sitting at a tiny table in a bar, crowded by spritz glasses, I still remember the moment my partner proposed. We kissed immediately, unable to stop grinning. There was just one thing: we knew we’d very soon be taking a ‘relationship sabbatical’.
It may be unconventional but, much like a work sabbatical, the relationship version is when someone takes a break from the daily routine and rules of their relationship to work on their own goals. And before you dismiss this as some new age LA trend, the concept was first popularised in Cheryl Jarvis’s 1999 book, The Marriage Sabbatical. According to Dr Juliet Bourke, professor of practice at UNSW Sydney, who is an expert in gender equality and a strong advocate for sabbaticals (she's taken four work-related ones herself), the idea is that taking a break can change ingrained habits.
‘Doing something completely different gives you a circuit breaker that allows you a chance to reflect and grow,’ says Bourke. ‘Everyone has this fear of taking themselves off that well-trodden path, be it heading towards a serious relationship or a promotion, but taking time off can accelerate your ability to progress to the next level.’
Initially, I didn’t see the need for a relationship sabbatical – just a work one. It was 2019, and I’d felt burnt out for a while. I needed time away to figure myself out and work on my writing. My partner agreed to join me in a temporary move to Berlin, a creative-friendly city that couldn’t be more different from my hometown of Sydney, Australia. Then, Covid struck.
Two years of lockdowns saw us confined to our Sydney flat and, by the end of it, he’d changed his mind. He was increasingly experiencing an overwhelming mix of academic and mental health pressures and one rainy morning, we sat under the porch with hot tears running down our faces as we finally had that conversation. He was sorry, but he couldn’t come with me to Berlin. Going away was right for me, but not for him. I was left with a big question: how would our relationship work when 26 hours and £1,000 return flights stood between us?
As we grappled with this shift, I began to consider how to make long-distance work. What if – just like the work break I was taking – we took a relationship sabbatical too? It would dramatically change the rules of our 11-year partnership, so I broached it sensitively. ‘Should we have an open relationship when I’m overseas?’ I tried. He turned, looking at me, equally nervous. ‘I’ve been thinking the same thing,’ he replied.
We planned our boundaries with military precision: we would always tell each other when we hooked up with others; we could ‘veto’ certain people; and we would call each other as often as we liked (but not so much as to disrupt our new patterns of life). We needed to test it out first, as mitigating issues would be easier in the same room instead of separate hemispheres. So, we tried hooking up with people on a night out. It was a fun, oddly careful experience, knowing that we were doing so with each other’s full consent.
We checked in at brunch the next day, an embarrassed waiter the only witness. New rules emerged: we now only needed to tell each other about hook-ups if it was more than once. Doing so for a one-night stand seemed needlessly hurtful. Our future marriage was still on the cards, but that, too, would need to be put on pause.
He had already planned to propose in Venice, and went ahead with it anyway on our trip. That night affirmed our long-term commitment to each other and we happily told our friends and family on excited video calls from cafés around Europe. I started planning guest lists and venues – all for when I returned. We were happy, but when friends asked whether this meant the relationship sabbatical was on hold, our answer was the same: no, our careful experiment would very much go ahead. Then I moved, and it was official: we were on sabbatical. I feared judgement from friends but, for the most part, it never came. ‘I’m proud of you – I could never do it,’ was a common response. If anything, the judgement came from within.
In TV and movies, moving away has always been the ultimate obstacle to a relationship. Rachel in Friends decides not to move to her dream job in Paris, staying for Ross. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Mark Darcy quits his New York job just to kiss Bridget on a London street. Romantic fiction has taught us that geography is as intractable as gravity, that real love means sacrificing parts of your career. But Bourke points out that a break can be key to positively evolving. ‘If you’re in a habit of
a relationship, and there are underlying problems in it, pausing the hamster wheel in your head can allow you to grow or heal,’ she says. The process of taking any kind of sabbatical ultimately has three steps: emotional distancing from your ‘past’ life embracing the busyness of your ‘new’ life and, finally, going back.
‘You’re a different person,’ Bourke says. ‘When you go back, you’ve had all these deep, lived experiences; you’re bringing something different to the table and there’s a renegotiation of that old relationship. Sometimes that renegotiation works, sometimes it doesn’t – you’ve moved too far apart. Other times you’ve got perspective as well as new interests and that could enable you to have a better relationship.’
We’re only three months into our relationship sabbatical – and it’s hard, but less so as time passes. The things that left me sobbing in a taxi at first (like the prospect of months without his warmth next to me at night) have gradually become easier. The best part for me is sharing news of personal or work growth. It confirms that, while I’m on an unfamiliar path without him, we’ll always head back to each other in those moments of happiness. Eventually, when we reunite, I’ll be a better version of myself – and that's my main priority right now.