“How long have you been dating?”

“Two years … well, that’s if you don’t count the three months we broke up in the fall, and then the month we broke up again the following Christmas … and the two months we ‘took a break’ last summer.”

In my years as a professional counselor, I’ve had many conversations with people whose relationship statuses seemed more like a roller coaster ride than a dating relationship.

But what do you make of these on-again, off-again relationships, and what do you do if you find yourself stuck in the ups and downs that come with the kind of relationship where you constantly feel like you need a “break”?

When it comes to taking a break in a dating relationship, is it helpful or simply prolonging the inevitable?

One observation is that most relationships that display a pattern of on-again, off-again interactions are probably riddled with unhealthy patterns of interaction.

Healthy relationships aren’t defined by drama but by consistency, development and growth.

But for those who are genuinely stuck in a relationship: A one-time break can be used as a way to set aside some time to work through some problems and make important decisions. But it has to be used as just that: a deliberate time for growth, change and healing.

Otherwise it’s simply hitting the pause button, and that will never change the outcome of the story. There has to be work and change involved in the equation.

If you are considering taking a step back from your current relationship, remember these things as you work toward the potential of a productive and useful break:

Once is more than enough.

In order for a break to be beneficial in a dating relationship you have to see it as a one-time thing. Relationships that are in the habit of on-again, off-again are likely made up of negative behaviors that aren’t just going to disappear with a simple break. If you’re in a relationship that’s made up of this kind of pattern of break after break, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate and think about moving on. If you’re going to try to take sometime apart make sure that you set it up as a one-time thing: an opportunity for reflection, for growth, for change, for prayer and for clarity.

Set some boundaries.

Decide what this break is going to look like and stick to that. Communicate about why you’re taking this break and discuss the things that need to happen. Set limits regarding the type of interaction you will have (and will not have), and the time you will spend together. I know of many couples who decided to take a “break” from their relationship, but continued to rendezvous for weekly make-out sessions. It’s easy to use the word “break,” and then not actually take a break at all. If you have any hope for working things out, then actually use this time to heal and grow. Otherwise you are simply prolonging the inevitable.

Work on change.

Taking a break shouldn’t be seen as just “taking a breather” from the relationship. A productive break has nothing to do with the amount of time you spend apart and everything to do with what you do during that time. Set some personal and relational goals, seek out change and pursue healing in your personal life. Acknowledge your problem areas, then work to correct them. Seek out mentors and friends to pray with you, invest in you and help you grow during this time. As in all relationships, you can’t control or change how your partner lives his or her life, but you can always choose better for your life.

Decide on a final answer.

As with everything in life there should always be an end. Don’t go into a break with an ambiguous “we’ll see how things go” kind of attitude. This can cause more damage in many ways by leaving one or both individuals involved without closure, keeping them from moving forward. There has to be a time of re-evaluation and decision-making: a choice to either make up or break up, once and for all.

Healthy relationships don’t just happen. They take work, time and a whole lot of good choices. But for those who have the courage and strength to do the work up front, they’ll find themselves in relationships filled with life, joy and peace. And that’s always worth it in the end.

This article was originally posted at truelovedates.com.