Book Excerpt: The Marriage Sabbatical

The following excerpt comes from Cheryl Jarvis' new book, The Marriage Sabbatical.

Buy your copy of The Marriage Sabbatical.


I'm sitting at the dining-room table making phone calls, struggling to get a job in a city where creative opportunities are limited. The right side of my neck aches from my prolonged, hunched-over position. A pain shoots its way down my arm. I'm longing for a shoulder rub when the phone rings. It's the senior producer of the television show I worked on before it moved east. The producer who replaced me isn't working out, he says, and her successor can't start for a few months. Will I come to Connecticut to fill in?

By the time I'm off the phone, I've forgotten the pain. I start to feel light-headed as I think about how luxurious it would be to focus on the job without feeling pulled in all directions. Before, when I was at work, I was thinking of home; when I was at home, I was thinking of work, my loyalties divided always. Rushing in late to the office, after negotiating breakfasts and schedules and last-minute school projects, racing out early for baseball games, tennis matches, music lessons, I always had the nagging feeling that the single producers on staff were putting in longer hours, achieving more. I think of the shows I could create if I weren't constantly worrying about who or what I was neglecting. My thoughts meander to living alone for three months, to having Sundays just for me. I fantasize about long walks in the New England countryside. Guilty pleasure suffuses my body like an endorphin high.

At dinner I barely touch my food as I talk excitedly about my opportunity. My husband says little; after years of practicing psychotherapy, he is well trained to listen, well trained not to react. The boys, ten and fourteen, ask a few questions: When would you leave? How long would you be gone? Later that evening, I'm reading in bed, psychologically already airborne, when my younger son walks in, closes the door behind him, and sits on the edge of the bed. "I don't want you to go," he says. "School will be starting then. What if I have a problem? I need you when school starts. You can go another time. Please don't go now." Later, my older son comes in, closes the door, and sits at the same spot on the edge of the bed. Same plea, different reason.

Feelings whirl through me: sureness that I won't accept the offer; dejection, now that my chance to live and work alone for a few months has vanished; elation that my sons need me. But something significant has happened. I have admitted to myself how much I long to go.

I was thirty-eight then. Over the next ten years, I celebrated my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, sent two boys to college at opposite ends of the country, and navigated through five different jobs. Every time I saw single co-workers take off for Chicago or Los Angeles or New York, I felt a pang for the path not taken. Many of them, I knew, looked at married colleagues and longed for a couple's steady intimacy the way I looked at them and longed for their freedom. Is it just human nature that after fulfilling our desire for one, we yearn for the other? Or is it that we really crave both at once? Each time I helped one of our sons pack — for Outward Bound, for a summer in Oregon, for a semester in Spain — I envied his going away on an adventure by himself. I'd take him to the airport, feeling his life widening, mine narrowing, a sense of time and opportunity slipping away. Somewhere in the goodbyes, amid smiles and hugs and admonitions to call/be careful/stay safe, I'd utter what! had become my standard line: "In my next life."

The year I turned forty-eight, something clicked. What next life?

This book was born out of conflict — between loving my husband yet wanting to leave him. No, needing to leave him. It wasn't frustration over traditional gender roles. He has been doing the laundry since I spilled bleach on his favorite tennis shirt the first year we were married. It wasn't irritation over masculine deficiencies as depicted in women's magazines. I'm the one who scrambles at the last minute for his birthday gift, I'm the one who drops my clothes all over the bedroom floor, I'm the one who spends hours zapping the remote. He was a feminist when we met, and we had a peer marriage before sociologist Pepper Schwartz coined the phrase. We lead independent lives. We have what some people call "a long leash." Feeling free at home, however, was not enough. I needed to go away, alone. Not for a week — I'd done that often. Just for a little while. But the yearning felt unnatural, and guilt invaded my body like the arthritis I've developed from years of overexercise. As the guilt deepened, anger flashed: Where was it written that I couldn't take a solo adventure, that because I was married I couldn't take time off, time away, time alone? What did one have to do with the other? And where were these emotions coming from? I had no answers to these questions because I didn't know any married women who had done what I wanted to do. For the first seventeen years of my marriage I didn't imagine it. Once I imagined it, I couldn't voice it. Growing older, however, meant I came increasingly to believe that if I felt something strongly, there must be other women who felt the same way. I wrote this book to find these women, women who had successfully left home to pursue a dream, women in good marriages who could explain the journey and support me along the way. I wrote this book because I needed answers to my questions. Subconsciously, I needed permission to leave.

