- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001

Ah, the sabbatical the splendid opportunity afforded many a professional worker to spend months immersed in a project, far from the madding crowd.

But a sabbatical from marriage? Yes, wives could use sabbaticals, too from their husbands and families, says Cheryl Jarvis, author of "The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home."

Husbands have more opportunities and social approval to take extended breaks from their homes, said Mrs. Jarvis, a free-lance writer who lives in St. Louis.

But "good wives" aren't supposed to take a leave of absence except for "good" reasons to care for ailing relatives, convalesce from illness or take the children on vacation.

True sabbaticals are "solo journeys in which the women voluntarily leave all that is familiar and comfortable and safe to venture into the unknown," says Mrs. Jarvis, who based her book on the experiences of 55 women who left their families to fulfill dreams such as walking the Appalachian Trail, taking a cross-country driving tour and joining the Peace Corps.

Although many husbands and wives approached these sabbaticals with trepidation, most found it a rewarding experience that did not damage their marriage or compromise their vows of fidelity, said Mrs. Jarvis, who recently took three months off from her husband and grown sons to be part of a writer's colony.

Marriage is a rewarding challenge, but, as an institution, it has rarely offered wives a "ritual rest" a time to escape daily routines to develop intellectually, focus creatively and renew physically, she said.

Today, as more wives juggle the stress of a career and family life and married couples live longer together, there is more pressure to sustain a fulfilling, stimulating relationship, she said. It may be time, therefore, "to examine sabbaticals in marriage not as pathology but as promise."

Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, says young women should read Mrs. Jarvis' book "so they will know how to fix what ails them" and older women should read it for ideas on how to "tend to their soul without dismantling a lifetime relationship."

"I think the idea of [taking a sabbatical] consciously, rather than in crisis, is a terrific idea," says Mrs. Schwartz, the author of several books on marriage and family.

"It doesn't doesn't mean rejection, it doesn't mean infidelity. It's sort of an adventure with yourself," she says. "There's a kind of enrichment of the soul that happens when you're alone and I'm not sure there's any other kind of experience that can substitute for it."

But the idea that wives need sabbaticals from their marriages especially more so than husbands often gets a cool response.

"I just kind of cringe at this idea," says Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education.

Rather than thinking of marriage "as some kind of weight around women's necks that keeps them from living their dreams," marriage should be viewed as a way to "help women live their dreams, just like marriage should help men live their dreams," says Ms. Sollee, who each year organizes large national conferences on marriage education.

The idea is also a little "classist," she adds. "What's the message to our sisters who don't have the money and aren't in the middle class?"

Sabbaticals are not realistic for everyone, Mrs. Jarvis agrees. That is, unless poor women or single mothers can take sabbaticals as part of their jobs, they probably can't even consider it. Planning a lengthy sabbatical when children are young is also unthinkable for most women, as it "wasn't in my imagination when I had children," she says.

Furthermore, some women may feel that they can pursue their dreams at home, while others have husbands who travel so much they have no wish to take a leave of absence themselves.

Still, Mrs. Jarvis insists, there should be a time and place for wives to take a leave, if they want one. "All women," she says, "should give themselves permission to fulfill their dreams."

Two of the biggest fears among couples that emerged during the book's research was that it would open the door for one spouse to commit adultery or cause the marriage to unravel.

"You're not writing about marriage, you're writing about divorce," one newspaper editor told Mrs. Jarvis when she was starting her book.

In fact, adultery "was not an issue" among the women who took sabbaticals because of the level of trust and commitment in the marriage, Mrs. Jarvis said. "It wasn't that they weren't aware that something could happen. They trusted that it wouldn't because they trusted their husbands," she says.

"People talk about trust and commitment in marriage," says Mrs. Schwartz. "Well, put some teeth in those words."

Ironically, Hollywood seems to reinforce the message that only men can leave home safely, Mrs. Jarvis writes.

For instance, in the movie "City Slickers," Billy Crystal plays a man with a midlife crisis who leaves his loving wife and two wonderful children for a dude ranch. When he returns, he finds a happy home and is filled with renewed vigor for life.

Conversely, when wives leave home, "all hell breaks loose," Mrs. Jarvis notes.

In the movie "Fatal Attraction," starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, when the wife leaves home for one weekend, the husband commits adultery with a mad woman who terrorizes the family and ends up dead in their home. In "Thelma and Louise," the wife leaves her husband to go on a two-day road trip with a girlfriend and ends up driving to her death in the Grand Canyon.

"Why hasn't a movie been made about a married woman who leaves home and returns a stronger person to a loving family?" Mrs. Jarvis asks.

The benefits of a sabbatical probably are linked to the way it happens, said Mike and Joan Irvine, a Silver Spring couple active in Marriage Encounter workshops.

If the wife says, "I need to do this for me and you have to live with it," then it's not going to be an invigorating experience for either spouse, they say.

But if the couple has planned the sabbatical together, it's possible for them to view the separation as a gift they are giving each other, say Mr. and Mrs. Irvine, who once spent four months apart when one of them was offered a job-enhancing residential schooling opportunity.

Mr. and Mrs. Irvine note that they kept in touch with frequent phone calls and several visits things that many of the couples Mrs. Jarvis interviewed said they did as well.

David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, was ambivalent about the value of wives going on sabbaticals, saying: "I can think of cases where it could save a marriage, and I can think of cases where it wouldn't help and would probably hurt."

However, sabbaticals could be especially tough on modern husbands, he observed.

In the past, husbands and wives had circles of friends and relatives to turn to for conversation and companionship.

Now, many husbands have "sort of given up their male relationships and made their wife their closest friend," Mr. Popenoe says. "It could be very, very hard" on a husband to lose touch "with his closest and only confidant."

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