What’s Wrong With a Marriage Sabbatical?

marriage, marriage sabbatical, relationships

Six weeks. That’s what I had to myself to do whatever I wanted. I wondered what that was. There were no secret plans to do anything crazy, but there were some thrilling and exciting prospects swirling around in my brain. Cheese and crackers for dinner. Maybe not making the bed. Making a decision without asking anyone else. Cheese and crackers for lunch. Not listening. Reading.

I have a friend who can’t go a week without her husband’s presence. It surprised me to hear her confess this because she’s a strong, independent, bold, and honestly, sometimes scary, woman. To hear someone like that say that she goes all Scarlett O’Hara with her husband away (“Oh, Rhett, where will I go? What will I do??”) made me think about how I would feel if my husband Angelo went away for any length of time. Frankly, my dear, I’d love it.

Recently, I had the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is: Angelo spent six weeks in Italy this fall. He returned to his hometown, a small commune on the side of a mountain in Basilicata, to replant his roots. And maybe look for a small apartment we could stay in during future visits. We called it a “sabbatical” so it would make sense that he wasn’t going to be here making deposits in the bank account or raking leaves. This was a trip he had needed to make for a long time and it was finally time to do it. It’s not like I could complain about it anyway. It was my idea.

We’re old, but not an old married couple. Becoming a couple after divorces, kids and career decisions is a whole different proposition than a fresh-out-of-college couple building a new life together. We have wounds, accrued separately, but, now existing together in the same relationship. It’s not always the best way to do it and every once in awhile, a separation is in order. Not a legal one, and not necessarily a lengthy one, but occasionally some space to sort things out in the way you had to do it before re-partnering. One of his wounds was the sadness for having left Italy at a young age without ever having a clear path home. Throughout his life here in the US, he nurtured a strong desire to return, assuaged only slightly by the occasional vacation back, not really a homecoming. This sadness/desire combo was strong and it became clear a trip of substance needed to happen. Soon. So, one Sunday afternoon in early April, halfway through a bottle of Prosecco, I got the brilliant idea for him to tack on an extra six or so weeks to the end of our planned trip in June and just stay. Work out all those missing-Italy knots once and for all. And maybe not for all, but get the process started.

We didn’t quite get it together quick enough to make it work for our 10-day trip in June, but we did work it out for him to go back a few months later, happily in time for the annual Sagra dalla Patata di Montagna, the potato festival. (I suspect this was intentional.) We went over the practical matters; money, clients, bills, car stuff, etc. and it seemed like we would be able to manage. I had a few knots myself, not having managed singly for over 20 years, but I couldn’t really think of anything that might come along that I couldn’t handle. Aging is great that way. Communication would be tricky because of the six-hour time difference, but it wasn’t like we wouldn’t be in touch at all. With email, FaceTime, texts and WhatsApp we were covered in the communication department, it would just be a matter of timing. Nope, we were good.

The day came for Angelo to leave. I offered to take him to JFK, but he looked up train and shuttle schedules and said he would do just as well if I dropped him off at the train in Brewster, NY. It seemed a little un-wifely and I think I made all the right noises about wanting to drive all the way down into Long Island on a weekday morning. But he insisted and I accepted. We set out with tons of time and made it to the station ahead of schedule . . . in time to catch the earlier train about to leave. Angelo said, “I’ll just take that one!” He dragged his oversized duffle bag out of the back of the van, slung the Italian leather man bag over his shoulder, hugged and kissed me goodbye and off he went. I waited as the train pulled out of the station and caught sight of him as it carried him away. And suddenly, he was gone.

Six weeks. That’s what I had to myself to do whatever I wanted. I wondered what that was. There were no secret plans to do anything crazy; it’s not like being married to Angelo keeps me from living my life the way I desire. There were some thrilling and exciting prospects swirling around in my brain. You know what I’m talking about . . . cheese and crackers for dinner. Maybe not making the bed. Making a decision without asking anyone else (Angelo). Cheese and crackers for lunch. Not listening. Reading.

