I have a client at the moment who recently took a ‘marriage sabbatical’. At least, that’s what she and her husband called it.
A work sabbatical is traditionally when you take a break from your job to study something else for a while. The idea is that regular work is too full to focus on the study, so you have some time away, and come back to the job both with new and useful knowledge and a fresh spirit.
That’s what this client is doing with her marriage: she’s taking a month off to be away from her husband and all the expectations and pressures she feels (rightly or wrongly) from being in the marriage, in order to have the space to learn more about herself and what she wants and needs in her life and in her marriage.
I love this term. It’s so much better than ‘trial separation’ or other more onerous terms. It’s calling it for what it is: time out.
These clients, like so many others who seem to have reached a plateau, have been married for over twenty years and are now empty nesters. They’ve had some struggles in recent years, but otherwise life is good - they’re well off, healthy and their careers are thriving. But she’s lost the zing and feeling a bit lost.
I see it mostly in female clients. They can’t see the forest for the trees, meaning they can’t identify their needs from within the marriage. They need a break to see things more clearly.
Not surprisingly, their husbands can find this concept of needing a break as threatening. He’s worried that if she has this level of freedom she won’t come back to him. This is of course one possible outcome. But as the saying goes: “Set the caged bird free, if she comes back, she’s yours, if she doesn't she’s not.” You have to set her free to find out.
Of course the husbands will argue that she’s not caged. If she’s not, then there should be no problem in her expressing her freedom. Or he might argue that being in a marriage or committed relationship comes with certain obligations to be there for him. Undoubtedly that’s true, but if she’s feeling she’s so stifled, for whatever reason, why not give her space to discover herself anew? Then if she does come back to you, you know she’s with you out of true desire and not obligation.
And of course this is equally true if it’s a man who wants the sabbatical.
Scary stuff - for both, however it plays out!
Negotiating the ‘rules’ of the sabbatical are important: how much if any contact to have with each other, and of course the biggie - can you see other people while apart? That discussion in itself is challenging yet empowering and personal-growth-inducing. It’s hard though, which is why I get called in to help out.
I do admire the couples who can allow this to happen. It does take a considerable amount of personal growth to be able to accept this choice. This level of awareness and consciousness does mean though, that if the one on leave decides that they don’t want to be in the relationship any longer, they are mature enough to separate with love and consideration, rather than the more typical bitterness and hostility.
So back to our couple who opened this article, when he said his wife was having a ‘marriage sabbatical’ I knew that he understood, and so did she. He gave her the space with love, got on with his own life in the meantime (so wasn’t just ‘waiting’ passively), she accepted that offer graciously - and they both gave their relationship the best chance for growth that they could.
The result? She chose to stay with him and they’re continuing to grow and develop their relationship anew.
Note: I have to stress that a marriage sabbatical of this type is not for everyone, and is certainly not a guarantee of ‘ falling back in love’. So if you are thinking of taking one, it has to be carefully negotiated - I’d recommend some professional guidance if you are.