Monday, July 31, 2006

The Marriage Sabbatical

One of my online friends (who comments here and may reveal herself if she likes...) brought up an interesting concept on a board where we chat. She asked what we thought of the idea of a sabbatical from our marriages - a time for personal renewal, growth, reflection and rest. Professors take sabbaticals from teaching, pastors take sabbaticals from preaching and nurturing their flocks. Why not wives?

Cheryl Jarvis wrote the book called The Marriage Sabbatical, which was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
What is a Marriage Sabbatical?

A marriage sabbatical is a "personal time out from daily routines for creative, professional or spiritual growth, reflection or renewal." A sabbatical allows women to get away from the noises of caretaking and judgment. In the stillness, you can find your own voice by going deeper within yourself.

Description of Jarvis's book:
The Marriage Sabbatical weaves together the absorbing account of Jarvis' precious time away from home with the stories of the rewards and challenges felt by other women who also braved social pressures and public scrutiny to temporarily take leave of their daily routines. The liberating experiences herein are as varied as the individuals who lived them—from a few magical weeks of immersion language study to six months of adventure travel to two years of Peace Corps teaching. Eloquently describing how desire becomes a departure date, how women reconcile their decision with family and friends, and, finally, how they come home again, Jarvis shows how a marriage sabbatical need not be a trial separation or a midlife crisis.

Without much more to go on, what do you make of this idea? Is this a uniquely female need or should men be just as free to say "I need time off - from the demands of working 40 hours a week, raising children, being married, being fully responsible"? I know lots of my readers are male so I'm wondering how it strikes you to read that women need time off. How would you receive it if your wife asked you for two weeks, a month, a year!?

I'm reminded of the book by Anne Tyler called Ladder of Years. In that story, the wife having not paid attention to her needs, leaves her family for an unplanned sabbatical of a year's length without warning, without admitting to the ways in which she has been complicit in her own life's deprivation. She winds up renting a room over a coffee shop in a small town and not calling home or even letting her family know where she is for the first month. (If my memory serves me right.) What was fascinating about that book was the way the wife/mother only had the courage to leave when she did so without any plan, without any permission or clarity or honesty in her relationships.

I can well imagine taking time off to serve, to pursue an artistic endeavor, to take on an athletic feat (like hiking Mt. Whitney or kayaking in Alaska). I do wonder more about long-term sabbaticals - two years in the Peace Corps while you still have children at home? How would you experience your wife telling you she needed a sabbatical of that length? Or your husband?

And I also wonder about the experience of leaving home and husband when the marriage is in danger. Thomas Moore wrote (in Care of the Soul) about a wife who moved out of her home for six months to repair the marriage. He explained that living alone for a period of time was a non-traditional solution to marital troubles and that he did not predict the outcome when she moved out (that it would necessarily lead to healing their marriage), but that her soul was asking for this experience and it needed to be trusted. In their case, the wife stayed in the same town sharing the responsibilities of child-rearing, communicating with her husband etc. as they worked through the issues that had led to her desire to leave.

I don't know what I think about this concept. I like the idea (I have wanted to have a month of undistracted writing where I lived alone to do it) on one level, but I also wonder about it on another. Is there a danger here of asking for time out to renew self when really one is testing time away to leave the marriage? Is that fair?

What do you think?


Matt said...

Wow, this is a really interesting topic, and undoubtedly one that could be carried onto a long conversation on a message board somewhere. It's also one that could cause someone like me (who loves to talk at great length) to ramble on about it. Let me try and give my succinct opinion, though.

Taking a break from marriage (and I'm referring to a break due to exhaustion or frustration, not actual marital difficulty) is something that on the surface would seem to be a good idea. Everyone needs down time alone, and as an introvert I have discovered that my best recharging is done by myself -- either in the car, or with a good book, or off in a room alone for a few quiet minutes. At home, our office is in a separate little building from the rest of our house, and I tend to use that as my escape when I want time to unwind and decompress from the day. However, I also try as hard as I can (and I'm not always successful) to not do so until after the little has been taken care of and put in bed for the night, and any immediate chores have been taken care of. Unfortunately, what I see as a break for me may or may not allow time for my wife to get any sort of break she may need.

I've tried at various times to give Amy what I think would be a good break -- keeping my daughter at home on my day off, so that she won't have to make the drive to and from daycare, and even taking my little one out of town for a father-daughter weekend so that Amy could have three days all to herself. Those sorts of things are good in the short term, but I think that the greatest strength and relaxation that any of can get is when we unwind and play together as a whole, rather than as three separate parts. It doesn't always work out that way, but it's a good goal to have.