The first thing I did–the day after Angelo left–was go to Maine for the weekend. All by myself. My family has a cottage there and one of us had to go check on the place post-summer renters. It’s a lot easier when Angelo comes with me, he does all the heavy lifting. But I was looking forward to the time alone. Driving through Massachusetts, I suddenly got the urge to change course and go . . . anywhere. I could go anywhere! No one was waiting for me, I didn’t really have to be in Maine for any reason. I could just go! Portsmouth. Boston. Canada! (Nope. Didn’t bring my passport.) For about a half an hour, I drove on, fantasizing about where I would go with my newfound freedom. In the end I followed the well-traveled route and spent the weekend in our comfortable, shabby little cottage on the shore of Sebago Lake. I can be there alone; I had before. The grill stayed dirty, but I washed the towels. Around Sunday morning, I got antsy and decided to head home early that afternoon.

Back in my house, within my familiar walls, I decided I got antsy because I was eager to take on this sabbatical. Angelo was going to have his adventure, what was mine going to look like? It was time to exercise those rusty muscles of self-reliance and remember how comfortable I was after my divorce and before remarriage. Early in our relationship, after some on-and-off dating, I thought, “Why would I want to get married again? I’m fine alone.” Not that Angelo had asked yet. And I was fine alone. After the first few years of wobbly single parenting and some questionable financial decisions, I got good at it. Those skills didn’t disappear after we did, eventually, get married, and it made sense to me that the feeling of independence would return. I was counting on it.

It’s funny how arrogant we can be when we think we know so much isn’t it? All of our planning prepared me for what I would do while Angelo was gone, but not for how I would feel. After that first weekend away, the first two weeks home were surprisingly disorienting; like when your child goes to school for the first time and you think to yourself, “wow, I can get so much done!” Then you wander around your house for a few hours, fold a basket of laundry and check your email and decide not to go out to the grocery store just so you don’t miss the bus. As the weeks went by, I was a little less disoriented, and still competent, but there was a definite difference.

Turns out, I missed Angelo. Not the yearning, can’t-live-without-you kind of missing him. I’m not twenty-two. I didn’t cry once. But after you’ve been with someone so long, there is a rhythm in being together that goes a little off when the other person isn’t there. Of course I can do alone, and so can Angelo. Neither of us had the slightest doubt that the other wouldn’t manage just fine. It helped that there was no problem whatsoever in the communication department. We talked all the time. Some days it was like he was never gone at all, we talked so frequently. (I wanted to say, “Go! Be in Italy! We’ll talk in October!” but that might have appeared insensitive.) We also wrote to each other . . . the pen and paper in an envelope with a stamp kind of writing.

It was a good sabbatical. One definition describes the time as the period of leave from one’s customary work to rest or acquire new skills. This happened for both of us. One of Angelo’s skills was to learn how to decline numerous invitations to dinner from the dozens of family members intent on feeding him during his stay. He also learned how much he loved being “home” and he is concocting plans to make spending some time there each year a reality. The skill I acquired is to admit I miss my husband without it being a declaration of the loss of independence. I suppose that’s one of my old wounds; not ever admitting I might need someone else. So, as I was looking forward to his being away, so did I look forward to his being back home.

And on the day he returned, I did drive down to New York to pick him up at JFK. I even parked, went inside and waited at the arrivals area holding up a paper sign that said, “Amore.”

Maybe I yearned a little.

Cindy Eastman is an award-winning author whose first book, a collection of essays entitled Flip-Flops After 50: And Other Thoughts On Aging I Remembered To Write Down was published by She Writes Press in April 2014. She teaches writing classes to students from ages 5 to 85 and will be a presenter at Story Circle Network 8thWomen’s Writing Conference in April 2016. Check out additional information at cindyeastman.com and follow her on Twitter at @CLEastman .

Image via Wikimedia Commons/CC License/By Pnapora

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