I began by confiding my thoughts hesitantly to an older friend, who told me her story. She led me to other women, who told me theirs. And then I came to realize what was missing from our culture: a new narrative for marriage. And when I found the narrative, I discovered the grace within the tension: a way to reconcile my desires for both commitment and freedom, a way to honor both my marriage and myself. Rooted in language that goes back two thousand years, the narrative is contemporary, the model ancient. The Bible tells us that after God created the heavens and the earth, "he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done." And then he blessed the day. Honoring the Sabbath (from shabbat, to rest) became one of the Ten Commandments and a distinguishing feature of the Jewish faith. Today, most religions of the world honor periods of rest. The ancient Hebrews extended the principle to agriculture: According to Mosaic law, the land and vineyards were to lie fallow every seventh year "as a Sabbath to the Lord." The belief was that fields could be grazed for only so long without losing nutrients. They needed replenishing. The Hebrews called the respite a "sabbatical year."

Modern interpretations give the word a deeper dimension. Theologians have defined the Sabbath as spirit in the form of time, a day of re-creation or reconnection. One Jewish scholar believes it is intended to be an invigorating experience, focused on human fulfillment. With its theological underpinnings, the concept spread to the secular world: If God needed to rest from the work of creation, then surely mortal men and women needed to rest, too. In 1880, Harvard University became the first American institution to grant sabbaticals to its faculty. While today the practice is most widespread in the teaching profession, sabbaticals can be found in journalism, medicine, law, government, and business. The connotation has remained essentially the same over the last hundred years: time off from daily routines to develop intellectually, focus creatively, renew physically. The parameters, however, have changed considerably. Sabbaticals today are accelerated, shortened, and variable. On! e college offers them after just three years; another offers faculty development leaves over six-week short terms. Some companies require that sabbaticals be spent on social service. Others urge employees to go after a dream. A paid sabbatical in business typically lasts four to six weeks.

Yet in marriage — one of the world's oldest institutions, one of life's greatest challenges, a relationship which can be as emotionally intense as any job, which even conventional wisdom calls hard work — there is no development leave, no ritual rest. It may not be coincidence that in biblical times the land was to lie fallow every seventh year and that the average length of marriage at the time of divorce in this country is 7.4 years, making "the seven-year itch" more than a catchphrase. What would happen if we looked to nature and let our marriages rest for a while in order to regenerate? What would happen if we took time out for an invigorating experience, focused on human fulfillment? Sabbaticals have actually been taking place in marriage under other guises for centuries. In the Middle Ages, wealthy married women who wanted time alone retreated to convents. In Victorian times, the treatment for hysteria, a psychiatric condition characterized in part by excessive anxiety, was a sea voyage, a long journey, a move from town to country — anything to stimulate the nervous system. Among the prescribed treatments for neurasthenia, a mental disorder characterized by inexplicable exhaustion and irritability, was separation from family and familiar surroundings. Water-cure establishments, sanitariums, and other retreats proliferated during this era.

No wonder these illnesses were considered predominantly female. No wonder they were overdiagnosed. No wonder they were found only in the middle and upper classes, those who could afford a retreat or sea voyage. No wonder these "treatments" usually brought relief. Getting sick was one of the few acceptable ways women could get time for themselves.

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.

