Friday, March 1

Nifty ways to leave a lover (temporarily) – how a gap year could save your marriage | marriage

A couple came to see me a few months ago. What they wanted to ask me about wasn’t how to stay together – as a couples counsellor, coach and writer, this is what clients usually come to see me about – but how to separate. However what this couple wanted was slightly different.

They were in their mid-50s and they told me they had been married for more than 30 years. They loved each other. They’d had a marriage that had survived the ups and downs of most unions. They had three children all of whom had left home. Yet they were looking at a future together with apprehension. They didn’t want to divorce, they just wanted to work out how to stay together while also being apart. The wife was a homebody and also loved being near her children. The husband had rediscovered an adventurous side in himself that had lain dormant for a couple of decades.

What they were proposing was a marriage gap year.

“I’m a doctor,” the husband told me. “I just want to experience something different.” His intention was to go and spend a year working as a volunteer in Malawi.

“We are getting older,” the husband said. His fear of him was that he’d never get to do what he really wanted – to work in Africa – unless he did it now.

His wife, understandably, was nervous about it. “I don’t want to go to Africa,” she said. However she also did understand how important it felt to her husband. “I love him so I don’t want to stop him from having this year out,” she said.

This idea of ​​a marriage gap year is something I have come across before. The sister of a very good friend took a break from her marriage. She and her husband de ella had met when they were in their late teens and once the children had left home, they found they wanted to lead different lives. For her, it was about having some excitement, something new before she and her husband de ella settled down to a life post-children.

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“I went and traveled the world for two years,” she said. “My husband stayed at home and gardened.”

But, in reality, how does this work? A lot of couples would find this very difficult. It’s not easy to explain to your long-term partner that you want to take a break. However, for some people, the world appears as an enticing and exciting place and, if they have been married for a long time and been a parent on top of that, the idea of ​​getting out there, kicking off their shoes and having some new experiences is very hard to resist.

As a counselor I find this fascinating. I explain that it’s not a “bad” idea but it involves many compromises and trust. My gap-year couple agreed that sex with other people was off the agenda. “It’s not about sex anyway,” the husband said. “I just want to go and live a different life for a year or so. I want different experiences and I can see life getting away from me, and I find that difficult.” Of course his wife also found this difficult – she felt threatened and nervous but she did understand how important it was for her husband to do this.

But for some people it is also about having different sexual experiences. And many would suggest that this desire for a marriage gap year really is all about that and the “I want to have new experiences” is a smokescreen for saying “I want to have sex with other people”.

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My friend’s sister and her husband agreed they would be free to date and have intimate relationships with other people. “I had only really slept with my husband,” the sister told me. “I didn’t want to get older and to never have had physical experiences with other men. It seemed like a waste of my life as if there was this whole other exciting world out there that I was never going to experience.”

For her, this was part of the deal and she had been very clear with her husband about it. “He wasn’t that happy about it,” she said, “but he did understand.” She had a fabulous two years traveling the world and taking lovers, then she came home and the marriage continued. “It’s better than ever now,” she said. “I feel settled. I’ve done my thing and now I am home and I’m happy to be here.” Her husband of her had n’t been sure she would return. He is thankful that the marriage survived, she said, but it came at a cost for him.

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have talked about having an open relationship, but they are a rarity among their generation. Photograph: Matt Cowan/REX/Shutterstock

Younger couples are far more au fait with this sort of thing – polyamory and “ethical non-monogamy” appear to be growing in popularity – but it’s a whole new game for my generation of forty- to fiftysomethings. Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith may have talked about having an open relationship and giving “each other trust and freedom”, but they are a generational rarity and even Smith has been quick to say this does not amount to infidelity.

We were brought up to believe in The One. And, of course, it’s about more than that – fidelity, loving, surviving the ups and downs, commitment, honesty, being there for each other – a kind of stoicism. Young people don’t see it like this. They can have very strong prime relationships that are open and communicative and connected while also having relationships with other people. They have a completely different working model.

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For older couples, it is not easy.

However, post kids leaving home, many marrieds are wondering “is that all there is?” They don’t necessarily want to be polyamorous but neither do they want to be doing the same thing for ever after, so they go and have new experiences separately then come back together. It’s risky but also interesting. I do work with couples on the idea that giving each other space to live their lives separately doesn’t mean the relationship is failing.

Now Covid is “over” and we are all going out more, some are wondering what happens when you need to break from the relationship in order to do something for yourself?

I do have a few coming in to talk about polyamory and open relationships but many struggle with this. How do we get to experience a bit when polyamory feels like something young people do?

For most it’s about having new experiences – traveling the world, relocating for a while, working at a different job, volunteering. Just changing their life up a bit for a defined period of time – exactly like a student gap year but at a more mature age. The marriage or relationship can even be enhanced as the couple involve each other in hearing about these new adventures – bonding them more securely.

My original couple ended up being excited at the prospect of the gap year. “I can’t wait to wake up in the African sun,” the man said, “and then I’ll come home to suburbia and begin again.”

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