March 8, 2001 -- Some married couples are going solo on long retreats, taking a break from their lives together to follow their dreams.
In her new book, The Marriage Sabbatical, author Cheryl Jarvis explores this relatively new phenomenon, which she says she has taken part in.
When Jarvis was 38 she wanted to take a job halfway across the country for three months. She decided to turn down the position after her kids asked her to decline.
First Time Alone
Years later, she realized that she really wanted to go away to work alone for awhile. So when she was 51, Jarvis took a sabbatical. For three months, she stayed at various writers' colonies and immersed herself in developing her book.
It was the first time she had been away from her husband of 30 years for more than a week. "That time away was the first time I had the luxury of just thinking about myself," she says.
Jarvis interviewed about 55 women and a few of their husbands for The Marriage Sabbatical. One woman went off by herself for six months to read great books. Others took summers off to teach or study in Europe. One of the women Jarvis met dealt with grief over the death of her child by walking the Appalachian Trail.
The author found one common link between all of the women she interviewed — they all intended to return to their husbands. Their sabbatical wasn't about getting away from their partner. It was about getting closer to themselves and their dreams.
Jarvis says people should think of it as a sabbatical within the marriage, a break from the routine instead of a sabbatical from the relationship. She points out that in the academic world, people take sabbaticals in order to come back energized and refreshed.
Jarvis says marriage sabbaticals can breathe new life into relationships. When the couples are back together, Jarvis says, they seem to treasure each other even more, and they don't take each other for granted.
Guilt and Fear
Every woman interviewed for the book encountered some degree of fear and discomfort in leaving. However, she found there was a wide range of feelings. Some women were consumed by guilt for leaving; ironically, those were some of the wives who were traveling the shortest distances, and for the shortest periods of time
On the other hand, a woman who left for the Peace Corps for two years said she didn't feel any guilt at all. Men go on sabbaticals, too, but they have always felt free to do so, according to Jarvis. She says most women have felt they needed "permission."
Jarvis interviewed women of all different ages and backgrounds for her book, though most had been with their husbands for at least six years. At the time of their sabbaticals, the women ranged in age from 28 to 64.
One of the women Jarvis met during her research, Sally Howald, took a three-month sabbatical to teach in the Netherlands in 1993.At the time her son was only 10. Her husband, Terry Howald, thought it would be a great opportunity for her. He had some friends who didn't understand it, but he believed that if he didn't let Sally follow her dreams, it could really hurt the marriage.
The Heart Grows Fonder
In the end, Terry said his wife's time away improved their marriage because it helped Sally feel good about herself. She also appreciated Terry's overwhelming demonstration of love in letting her go.
Some people definitely see a marriage sabbatical as a selfish vacation. No matter what you call it — self-nurturing or self-developmental — it really is all about you. But Jarvis argues that the more you do things to fill up yourself, the more you have to give to others.
Jarvis concedes that the definition and length of a sabbatical is vague and it changes from woman to woman. It might be just three weeks, or could be two years, as it was in the case of the woman who left her family at age 50 to pursue her lifelong dream of joining the Peace Corps.
"A five-week leave for one woman can be a more difficult and transformative act than a five-month leave for another."