A sabbatical is a greater issue for women because it is harder for women to leave. In spite of men's increasing involvement in family life, women still outnumber men in all caregiving roles. Studies overwhelmingly show that in families of two working parents, women still put in longer hours with children and household tasks. When a child of two working parents gets sick, it is still the mother who most often stays home. Women spend significantly more time than men taking care of elderly relatives, and this time is destined to increase. An American working woman today can expect to spend more years caring for an aging parent than she will for a dependent child. And as women themselves grow older, they are more likely to take care of their husbands than their husbands are to take care of them. Sabbaticals are also a bigger issue for women because of psychological gender differences. As behavioral psychologist Carol Gilligan theorized in her groundbreaking work In a Different Voice, women are conditioned to be more relational than men and while men develop their identity through separation and autonomy, women develop their identity through relationship with others. Because women are raised to invest more in relationship, because their sense of self is organized around affiliation, it is psychologically more difficult for them to move away from the relationships in their lives.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung proposed a different theory of psychological development, but equally relevant. Historically, our culture has suppressed what we once called "male" characteristics (power and independence) in women and "female" characteristics (emotional expressiveness and nurturing) in men. The task of the second half of life, said Jung, is to claim our contrasexual energies — in other words, to find our missing selves. To fulfill this task, "to become whole," men who need to discover their "feminine" side are pulled inward, toward home and family life, while women who need to develop their "masculine" traits are pulled outward, away from home and family life. Although increasing numbers of women find personal power in their twenties and thirties, those who spend the first half of their adult life raising children often don't discover this power until their middle and later years.

And finally, sabbaticals are a bigger issue for women because women have fewer role models. In the classroom, we grew up on male archetypes. The Odyssey was the world's first story that combined wanderlust with married love, but it was the Greek hero Odysseus who traveled the world while his wife Penelope stayed at home. His ten-year sea voyage after the Trojan War was a journey of self-discovery; her ten-year wait, a model of virtue. Homer wrote his epic prose poem more than 2,700 years ago, yet the marital myth of men's mobility and women's rootedness still predominates on the screen. Whether the Knights of the Round Table ride into forests to search for the Holy Grail, soldiers cross continents to fight for a cause, or adventurers dare oceans, mountains, and skies just for the challenge, our cinematic history is filled with images of men leaving and returning home.

When women leave home, however, the movies tell a different story. In Fatal Attraction, when the wife leaves for the weekend, all hell breaks loose. Her husband commits adultery with a woman so deranged that she stalks him, terrorizes his family, and finally ends up dead in their bathtub, murdered by the wife whose absence started it all. In Thelma and Louise, Thelma leaves her husband to go on a two-day road trip and ends up driving off the edge of the Grand Canyon. If women who leave home aren't punished, it's a sure thing they're not coming back. When the heroine of Shirley Valentine leaves her house in London for an island in Greece, she stays in Greece. Why wouldn't she? Her marriage is stifling, her husband both tyrant and bore. When Billy Crystal leaves home in City Slickers, however, he leaves a likable and sympathetic wife and two engaging children. He not only returns, he comes back with new energy for life, for love, for work. Why hasn't a movie been made about a ma! rried woman who leaves home and returns a stronger person to a loving family? The problem with these stereotyped images is that they shape our perceptions, and then they shape our lives.

Many of us grew up seeing our fathers go off — on hunting, fishing, golfing trips — but how many of us over forty have memories of our mothers leaving home for anything but a visit to relatives or a stay in the hospital? How many of us had a mother who went off for herself alone? Men have always had permission to leave, but of women's leaving we have two dominant images: Edna walking into the ocean in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and Nora walking out the door in Ibsen's A Doll's House. A self submerged or a relationship severed. Either way, sinking or bailing, a permanent disconnect.

There is no paradigm for a married woman's leaving home for a while for personal growth. There is no paradigm for a married woman's returning at all, much less fulfilled, energized, maybe newly in love with her husband. If women lack role models, if women are suffering in marriage, if women are increasingly the ones choosing to dismantle in court what they once yearned to wreathe in ceremony, then it's women who need to write a new script.