Permanent separations because of actual marital difficulty bring up some painful memories of my parents' divorce 18 years ago. My folks decided to separate while I was in boot camp, and so my mother took the opportunity to move into my room. When I returned home at the end of basic training, she moved from there into the basement. I was very conflicted about it at the time, and to this day still feel that in some ways that phase had more of an adverse affect on the family than when she actually moved out of the house. Not only were we dealing with the issues of their impending divorce, but we were living on a daily basis with the extremely visible division between the two of them -- and I don't think it was at all healthy for any of us.

Not sure that this accurately addresses the issue, but some thoughts for the day nonetheless.

Kansas Bob said...

I think that the need for a sabbatical suggests the need to restructure ones home or work life. Someone contemplating such an "escape" should first consider trying something less severe like counseling or entering into a mentorship relationship. I regularly coach people who have issues around stress, work schedules and family life ... mentoring relationships like this seem more natural than taking a sabbatical. Many times getting an outside opinion is scary and requires a bit of humility ... kind of hard for some folks' ego ... but much easier on the family.

Dave said...

My response to this is that the value and risks of such a "leave of absence" would be unique to each marriage and family so it's hard for me to make a blanket statement. There have been times when I have desired an extended period of freedom from the responsibilities of domestic life (and yeah, I don't see anything inherent in the husband or wife role that makes one or the other more "deserving" of such consideration), but I also know myself well enough to conclude that it would be a risky move on my part because I could too easily get used to being away from my wife and kids, at this point in my life, with so much of the routine being familiar and not always as exciting as I'd like it to be (ideally, or in my fantasies, that is.)

So I can see some real harm coming from such a move, though also the possibility of refreshment and renewal. It just depends on the specifics of the marriage and family relationships.

Bottom line for me is that as much as the idea of an extended free time appeals to me on an individual level, I'd be reluctant at this point for either my wife or myself to step out of our present arrangement. Maybe a less drastic experiment, like a week or two of some kind of retreat, could yield similar benefits without running as many risks.

brian said...

A few day get away is a great idea (for both spouses). I don't see women as being any more deserving or needing of a break than men. But, I think, for most people, anything longer than a couple of weeks could cause more trouble than the "relief" it would bring. There are many tempting things about the single life. We all want what we cannot have. To spend too much time away from the family and spouse could cause some to long for that life again as you live through the honeymoon phase of the single life again and forget about the downsides.

My point is that both marriage and family obligation and the single life each have their pros and cons. To say that one needs an extended sabbatical from married life to pursue the single life would make me question the health of one's marriage relationship. There are times when I enjoy a short break from the wife and kids. But, if I were really desiring 6 months or even several weeks off, I'd have to wonder what's wrong with our relationship.


Dave said...

I find it noteworthy that only guys have responded to this question so far!

julieunplugged said...

I do too, Dave.

I tend to agree that an extended leave of absence seems like it would endanger the relationship rather than enhance it. I suppose I'd need to read the book to be convinced otherwise.

I also find it interesting that the sabbatical is aimed at women rather than men. One of the interesting things that I've discovered in the short amount of time I've become a more substantial contributor to the family income is the burden of supporting a group of people. I have a much greater appreciation for the "grind" that men who are primary providers go through.

It would be odd, indeed, if a wife/mother who had not been earning felt that she deserved the sabbatical and the husband who didn't have that option due to his primary role of provider didn't.

I remember one friend and I talking about what great lives we have as at home mothers. We may work hard (and we do) but our time is still much more discretionary with time to watch TV with kids, or put our feet up or to surf the net or eat when we want or head out to the store for a change of scene and more.

Anyway, I wonder what women will say... anyone want to weigh in with a flip side point of view?


Rebecca C. said...

I'm trying, but I just don't see a 'sabbatical' as, well, workable. That implies an extended break from something like work. . .is that really an appropriate image for a marriage that is doing ok?

A brief break for a retreat, a vacation, a semester at school that has to be done--those seem like a viable idea.

A separation while you work things out? It can be a life saver. Even with the background of my own separation leading to divorce not reconciliation, I still recommend it to others--it instantly injected some sanity into daily life for myself, my then husband and my kids.

I think I'm not qute getting my finger on why this doesn't seem like a good idea to me. I read this article a couple of other places first (small internet these days) and have spared it a thought or two over the last couple days, but it just doesn't click with me.

Rebecca C.

Rebecca C. said...

I meant to say, btw, that assuming that I thought a sabbatical WERE a good idea, it is beyond me why it would not be a good idea for both husband and wife. I just didn't buy that at ALL and I thought there were some pretty sweeping generalizations about marriage in that part.

Rebecca C.

julieunplugged said...

Rebecca, I had the same reaction. I know that some women might make good use of time away (and some men too) but I can'[t shake the feeling that had I taken this option when my marriage was in the hardest patch, I would not have wanted to go back. By sticking with Jon and our going to therapy (way back in year three of our marriage) we actually protected our marriage.

