Book Excerpt: The Marriage Sabbatical

Today, many marriages have built-in separations from commuter jobs, travel-dependent professions, military service, and company relocations. When a man gets transferred and his wife waits a year to join him because she's putting the house on the market or when a man takes a few months to follow his wife, who has moved to a new position in another city, whether they are conscious of it or not, the relationship is getting a rest. But what about couples whose jobs don't provide such opportunities for renewal? What makes a sabbatical an idea worth examining today is our longer life expectancy and its corollary, a longer marriage expectancy. At the turn of the century, few people lived to see all their children grown. Most were dead by fifty. Today at fifty, we have another thirty years to go. At the same time that we're looking at a longer and healthier life span than any other time in history, we're having fewer children and, therefore, spending fewer years raising all of them. We're also living in a society that's changing faster than we are. A world in which people can, or must, reinvent their lives at forty, fifty, and sixty is a world in which marriage for life becomes an increasing challenge. With the rise in gender equality has come another cultural shift: a revolution in marital expectations. How many of us enter marriage expecting our spouse to be our lover, best friend, parenting partner, recre! ational companion, and spiritual soul mate? That's a lot of psychic weight to place on one relationship — given that nearly half of all couples divorce, more weight than it apparently can bear. A time when many are wondering how to make their marriages thrive over a long stretch of years is a time to examine sabbaticals in marriage not as pathology but as promise.

A marriage sabbatical is as relevant for men as it is for women. The more men I talked with, the more I struggled with focusing only on women's journeys. But while the emotions are universal, cultural realities and expectations are not. Four specific realities make taking a sabbatical a bigger issue for women than for men.

Marriage disproportionately benefits men. Pioneer marital researcher Jessie Bernard said it in 1972, and both male and female researchers say it today. Married women suffer more depression than married men — twice the rate, in fact, over the last three decades. When compared to their single counterparts, married women have more stress, less sense of mastery, and lower self-esteem. Married men, on the other hand, are healthier and happier and live longer than single men. A study led by social psychologist Marjorie Fiske Lowenthal found early warning signs: Newlywed women think about death more often than the middle-aged and the elderly, while newlywed men think about it the least. The Victorians anticipated that women's health would decline after they married, and it was this belief, historians say, that fueled the rise of sanitariums and water-cure retreats. What was assumed in the nineteenth century, researchers proved in the twentieth: Marriage carries greater health hazards f! or women than for men.

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