Could a sabbatical save your marriage?
Rather than have a messy affair or embark on a costly divorce, would you consider a revolutionary way to save your relationship: a two-day-a-week break?
Anyone whose relationship has long passed the giddily hormonal stages knows that the chains of wedlock can be heavy, with enormous expectations placed upon couples to stay together, with no respite, for decades.
Holidays, of course, often help to ease the stress by creating a new environment away from the pressures of work and domestic duties. But another type of break is increasingly being discussed: a relationship break. Instead of having an affair, or going through a costly and devastating divorce, couples are starting simply to take a break from their relationship, returning at a later stage fresh, relaxed and ready once again to commit.
While to traditionalists it may sound extremely odd, the concept is starting to gain ground among those who have experimented with it, including the actress Emma Thompson. "I wonder whether a sabbatical isn't the way forward for a lot of married couples?" she mused recently. "Maybe every marriage should have one? Couples should be forced to take a break from each other every so often."
I agree with her. Five years ago, my husband and I were going through what friends gently called 'a bad patch' – in the same way that a weed-pocked wasteland is 'a vegetable patch'. Years of stress, step-parenting, money troubles and, finally, our family business collapsing in the recession had all taken their toll, and we were fighting daily, sick of each other's worst qualities (my tendency to panicky hysteria, Simon's chilly withdrawal). We were a rice-paper's breadth away from splitting up.
But with teenage children still at home and finances entangled like an Escher drawing, not to mention the fact that deep down we still loved each other, divorce seemed a drastic step towards loneliness and regret. We'd tried counselling, which soon descended into me huddling like a damp crow on the therapist's sofa, while he "banged on" (my words). So rather than throw more money at "learning to listen", we eventually concluded that what we really needed was a break. Not a trial separation – that implied a decision to eventually split. And not total freedom, which suggested that sleeping with other people was acceptable. Just a bit of space.
Actually, our sabbatical involved something rather simple: Simon spending a couple of nights a week at his eldest daughter's flat, five miles away. The trickiest part at first was explaining to friends that no, we were not splitting up, and, no, the arrangement wasn't for work reasons. Once those social hurdles had been surmounted, having time apart started to work. I began to miss turning to him and making a joke about some pompous politician on the news; alone, there was nobody to roll my eyes at and no one to share a meal with.
We both missed having a physical relationship, too, which led to new-found closeness when we were together. Instead of avoiding each other, or flicking on the TV, we started to go out together for a drink, or put on some music and share a bottle of wine. After two years of the arrangement, we discovered the breathing space we had needed and the things that were good about our relationship and each other, and Simon moved back in permanently.
Perhaps it succeeded because we were both equally committed to the idea and vigilant about keeping to a routine. The real danger of a sabbatical, says psychotherapist Rachel Morris, is in failing to define what it means. "A relationship sabbatical isn't a trial separation to see how you'll do without each other. It's a positive choice: giving each other space in order to put more back into the relationship," she says.
Ideally, a break gives both partners time to remember who they are outside of the relationship, why they love each other and to enjoy separate interests and experiences without guilt. But there are inherent difficulties in taking a break from a marriage, not least deciding who stays and who goes, and for how long.
In our case, it made sense for me to remain at home, as my son, then 16, was still at school, and my office was at the end of the landing. Simon had more flexibility to go away for a couple of days a week to his daughter's flat, where he could catch up on work, watch box-sets and cook, while I enjoyed evenings alone. We were lucky: we had a ready-made flat and the children were older, so for us weary empty-nesters, taking a sabbatical was relatively simple to arrange. But for those with younger children, it can prove tricky.
"It can work if the couple have the support to ensure the children are properly cared for," says relationship psychologist Francesca Moresi. "But it is vital for parents to communicate that they're not separating. And, crucially, the children must know when the parent is coming back."
How long a sabbatical should be is entirely down to individual choice, but for Moresi, a couple of weeks is too little, and six months or a year too long. "It does need to be long enough to have time to reflect, miss each other and feel refreshed," she says. "But it shouldn't be so long that the couple starts to detach."
Which is why an ongoing, "part-time" sabbatical worked for us. Two days a week was a manageable time apart, and was financially viable, whereas if Simon had swanned off on some European grand tour for three months, not only would I have burned with resentment, but we would also have been financially crippled. Borrowing a friend's cottage for a few weeks is one thing; renting a house for months is dangerously close to leaving altogether, particularly if the stay-at-home partner feels abandoned.
"It's essential that both partners see the benefits of a sabbatical," Morris says. "If just one of you wants it, it can't work, and you'd be better off going for counselling to uncover what you really feel about the relationship." But with a contract, stating the reasons for the break, how long it will last, and how much contact you will both have – from daily Facebook messaging to none at all – a sabbatical could be a shot of adrenalin to a moribund marriage.
Three years later, we are still together permanently and enjoying each other's company. But if things were to go wrong in future, and we could afford to part temporarily, we wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Because ultimately, while talking can be useful and counselling can be crucial, sometimes what both partners need more than anything is simply to give each other a break.