The journalist Celia Walden recently wrote about taking a six-week marriage sabbatical – “as in, six weeks away from my husband and marriage”. In a post-Covid context, there are probably many couples who could do with a breather, but six weeks seems a little extreme. Where would you go for six whole weeks? Would you have to stay in a hotel? But once you know she is married to Piers Morgan, the real mystery is why take a sabbatical at all when you could be sending out CVs.
Walden traced the marriage sabbatical way back, and across the Atlantic: Americans have this longstanding habit of the wife going out of town for the summer, and the husband staying home to work and have an affair, hence the Seven Year Itch. My mother used to say that the happiest marriages were those where one person was in the navy because then you were off-shift longer than you were on. I have since met a few naval couples and they were uniformly miserable, but that is another story. These models from the past don’t meet the criteria because if one person is still looking after the kids, it is really only a sabbatical for the other.
In fact, the term was coined in the book The Marriage Sabbatical: the Journey that Brings You Home, written by Cheryl Jarvis in 1999. Jarvis, who lives in St Louis, Missouri, conceived it very much in the style of the workplace sabbatical – taken to pursue a dream of your own. “It was very much connected to women’s dreams, something that they wanted to achieve that was personally meaningful to them. For many women, it was just something that they couldn’t do in their home town. You can open a bakery in your home town, but you can’t hike the Appalachian mountains.”
We could argue about whether this is still true now, but it was certainly truer at the tail end of the last century, that a woman putting herself first was a disruption of the social order, almost an insult to it. The problem was not her absence from the home – “A woman could say: ‘I’m going to go be with my sick mother,’” says Jarvis, “and nobody said anything – she was a wonderful woman.” But not if there was a change in her priorities: “When she wanted to do something for herself, it was perceived very differently, that she was selfish.”
When it was published, the book was controversial, seen as a threat to family values. “Which was surprising to me,” Jarvis says, deadpan, “because I have led quite a traditional life.” People assumed that it meant space to have an affair, and would inevitably end in chaos. “The irony to me was that not a single woman I interviewed had that in her consciousness. The idea for every one of them was to have no one in her life.” Realistically, distance is not the critical factor with fidelity. “You can have an affair with a guy in your office,” Jarvis points out.
Quite a lot has changed about marriage in the years since: people are marrying later, in their 30s, and may perceive the constant togetherness as a sacrifice, having got used to more time alone. The financial power balance within the household has changed, too, so it could easily revolve around the wife’s work, with the husband feeling that his dreams have been flattened under its juggernaut. “Sabbaticals were equally necessary for both men and women,” Jarvis says. “The only reason I wrote the book for women is that it’s harder for women to give themselves permission to leave.” Perhaps that has changed.
What has not changed is the hormonal angle, which puts straight couples out of whack just when they have been together long enough to get really irked. Jarvis cites the anthropologist Helen Fisher, who contends: “As men age, their testosterone drops, which leads to them gravitating towards home. Women, as they age, oestrogen drops and that masks testosterone, so suddenly they become more adventurous.”
What if you don’t have a dream or a project – what if you don’t care about hiking, and your only goal is getting away from your spouse? Is that what they call a red flag? Is the sabbatical just a waiting room for divorce? Silva Neves, a relationship psychotherapist, is cautious of the whole “red-flag” concept, which is very generation X. “They [he means those of us who are generation X] are clinging on to these traditional myths: if people sleep in different beds, that means there’s something wrong. You have to always be together, attend all events together, or there’s something wrong. If somebody is enjoying someone else’s attractiveness, that means there’s something wrong. They really battle with these traditional ideas, trying to make them true when they are not.”
Younger people are much more fluid “with the language of relationships. They are more able to challenge ideas like monogamy, they have different ideas of diversity, different set-ups,” says Neves. He adds: “It’s important to have really clear boundaries: it’s not an excuse to meet a stranger in a bar. Often that’s really where the anxiety is coming from.”
In every couple, each person has a sense of interdependence and a desire to stand on their own two feet and do their own thing, but those competing ideas will rarely be exactly the same for both people, nor will they stay constant for either person. There is also a ratchet effect over time, says Neves: “You put a lot of your sense of security and safety on to the other person, and then the demands get higher and higher.” A sabbatical helps to reset that.
