Today, many marriages have built-in separations from commuter jobs, travel-dependent professions, military service, and company relocations. When a man gets transferred and his wife waits a year to join him because shes putting the house on the market or when a man takes a few months to follow his wife, who has moved to a new position in another city, whether they are conscious of it or not, the relationship is getting a rest. But what about couples whose jobs dont provide such opportunities for renewal? What makes a sabbatical an idea worth examining today is our longer life expectancy and its corollary, a longer marriage expectancy. At the turn of the century, few people lived to see all their children grown. Most were dead by fifty. Today at fifty, we have another thirty years to go. At the same time that were looking at a longer and healthier life span than any other time in history, were having fewer children and, therefore, spending fewer years raising all of them. Were also living in a society thats changing faster than we are. A world in which people can, or must, reinvent their lives at forty, fifty, and sixty is a world in which marriage for life becomes an increasing challenge. With the rise in gender equality has come another cultural shift: a revolution in marital expectations. How many of us enter marriage expecting our spouse to be our lover, best friend, parenting partner, recreational companion, and spiritual soul mate? Thats a lot of psychic weight to place on one relationshipgiven that nearly half of all couples divorce, more weight than it apparently can bear. A time when many are wondering how to make their marriages thrive over a long stretch of years is a time to examine sabbaticals in marriage not as pathology but as promise.
A marriage sabbatical is as relevant for men as it is for women. The more men I talked with, the more I struggled with focusing only on womens journeys. But while the emotions are universal, cultural realities and expectations are not. Four specific realities make taking a sabbatical a bigger issue for women than for men.
Marriage disproportionately benefits men. Pioneer marital researcher Jessie Bernard said it in 1972, and both male and female researchers say it today. Married women suffer more depression than married mentwice the rate, in fact, over the last three decades. When compared to their single counterparts, married women have more stress, less sense of mastery, and lower self-esteem. Married men, on the other hand, are healthier and happier and live longer than single men. A study led by social psychologist Marjorie Fiske Lowenthal found early warning signs: Newlywed women think about death more often than the middle-aged and the elderly, while newlywed men think about it the least. The Victorians anticipated that womens health would decline after they married, and it was this belief, historians say, that fueled the rise of sanitariums and water-cure retreats. What was assumed in the nineteenth century, researchers proved in the twentieth: Marriage carries greater health hazards for women than for men.
A sabbatical is a greater issue for women because it is harder for women to leave. In spite of mens increasing involvement in family life, women still outnumber men in all caregiving roles. Studies overwhelmingly show that in families of two working parents, women still put in longer hours with children and household tasks. When a child of two working parents gets sick, it is still the mother who most often stays home. Women spend significantly more time than men taking care of elderly relatives, and this time is destined to increase. An American working woman today can expect to spend more years caring for an aging parent than she will for a dependent child. And as women themselves grow older, they are more likely to take care of their husbands than their husbands are to take care of them. Sabbaticals are also a bigger issue for women because of psychological gender differences. As behavioral psychologist Carol Gilligan theorized in her groundbreaking work In a Different Voice, women are conditioned to be more relational than men and while men develop their identity through separation and autonomy, women develop their identity through relationship with others. Because women are raised to invest more in relationship, because their sense of self is organized around affiliation, it is psychologically more difficult for them to move away from the relationships in their lives.
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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