I guess I can't imagine saddling the other spouse with double duty either. When Jon goes out of town, even for a weekend, I am always so relieved when he returns! :)


SusansPlace said...

A bit more information about the sabbatical is in order. ;-) The author decided to live at their Cape Cod beach house when her husband decided to take a job in another state. Their marriage was at a stalemate and she just couldn't deal with the move and trying to resurrect the marriage and figure out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She was 50. Both of her sons were grown and out of the house. She would never have done this with her kids at home. Interestingly, the husband retired and moved to the cottage after a year and they were able to work things out-- they both did lots of soul work during that year of separation. The author doesn't recommend everyone leave for a year...sometimes all that is needed is a weekend. ;-)

SusansPlace said...

REGARDING ABOVE POST-please delete, ;-) Or if you don't want to, maybe this post will help explain previous one that I wrote at 2:12 am. haha I was referring to the book "A Year By The Sea" (where the author took a year's "marraige sabbatical") when I described the 50 year old woman's Cape Cod escape. I read "A year By The Sea", by Joan Anderson, and then read some excerpts from the "Marriage Sabbatical" and sort of blurred them together in my response. I doubt this post makes much more sense but anyway, the responses to your blog have been interesting. ;-)

julieunplugged said...

Susan, thanks for speaking up. I haven't read A Year by the Sea and I know that book started you thinking about a marriage sabbatical.

I am usually one who likes innovative solutions to problems and don't like to operate from fear. Perhaps I ought to just read the books and then write about it.

I think the two years in the Peace Corps blew me away! I can see a couple of weeks, even a month, that has a specific purpose. I think it's me wondering aloud if the struggles in a marriage are helped by the separation... and you're saying in this book that they were/are. And that it happened after kids were out of the home.

That I can handle a bit better... :)

Thanks for such a thought-provoking topic. I'm still thinking about it.


Rebecca C. said...

Susan, I read A Year By the Sea and something else by her and loved them. I really didn't see that as a 'sabbatical'; my take on that experience was that it was a trial seperation. She was really struggling with some problems in the marriage. And her/their experience was one that made my think separation helps clear the head when there are problems.

Rebecca C.

Larry Moffitt said...


I like the concept, and especially the thought of some period of totally undistracted writing. Boy, what I could do with whole month!

But I would keep thinking of my kids and my wife.

So here's what I would do: I would be well-heeled enough to work at home all day in a pleasant office in a small cottage in the back yard (or in a glorified, modern tree house).

I would "evolve" into whatever hours work best. Early morning for four hours. Lunch with Taeko. Afternoon writing. Evening with Taeko and the kids. Night until the wee hours writing.

Something like that. And that would be my lifestyle. I would get fully dressed only when I put on a tux to go to a White House dinner.

As for a sabbatical from the wife. We've only been married 25 years. I think what I would really like to do is cover her with chocolate syrup and then ever so excruciatingly slowly, lick it off. And then do it again, pretty much daily until I get cavities or until the price of chocolate becomes prohibitive.

Well, this has been a fun reverie, but I am way, way, way behind on my editing today. So back to my day job.

rotsa ruck,

wilddora said...

I think it's essential to good mental health to have time alone. I do not advocate that marriages have seperations to be good marriages; but that individuals retain their individualness to be married. Taking care of myself so that I can add to the relationship makes perfect sense to me. But how to attain this without having to have lengthly seperations? Instead of making the marriage the issue, I think I should make myself the issue. Think, do, study, go.... even if and especially if the other person doesn't want to do this with you. Expand yourself (not selfishly, yet with determination!)My mother will not like these ideas of mine as her idea of a fullfilled life was to take care of my father and us kids. Great. If that is what makes her happy... Great. But my happiness has no bounds and I want more. So I am more.
gotta go. I realize that this is a great discussion topic; but how to implement it might cause some ripples. So talk on.

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

I know that if I had had a house/cabin to move to during a difficult period, we my not still be together and better than before.

So get away from something or to do something new, to go "toward" something new alone. The distinction could make quite a difference.

I just had a month away for stressful extended family reasons. No home responsibilities, no computer, almost no TV, no housework, except feeding myself, but no rest and relaxation either. I didn't really have a chance to "find myself."

I'm sure that my husband, who loves being alone, still got a taste of the daily tasks I take care of. But in some ways, he doesn't miss me. When he has been gone, I have to pick up many of his chores and there are many I can't do, do to lack of physical strength.

It is good to develope an appreciation for the other's roles at home.

I took a week alone at a resort one time. Not long enough. For me, the key would be having enough time, having the personal items around me to explore some interests, and having no financial pressure (such as extra rent to pay) to make a sabbatical really relaxing. It just doesn't seem realistic unless the people are rich.

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