A trial separation is a different thing entirely, but if it ends with you back together, then it becomes a sabbatical retroactively. When Rebecca, 38, from Sheffield, and Lee, 40, parted four years ago, they had been together a long time – they met when she was 16 and he was 18. “We were both quite bad at letting things go. We were that couple who argues about the same things over and over again. Things he’d done 10 years before were still annoying me,” says Rebecca.
She started to change her mind about the split when Lee moved to a different city. “I thought: ‘Oh, you’re a really long way away, and I don’t like that,’” she recalls. Rebecca doesn’t know when Lee began to change his mind, “in that way that you don’t want to show your hand too soon, if the other person’s not on the same page”. I’m sure there’s a saying about all this, something about absence and hearts and fondness.
Four weeks later, they began marriage counselling, and after eight weeks, they were back in the same house. They went on to renew their vows in a DIY ceremony at the local miners’ welfare club. “I think it was an important episode and I’m not sorry about it,” Rebecca says. “Maybe if you do that and you learn that you want more space, that’s equally valid. But I got the space and learned that I didn’t want it.”
The struggle is real: sometimes, in a marriage, you just hate each other. Terrence Real, a family therapist and most recently the author of Us, made this striking observation in an interview with the New York Times: “I’ve run around the country for 20 years, talking about what I call ‘normal marital hatred’, and not one person has ever come backstage to ask what I mean by that.”
Drilling into the accretion of resentments in a marriage, the therapist Robin Shohet (quoted in Marina Cantacuzino’s wonderful book Forgiveness) held some sessions with groups of couples. “There was much laughter at these workshops as we recognised that we were all ‘at it’ in gross or subtle ways – gossiping, put-downs, ‘forgetting’, being late, not doing the dishes, sulking, withholding, refusing to acknowledge someone, envy, infidelity, being a failure, being a success even. None of these in themselves is necessarily vengeful, but all could be seen through the eyes of revenge.”
The problem with intimate relationships, marriages at the apex, is that resentments can be constantly replenished. A core component of forgiveness is to get some distance from the event, but how do you manage that when, pattern-finding species that we are, there is always a fresh event to remind you of the last?
We can’t talk about marriage sabbaticals without mentioning the ones you need because you are sick of each other. If you take Jarvis’s original conception, which was about creating a generative, introspective space that you come back from bringing a truer, happier self to the marriage, this is its opposite – getting out of Dodge, in the hope that the shock and drama might remind you of what you once saw in Dodge.
The social conception of marriage will allow that “no one size fits all” and all relationships are idiosyncratic. But there is an expectation beneath this that trumps the cliche with a platitude: that marriage should exist in a state of harmony, or it’s not a real marriage. This was tested quite severely by the pandemic. “Lockdown really showed the importance of space in relationships,” Jarvis says. “Couples were spending so much more time together than they normally did, and a marriage sabbatical in a post-Covid landscape is easier to digest.”
There was also a powerful social pressure to pretend that lockdowns had improved your relationship, that inescapable physical intimacy had led to greater emotional intimacy. The acceptable narratives around that time were of longstanding couples who were suddenly having sex in the afternoons again, new couples who had taken something fragile and nurtured it into solidity.
This disconnect between the cliche, that we are all allowed to be different, and the platitude, that all marriages are states of harmony unless they are over, creates narrow tramlines, in which you either knuckle down or get a divorce. A number of law firms have reported soaring divorce inquiries, and the Courts and Tribunals Service recorded a sudden spike in applications after “no-fault divorce” was introduced earlier this year in England and Wales. I am agnostic about divorce rates and would never say, what a crying shame that at least some of those people didn’t try a sabbatical first and see if that improved things. It is possible that more people should get divorced if they could afford to.
Which brings us to the brute reality that the marriage sabbatical was only ever an option for the affluent or, at a push, the very hardy and retired, who don’t mind camping and don’t need wifi. The original, throwaway question – where are you supposed to go, to a hotel? – is actually the thorniest. Heading into the coming economic crisis, never mind a sabbatical from one another, we’ll be huddling together for warmth. So this is very much a hypothetical question for the sunlit uplands.
Nevertheless, it would be useful to admit the real rhythm of marriage, which is not a constant state of harmony, but rather, a cycle of harmony, disharmony and repair in constant flux. Some people’s fluxes last years, and other people’s 20 minutes. If we could let in the tiny ray of light that is the sabbatical, implicitly allowing in the unsayable fact that sometimes we would rather be apart than together, we might struggle less in trying to match the myth of marriage to its reality.