I began by confiding my thoughts hesitantly to an older friend, who told me her story. She led me to other women, who told me theirs. And then I came to realize what was missing from our culture: a new narrative for marriage. And when I found the narrative, I discovered the grace within the tension: a way to reconcile my desires for both commitment and freedom, a way to honor both my marriage and myself. Rooted in language that goes back two thousand years, the narrative is contemporary, the model ancient. The Bible tells us that after God created the heavens and the earth, he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. And then he blessed the day. Honoring the Sabbath (from shabbat, to rest) became one of the Ten Commandments and a distinguishing feature of the Jewish faith. Today, most religions of the world honor periods of rest. The ancient Hebrews extended the principle to agriculture: According to Mosaic law, the land and vineyards were to lie fallow every seventh year as a Sabbath to the Lord. The belief was that fields could be grazed for only so long without losing nutrients. They needed replenishing. The Hebrews called the respite a sabbatical year.
Modern interpretations give the word a deeper dimension. Theologians have defined the Sabbath as spirit in the form of time, a day of re-creation or reconnection. One Jewish scholar believes it is intended to be an invigorating experience, focused on human fulfillment. With its theological underpinnings, the concept spread to the secular world: If God needed to rest from the work of creation, then surely mortal men and women needed to rest, too. In 1880, Harvard University became the first American institution to grant sabbaticals to its faculty. While today the practice is most widespread in the teaching profession, sabbaticals can be found in journalism, medicine, law, government, and business. The connotation has remained essentially the same over the last hundred years: time off from daily routines to develop intellectually, focus creatively, renew physically. The parameters, however, have changed considerably. Sabbaticals today are accelerated, shortened, and variable. One college offers them after just three years; another offers faculty development leaves over six-week short terms. Some companies require that sabbaticals be spent on social service. Others urge employees to go after a dream. A paid sabbatical in business typically lasts four to six weeks. Yet in marriageone of the worlds oldest institutions, one of lifes greatest challenges, a relationship which can be as emotionally intense as any job, which even conventional wisdom calls hard workthere is no development leave, no ritual rest. It may not be coincidence that in biblical times the land was to lie fallow every seventh year and that the average length of marriage at the time of divorce in this country is 7.4 years, making the seven-year itch more than a catchphrase. What would happen if we looked to nature and let our marriages rest for a while in order to regenerate? What would happen if we took time out for an invigorating experience, focused on human fulfillment? Sabbaticals have actually been taking place in marriage under other guises for centuries. In the Middle Ages, wealthy married women who wanted time alone retreated to convents. In Victorian times, the treatment for hysteria, a psychiatric condition characterized in part by excessive anxiety, was a sea voyage, a long journey, a move from town to countryanything to stimulate the nervous system. Among the prescribed treatments for neurasthenia, a mental disorder characterized by inexplicable exhaustion and irritability, was separation from family and familiar surroundings. Water-cure establishments, sanitariums, and other retreats proliferated during this era.
No wonder these illnesses were considered predominantly female. No wonder they were over diagnosed. No wonder they were found only in the middle and upper classes, those who could afford a retreat or sea voyage. No wonder these treatments usually brought relief. Getting sick was one of the few acceptable ways women could get time for themselves.
From The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey that Brings You Home, by Cheryl Jarvis. © December 26, 2000 , Cheryl Jarvis used by permission of the publisher, Perseus Books.
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