Who are the women whose voices appear on these pages? When interviewed, the youngest was twenty-nine, the oldest seventy-four, married or in a committed relationship from five years to more than fifty. At the time of their sabbaticals, they ranged in age from twenty-eight to sixty-four. The women come from twenty-two states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and New Zealand, from towns of 500 to cities of 5 million. They represent diverse cultures and backgrounds, but they are all middle- and upper-class women with educations and professions. They are not a cross-section or a representative sample of married women who have left home. This book is not the result of clinical research or a sociological study. Many names came to me by word of mouth. I asked each woman if she knew of other married women "who left home to pursue their own growth and returned," and many did. I sent out inquiries over the Internet. I placed ads in regional newspapers.

This book is based on interviews with fifty-five women. I interviewed some women either before or during their journeys, then again after they arrived home. The majority, however, were looking back on their experiences with some distance and perspective. Real names are used for those whose experiences were already in print. I changed all other women's names to protect their privacy but kept their professions because the nature of their sabbaticals was often linked to their work. To give a broader dimension to women's experiences, I talked with thirty husbands and twenty children. For psychological insights, I interviewed twenty-four professionals, including marriage counselors and researchers, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and Jungian analysts. I didn't want academic answers. All were clinicians, the majority married ten years or longer. A number of them had taken sabbaticals themselves.

This book is not a marriage manual or how-to guide. It is not an analysis of a sociological trend or a simplistic endorsement. It is an exploration of married women leaving home — their reasons, their anxieties, their experiences — and the impact of these experiences on them, their husbands, and their marriages. The more I delved into the topic, the less I wanted to include my own story. Other women had greater obstacles to overcome and more dramatic stories to tell. While it was fascinating to interview others, it was painful to look at my own life, the mistakes I made, the fears and insecurities I harbored. I wasn't prepared to recognize other women's land mines as my own. I included my story, in the end, because it is from the heart of these emotions that the book was written.

How do I define sabbatical? I use the term the same way it is used in professional life: a personal time-out from daily routines for creative, professional, or spiritual growth, for study, reflection, or renewal. It is not a prolonged visit with friends or an emergency leave to care for an ailing parent. It is not summers with the children at the lake, with husbands arriving on the weekend. The sabbaticals — in this book — are solo journeys in which women voluntarily leave all that is familiar and comfortable and safe to venture into the unknown.

What time frame constitutes a sabbatical in marriage? The more I tried to contain the duration, the more elastic it became. It's whatever a woman needs to re-create her life or fulfill a dream, which means it's different for each woman. What's important about the duration is less the time spent, more the stretch and the effect. A five-week leave for one woman can be a more difficult and transformative act than a five-month leave for another. In this book, four sabbaticals lasted more than a year. Six extended over several years, when women went out of town for graduate school, which meant several leaves of four months each. The rest ranged from one to nine months. The average time away was four months, the typical length of a sabbatical in academia today. But more than half of the women's journeys lasted between one month and three, a duration likelier to be found in the business world.

Some women readily admitted they had taken a sabbatical; others had never used the word but thought it appropriate. One woman was amused by the term. And one woman bristled: I was not leaving my husband, she said. No woman I interviewed was leaving her husband, any more than professors on sabbatical are leaving the universities where they teach. While they were away, women telephoned, e-mailed, wrote letters, sent gifts, arranged visits. They were not leaving emotionally. They were leaving physically. Whether or not they were looking for a rest from the relationship, they got one.

Twelve years after the dream arose like a genie from a burnished lamp — elusive yet powerfully seductive — I decided to leave for three months to begin writing this book, three months to live and work alone. One thought predominated: What happens when a married woman takes some time and space away?

— From The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey that Brings You Home, by Cheryl Jarvis. © December 26, 2000, Perseus Books used by permission.