Taking a break from love to miss each other: Do relationship sabbaticals work?

According to experts, spending time away from your partner to rethink the direction of the common project will be a relationship trend in 2024. And it offers only advantages

Is it beneficial to agree to take a break and give a couple some space? Experts say yes.
Is it beneficial to agree to take a break and give a couple some space? Experts say yes.Getty Images / Juan Francisco Fernández (Collage)

In the United States, where we give catchy names to all those events or trends that the rest of the world calls “things that happen,” people have created a summer marriage sabbatical. It serves to define that vacation time during which a couple separates for a period that can range from days to weeks. It occurs especially in the summer, as the name suggests, but can also take place during the Christmas season, when each partner has to travel to different places to see their respective families.

First, a trend needs to have a name to exist; then it requires a celebrity to make it popular. Piers Morgan, known for his sexist headlines on British television, has already taken this sort of scheduled break. We learned this through his wife, Celia Walden, who published an article in The Telegraph in which she said that taking a six-week sabbatical in their marriage has worked wonders.

“You know when your computer becomes terribly slow without any discernible reason and the solution is always to shut it down and reboot? That’s what a marriage sabbatical does. There wasn’t anything wrong with the relationship, and we weren’t failing. But when you consider how unnatural it was to spend every waking hour in the company of your other half for those long lockdown months, the truth is that it’s a miracle any couple, married or not, came out unscathed,” she writes of the 42 days they spent apart.

In fact, relationship sabbaticals have been practiced for centuries, as Cheryl Javis explains in The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey that Brings You Home. In the Middle Ages, wealthy married women who wanted to spend time alone retreated to convents. The author wonders what happens today to those couples whose jobs don’t offer them the chance to spend long periods apart, and she emphasizes the importance of such breaks, which she believes helps marriages last longer. “At a time when many are wondering how to make their marriages thrive for many years, it is vital to see sabbaticals during marriage not as a pathology, but as a promise,” she writes.

Apparently, she’s not alone in her thinking, as Lovehoney Group, an intimate products provider and sexual wellness company, points out in its 2024 Sex Trends Report. It underscores that many people are consciously changing their relationship strategies to prioritize themselves; as a result, relationship sabbaticals are on the rise. That refers to short relationship breaks to explore personal growth, goals and self-discovery before returning to a partner.

Sabbaticals but with communication

Anyone of a certain age (or with an on-demand TV subscription) who hears “a break” mentioned will immediately recall the phrase “We were on a break!” that Ross blurts out to Rachel on Friends to justify his having sex with a woman without it counting as infidelity. Cecilia Bizzotto, a sociologist and spokesperson for JOYclub Spain (an app for finding dates and sexual encounters), believes that the fictional argument demonstrates the importance of making clear what that pause means. “Can we sleep with other people? Will we tell each other afterward? Is it okay to do it with anyone? Do we keep in touch, or do we absolutely disconnect from each other? If we live together: how do we handle it? Can we sleep with someone else in our house? We have to self-analyze what we are seeking, what we expect from the other person and be assertive to avoid communication problems if we don’t want to end up like Rachel and Ross,” she warns.

Many believe that the break should serve only to enjoy time alone, to find oneself and to have time to miss one’s partner, but that falls into the error that there is only one classic relational model, only one way of feeling and living together. Just as there is no one way to be in a couple, there is no one way to take time away. “When a couple makes the decision to take a sabbatical, they do so because they believe it is the right thing to do for their problems. They believe that giving themselves air, missing each other, taking time to think and breathe calmly will help them refocus the relationship, see where they want to go, weigh the pros and cons and [carefully] analyze the situation,” explains Bizzotto. “But for others it may offer an avenue to make sexual fantasies come true with other people, to connect erotically with third parties beyond the couple and try new things. Deciding on one approach or another is not bad or good; it depends on the needs of each person in the couple and what they agree on and decide.”

Other relationship experts are in favor of differentiating between sabbaticals and taking time out. Both situations involve a time period, but the intent and focus are different. “The sabbatical focuses primarily on personal growth, self-exploration and self-discovery. Both parties seek time to nurture their individual needs. It takes place through a mutual and conscious agreement between the couple, where both parties agree to take this time for their individual development and strengthen the relationship in the process,” explains Ainoa Espejo, a personal and relationship coach and graphologist (handwriting expert). “Communication during the sabbatical is key. Couples often set clear boundaries, share expectations and maintain an emotional connection throughout this period. Sometimes it can be triggered by external events, unrelated to the relationship, such as vacations, separation for work or other reasons.”

“On the one hand, we must accept each other’s needs and understand that, if our partner needs space, we must respect that and not insist that he or she change his or her mind, because that usually has the opposite effect,” Espejo continues. “Also, reflect on what it is that worries [a person] about this time apart: that he/she will sleep with others, feel lonely, stop needing me, forget about me? If we base a relationship on trust and agreements, none of that should worry us, and if the other party does not respect the agreed-upon boundaries or realizes that he/she is better off alone, there is no point in staying together, either.”

The advantages of stopping and starting again

As Espejo explains, in a society characterized by promptness and constant speed, taking pauses and periodically re-evaluating our lives is essential. “Freely deciding each day whether we want to continue sharing our path with that person can provide a more authentic level of commitment. This daily agreement, based on mature and conscious decisions, can trump the apparent strength of relationships sustained by formal pacts or long-term shared situations. It is a reminder that the true essence of commitment lies in the ongoing choice to be together, in making it so that each day is a renewed act of love and genuine connection,” she says.

Taking a relationship sabbatical allows many people to re-evaluate their partners and appreciate what they have by their side each day, to stop taking the small things for granted and to understand why they are with that person. “I believe that one of the lessons we should learn from taking time away is to discover why we needed this sabbatical formula to have time to think,” Bizzotto points out. “Maybe we have an overly absorbing relationship where we don’t have space for ourselves, our projects, friendships, or just to hear our own thoughts? How can we prioritize individual time in living together as a couple?”

A key nuance

Cheryl Lynn Jarvis points out in The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home that these sabbatical breaks are often more complicated for women. Behavioral psychologist Carol Gilligan adds that women are conditioned to be more relational than men; while men develop their identity through separation and autonomy, women form their identity through relationships with others. “Because women have been raised to be more invested in relationships and because their sense of self is organized around affiliation, they find it more difficult psychologically to remove themselves from the relationships in their lives,” she asserts. In this regard, it’s possible that this romantic break can be twice as beneficial for them: not only can they rethink a particular relationship, but they can also reassess their overall way of relating to the world. As therapy, it’s invaluable.

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