We’ve all heard married women say something like this to their single friends:

“You’re so lucky being free—you can pursue all your dreams.”

What they rarely say out loud is the second part of that thought: “….without anyone holding you back.”

marriagesabbatical1Even if they don’t blame their husbands for reining them in, marriage itself can seem like a tether, making these women feel stuck. Sure, they’ve found one form of happily-ever-after, but they feel like they’ve relinquished others.

Most of us can understand that feeling. We know that there are trade-offs in life and no one ever gets to “have it all.” Even so, let’s not be too quick to buy into the idea that once a woman commits to marriage and family she exchanges limitless opportunity for the proverbial ball & chain.

Women who take “marriage sabbaticals” would probably agree that even if we can’t have it all, we can have plenty. For them, marriage and family is a source of security, constancy, and love, yet they believe there are fascinating adventures still to be pursued.

What do I mean by marriage sabbatical? The term was coined by Cheryl Jarvis, who wrote a book based on interviews with fifty-five women who had taken sabbaticals, after also taking a 3 month trip of her own. In “The Marriage Sabbatical” Jarvis explores what some might consider a radical question: What happens when married women take some time and space away?

The Answer: Good things! Especially when the sabbatical is designed to be what Jarvis describes as, “personal time-out from daily routines for creative, professional or spiritual growth, reflection or renewal.”

If that concept sounds familiar, it’s because the marriage sabbatical is based on a similar, historically successful idea. In academia, professors take sabbaticals from their university work to travel, write, explore, and come back energized and renewed. A marriage sabbatical can be viewed in the same light. In other words, it’s not meant to be an escape from a failing relationship or a desperate retracement of singlehood. Rather, a sabbatical is driven by a sense of meaning and purpose. When a woman returns to her nest she expects to be better for having flown away for awhile—more freshly acquainted with her own voice, more conscious of her gifts, and less likely to see home commitments as obstacles limiting her creative or intellectual expression.

What about the families of women who take sabbaticals? The same break that’s renewing to her can be refreshing for her family, too. While she’s gone, her partner and children have time to connect differently, to create new relational configurations, and discover their own strengths and power. Plus, let’s not forget the effect that new experiences have on a woman’s erotic verve and sexual energy. Most often, novelty reawakens or amps up sexuality. In a solid relationship, separation has the power to stir greater passion, even reignite it. And, since a sabbatical is not the time to learn how to “play well with others,” a couple’s sexual charge has a chance to build, to fire-up, especially if the pair keeps sexy contact going via internet and phone. Given that a sabbatical is a geographic estrangement, not an emotional one, having a long distance love affair with one’s spouse can be the creamy frosting on top of this experiential layer cake.

A sabbatical can last for a week, a month, a year, or even a day, suggests Jarvis – although I’d have to quibble a bit with her point of view. Call it what you will, a day or even a week away from one’s daily routine may be a breath of fresh air, but it won’t have the impact of a month or longer.

Part of what makes a sabbatical successful for everyone involved is its clarity of purpose and finite time span. No matter if a woman leaves for a month or a year, the sabbatical has an expiration date, and everybody in the family can mark that homecoming on their calendar in advance. Whether a woman goes to an artist colony for a summer to tackle the novel she’s bursting to write, hikes the Appalachian Trail, joins Physicians without Borders, takes a course on another continent, or holes up in a cabin to paint huge canvasses, the fact that she has clear direction and a clean endpoint sets the sabbatical apart form an impulsive jaunt or camouflaged escape. This also ensures that there’s no threat to her family when a woman leaves. Yes, they’ll miss her and she’ll miss them, but she’ll also be continuing to develop her power as an independent person—something we should never allow a marriage to dim.

There are no age limits for taking a sabbatical. Jarvis’ book takes into account the experiences of women ranging in age from 28 to 64. I know women both younger and older who have taken marriage sabbaticals—one of them in her early 70s. Most of Jarvis’ interviewees were married for at least 6 years, which implies that sabbaticals are more desirable or doable once a relationship is established and secure.

How far away a woman can go, and for how long, depends very much on her capacity for healthy detachment. As Jarvis puts is, “a five week leave for one woman can be a more difficult and transformative act than a five-month leave for another.” Some women feel too guilty, or too fearful of missing their families, to undertake a prolonged sabbatical. Those who tend toward excessive guilt are not likely to find the idea of a sabbatical particularly attractive in the first place. Even if they do, they would probably need to limit their time away to a few days or weeks. Such mini-sabbaticals can be challenges as well as tests—if a few weeks works well, a woman might consider a longer period later on.

Obviously, taking a marriage sabbatical is neither ideal for every woman nor a required rite of passage to prove one’s healthy independence. Instead, it’s an exciting, rejuvenating option that any woman can tuck into her “maybe someday” file, to be pulled out and seriously negotiated when the urge is strong and the time is right.