomfortable — reminders we’re not 18 anymore. So I brought Bob home and snuck him into our bedroom. He climbed out a window in the morning so the kids wouldn’t know Daddy had been there."

This new sense of fun and adventure were factors in their reconciliation. When Bob moved back in for good two months later the couple vowed never again to take one another or the life they’d built together for granted.

3. “We just plain missed each other”

Sara and John, married six years, had no master plan for what they hoped would happen when they took a break. “I asked him to move out for a while,” Sara, 33, recalls. “I said if he didn’t it would have to be over. I just couldn’t breathe anymore. The feeling of suffocation was mutual so he agreed.”

For this couple the break was mainly about rediscovering what it felt like to not have to answer to anyone else — to eat peanut butter in bed and/or blast the newest Adele at 3 a.m. It was also about seeing whether or not they would miss one other.

Sara said, “At first I was so happy not to shave my legs or have to worry about anyone else’s needs. But gradually what I hoped for would happen — I started missing John’s idiosyncrasies — even the stuff that drove me crazy. More importantly I started missing like crazy what a great sounding board/cheerleader he was for me.”

More: Here's why some of us are attracted to 'crazy people'

Luckily he felt the same way and a month after the split, the two picked up where they left off but with a renewed appreciation that ‘little vacations’ might be something that should become a regular part of their marital maintenance.

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