Experts reveal why taking a break away from your partner can help renew and strengthen your bond as a couple
Romantic relationships may be joyous, but they are also hard work. And even the happiest couples need a reboot on occasion.
Sometimes, creating some critical distance between yourself and the person you love can be essential maintenance. A bit like a relationship NCT.
Which may be why some couples opt for a relationship sabbatical. This involves spending an extended period of time away from your partner and your relationship. It can give you the space to reassess what you want out of life, both on an individual level and as a collective, before reuniting.
Last year, Piers Morgan’s wife Celia Walden announced they had taken a six-week sabbatical. “It was very good for both of us,” she said.
“We didn’t have problems before, it was nothing like that… I described it... as like rebooting your computer, where sometimes it’s not that there’s anything in particular that’s wrong, but it grinds to a bit of a halt, and you reboot it and suddenly it comes back to life.”
The sabbatical was made easier as Morgan was working in the States at the time. The couple, who have a daughter, didn’t speak on the phone, but they did message one another. According to Walden, it helped to reignite passion and, maybe more importantly, appreciation of one another.
“I just found it so exciting when we saw each other again. It felt like the early days of our marriage or even the early days of dating and I loved that.”
Taking some time and distance apart as a romantic couple can come with a lot of stigma and judgment. Psychosexual and relationship therapist Aoife Drury says sometimes people wrongly assume it is the inevitable first step towards a break down.
“There’s expectations of what relationships should look like and how they should have these linear progressions and markers,” she says. “It’s not dissimilar to this narrative around couples going into therapy, that it means they’re in crisis or the relationship is deteriorating when that’s absolutely not the case. It’s good upkeep.”
Drury thinks we need to have a more accepting and holistic approach to relationships; to give ourselves the permission to examine, challenge and take a step back from them. Asking questions like, “Am I getting the most out of my life in this relationship?” and “Am I as fulfilled in my life as I could be?” is of benefit to the individual and the couple.
Dating coach Frances Kelleher says there is “great power and wisdom” when you grant yourself the time and space to think.
“It can give the person the breather they need to regroup and miss the other person,” she says. “It can give them the space to get back to who they are as an individual, to find themselves again away from the couple-hood. It allows them to take some time out for themselves so that they come back with their own tanks full and ready to give again to their partner.”
The term ‘marriage sabbatical’ was first coined by author Cheryl Jarvis in 1999. She decided to take some time away from her husband of 25 years, so packed her bags and spent 12 weeks in a writer’s retreat. Afterwards, she published her book The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home.
The book came under fire for undermining the institution of marriage despite the fact Jarvis was saying it helped both her and her husband.
“The idea of a work sabbatical is that you return renewed and revived,” Jarvis wrote. “A marriage is as emotionally intense as any job, one of life’s greatest challenges, but there’s no annual leave, no ritual rest.”
For many couples, the beginning of the year can be the ideal time to consider taking some relationship annual leave. But it’s important to understand exactly what a relationship sabbatical entails before embarking on one.
First of all, a sabbatical is very different from a trial separation, ‘a break’, or a ‘hall pass’ sexual fling. “A trial separation is a situation where you are having problems and decide to separate. It could lead to divorce or coming back together. It is an undecided amount of time apart,” says Kelleher.
“A sabbatical is a chosen break away from your partner. It’s a temporary break that has a time limit on it and that often has nothing to do with conflict.” This is taking some time to reflect before returning to the relationship.
The first thing you need to do when preparing to take a sabbatical is clarify the intention — what do you want to achieve during this time? “[Is it about]… having a bit of a breathing space and facilitating reflection and reflexivity?... [Is it] allowing distance to have time to think about what is important for the individuals and then collectively as a couple as well?,” says Drury.
“You must ask, ‘What do we want to achieve by this distance from each other?’, ‘How do we want to come back together?’... ‘What do we hope that the other person thinks about?’ I think it is about that intention and trying to be really clear and concise.”
A sabbatical will place your relationship in uncharted territory and that can be hugely discombobulating. To counter those feelings, it is important to put some stabilising parameters in place, such as how will you communicate during this period — via email or not at all? How do you want to resume your relationship afterwards? Is there an area of the relationship you want to focus on?
Do not assume you are on the same page and clearly outline your expectations and goals for the time apart.
“People have different ideas and boundaries and you cannot expect someone to be a mind reader and know yours without expressing them,” says Kelleher. “Also, when people are not on the same page with expectations, it’s very easy to get hurt.
“People are more sensitive than we realise and emotions run high in romantic relationships. Be clear and assertive in your needs and wants.”
It’s also important to set an agreed time frame. It gives the period some tangibility which can be reassuring when your relationship is in a suspended state. “Often that unknown [or] lack of clarity might cause more anxiety,” says Drury.
Talk about sex. You don’t want to gloss over the topic and then pick things up a few weeks later to discover one of you has remained monogamous while the other explored new sexual partners. This could cause huge amounts of hurt and resentment.
“It needs to be really overt and explicit as to what you both see this sabbatical as being,” adds Drury. “If you’re in a non-monogamous relationship… are the rules or outlines… still being adhered to? If you’re in a monogamous relationship… what are the parameters around that?”
And be careful who you tell about your decision to embark on a sabbatical. “You should do what’s best for you and your partner,” says Kelleher. “A relationship is no one’s business, only the people in it.”
Obviously a six-week relationship sabbatical is not an option for everyone. It is costly and if you have dependents, it could become complicated. But Kelleher says it’s possible to take “micro sabbaticals” if you need them.
That could mean heading off for the weekend, or staying with a friend, or going to a festival on your own. Anything that will help create some distance, meaning you can return to your partner with a newfound sense of appreciation of yourself and each other.