For years you and your spouse’s lives have revolved around the children. Your jobs and running the household have kept you both so busy you haven’t spent much time together as a couple.
Perhaps you’ve started feeling like two people who are just sharing a household rather than a couple because most of your conversation is made up of, “You need to pick up milk and bread” and “Can you drop the kids at school tomorrow?”
Perhaps you’re even bickering constantly about minor things simply because your nerves are frayed.
Whatever the case, you’ve just lost that loving feeling. Traditional wisdom would say you and your partner need a couple’s getaway. But these days there’s a new trend that entails doing the exact opposite: taking a relationship sabbatical.
That’s right – more and more couples are ensuring happy unions, or even saving their marriages, by spending time apart. Ten years ago just 10 percent of British couples took separate holidays, according to Britain’s the Daily Mail.
These days that number has increased to more than 30 percent. British author Raffaella Barker says she and her husband, who’ve been together for 10 years, regularly holiday separately so they can indulge their own interests.
“No couple shares all the same interests. My husband and I (he’s 58, I’m 51) are old enough to know that time is precious,” she says. “While what we do together is vital, life is too short to spend weeks away doing things you simply don’t want to.”
Holidaying on your own also means you don’t have to worry about your spouse’s expectations, she says.
Many couples can relate to the feeling of being at odds with their partner while on holiday. Perhaps your spouse is intent on binge-watching a new series while you’d rather hike in the mountains, or they want to try an extreme sport when you’d rather lie on the beach with a book.
“My experience is that the time apart gives a frisson of excitement and renewal to the relationship,” Raffaella says. “I can’t wait to see my husband afterwards. I’m curious about his experiences and interested in the idea of him being out in the world where I haven’t been. It stops me taking him for granted and reminds me of when we first met.”
Space can be a good thing for a relationship, Durban psychologist Carol Dixon says.
“We all need space at different times – to explore our own interests, to grow in areas that are specific and unique to us, to be independent or to ‘breathe’ after a conflict, reflect and gather our thoughts.”
There are three participants in a relationship, says Cheryl Sol, a clinical psychologist from Durban. “There’s you, your partner and the couple you are. They all need attention. Each person needs space and time to experience what makes them happy or fulfilled in a way that’s appropriate to being part of a committed couple.”
But experts insist that if you’re the one suggesting the break you have to make your intentions clear and take care not to hurt your spouse’s feelings.
“In suggesting a separate holiday to your partner you should be clear about what you hope to achieve,” Johannesburg clinical psychologist Kim Zamparini says. “You must make sure your partner and your children, if you have any, understand that your motive is not to get away from them but to give expression to your own individuality,” she warns.
To make a relationship sabbatical work, communication is vital. It will work only if you and your spouse have the same understanding of why you’re doing it, and you need to agree on how often you want to do it.
Experts warn that while giving each other space can do wonders for a relationship that’s built on respect, trust and intimacy, it can be harmful to a more fragile union. “The danger comes when a couple, after spending time apart, feel they no longer need each other,” Cape Town clinical psychologist Stefan Blom warns.
“And by need I mean the basic needs of attention, contact, intimacy, sex and an emotional grasp of each other.”
Raffaella says she knows there’s always the risk that the separate holidays she and her husband take will be a bit too much fun or that one of them could kindle a romance with someone else.
But she trusts that their union is strong enough to withstand time apart. “A fragile relationship may flounder with feelings of resentment and jealousy,” she says. “A good relationship, however, is built on trust, and if there’s trust the separate holiday is no big deal; rather it gives you both space to form thoughts and live experiences you’ll bring back and share.”
You want to do it – but your partner doesn’t
You have to be aware that while you might think a relationship sabbatical is a good idea your spouse might not. It might make them feel threatened and insecure and you need to be prepared for this kind of response and handle the feelings it evokes.
It may be dishonest to try to convince your partner that taking a sabbatical is in the best interests of your relationship, Johannesburg clinical psychologist Nishara Govinda says. “You may think time apart will be good for the marriage because it’s what you need. But if your partner doesn’t feel it’s necessary, it may not be good for the marriage.”
If you’re the one who wants a sabbatical, explore the reasons and what that means for you and your spouse, she says. She also advises that if a couple are struggling to decide whether they need a relationship sabbatical they should consider seeing a couple’s counsellor.
As an alternative to divorce
While a relationship sabbatical could simply mean taking separate holidays to have a break from each other, some couples could use it as a way to take them off a path that looks as if it’s leading to divorce.
If you’re considering a divorce because your marriage is in a rut – not because of an untenable situation such as infidelity or abuse – a relationship sabbatical might be what you need to make things work.
Divorce can be expensive and bitter and take a long time to get over. Is it really what you want when the problem is you’re bored rather than you don’t love your partner anymore? Do you really want to give up everything you’ve built together?
When you’re not desperately unhappy but not happy either, a break might be all you need. New York-based psychologist Kristin Davin suggests couples considering a sabbatical because they’re unsure about their relationship should discuss these questions: What are the rules? What’s the purpose of spending time apart? How much time do we need? Will we stay in contact? Of course it’s easier said than done but it’s worth a try.
The time apart will give you the space you need to think about what you want. Whether this makes you remember why you love your partner or you realise you do want a divorce, either way you’ll have clarified your feelings. – W24