TRAVELING in style : SEPARATE FABLES : Vacationing without your spouse: Pleasing for a few; perilous for the many

<i> Dr. Ruben</i> ,<i> an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University, is the author of "Super Marriage" (Bantam Books)</i>

Your marriage isn’t doomed if you take separate vacations, but the practice may signal rough sledding ahead--not for everyone, but for the majority.

Let me explain, because counseling couples is my job. Immediately there comes to mind a couple named Ed and Leigh who take separate vacations several times a year (he’s a busy orthopedic surgeon, and she’s an involved mother of two daughters who also operates an epicurean shop). Leigh isn’t into salmon fishing and ocean sailing, Ed’s favorite activities. Ed gets bored visiting boutiques in Paris or Rome or browsing through antique shops in New Orleans’ French Quarter. So for the past 10 years they have vacationed separately several times each year. Yet their marriage still thrives despite these risky separations. Ed and Leigh are able to weather the potential perils because they have so much more going for them. (They are good friends, even though they have these differing interests).

So have Chip and Tess, who--after 24 years of marriage and three daughters--find themselves locked into separate vacations because of differing interests and Chip’s being a workaholic. Tess, a high school arts teacher, thrives on Manhattan junkets several times a year. She takes one or two of the girls and overdoses for several days on theater, museums and galleries--not Chip’s favorite pastimes. An accountant, Chip enjoys wheeling and dealing, putting together joint ventures, limited partnerships and buying and selling property. He enjoys Tess’s absences because he can stay at the office, working until the wee hours, and no one complains. Chip rarely takes a vacation, and when he does, it’s usually a trip to attend a family function. This isn’t ideal, but it works for them and their marriage is surviving.

For Sue and Ned, the situation is slightly different. Their separate vacations occur because of his penchant for golf and poker and her love of health spas. Ned is a jeweler, and Sue is an interior designer. Twice a year, throughout their 35 years together, Ned has traveled to Florida for a week of golf and poker while Sue goes off to a plush beauty farm. Still, they occasionally fly together to Europe and take Caribbean cruises, and they visit family in New England every year.


What’s common to these couples is that they all had different interests before they married--interests that they continued to pursue. When they return to each other after these mutual absences, they are invigorated. They miss each other during their separations. They call frequently. They think of each other often while they’re apart. Their love is intensified by the experience.

However that’s not true for many couples. Divorce rates have soared in this country during the last two decades. After 22 years of psychiatric practice in working with couples experiencing troubled marriages, I’m here to testify to the dangers of such solo jaunts.

One problem is that the desire for a separate holiday often is a harbinger of turbulent seas ahead, a sign that the marriage is teetering precariously. A good love relationship is like a three-legged stool: One leg is the erotic or sexual-physical aspect; the second leg represents the psychological aspects of romance and affection; the third leg should be the mutual intellectual sharing of friendship. Separate vacations may weaken the stool or even cause it to topple.

Couples take separate vacations for any number of reasons. They may have different interests, such as Ed and Leigh or Chip and Tess. Or it may be that their friendship has simply dissolved and with it has gone their sex life. But not always. Indeed not. Curiously, I know couples who, though they share little affection, nevertheless still enjoy a torrid sex life. Figure that one out.


In the course of a busy week, especially in the lives of today’s typical two-career family, couples find easy excuses to avoid spending much time together and even more ways to avoid sexual intimacy. A week or two of togetherness may be more than either partner can tolerate. So they use separate vacations as a safety valve to avoid confronting the inevitable. They rationalize their behavior by claiming a difference of interests that requires solitary forays. Unfortunately, they don’t miss one another. They don’t call or write often. Their love is not intensified when their vacations are over. At times, they’d prefer not to return, period. These differing interests are, of course, serious signs of growing rapidly apart.

This occurred with Mike and Ellen. After five years of marriage, Mike, a social worker in a state mental health center, developed an interest in Far Eastern philosophies and meditation. Ellen, an emergency-room nurse, found Mike’s pastime boring. So when Mike began to use his vacations to attend conferences and visit different ashrams, she didn’t object. Regretfully, the more involved Mike became, the less they had in common and the less they did together. Ultimately, because of the separate trips and different interests, their relationship ended in divorce.

Boredom is another factor that can lead to marital holiday solitude. You don’t enjoy being with your spouse. You’re bored. You need some excitement in your life, and you think you’ll find it on the beach, on the ski slopes or on the golf course--by yourself. But you learn that being by yourself isn’t enough. In order to find the excitement lacking in your marriage, you may team up on holiday with single or divorced friends or even other married partners who are vacationing without their spouses and who are as interested as you are in new companionships. And therein lies the danger.

Ralph, circulation manager of a small newspaper, no longer felt challenged by his job, and after seven years with his wife, Claire, a legal secretary, he was bored with his marriage. They didn’t have fun anymore. When he suggested they learn to ski as a means of developing a new interest, Claire wasn’t interested. As a result, Mike went skiing alone and literally ran head-on (while skiing) into a woman from the same city who was having similar problems with her marriage. Returning home, they began running in the park together. You guessed it. Eventually they got divorces. The last I heard they were jogging several miles a day together and loving every step of it.

Even if you are 100% faithful on your separate holiday, the potential for damaging your marital relationship is great. If your spouse grudgingly allows you to go, his or her trust and faith in you may be severely shaken. Separate vacations are high on the list of activities that promote jealousy. Even with nothing more on your mind than touring churches and cathedrals, the possibility that your partner will be envious or jealous is very great, particularly if your spouse is home hassling with children, dealing with a leaking roof and paying bills while you go gallivanting.

One of the most destructive forces in a marriage is jealousy. Once it occurs, it is insidious. It grows and expands unless successfully put to rest. It has the ability to destroy a relationship more rapidly than any other factor. Living with a jealous person is the pits. You are constantly scrutinized. Everything you do is subject to misinterpretation. The trouble with jealousy is that once you have been tried and found guilty of a crime you didn’t commit, you feel as though you might as well commit it. That leads to what we psychiatrists call the self-fulfilling prophecy. Our spouse’s accusations promote the exact behavior that he or she fears.

That’s what happened to Jack and Millie. During the 15 years of their marriage, Jack had always gone hunting and fishing with his buddies while Millie stayed home with their children. Finally Millie began to comment about what Jack and his friends probably did in the evenings. She started believing her own suspicions and, unable to convince Millie of his innocence, Jack became increasingly frustrated. Finally, during one of his hunting-and-fishing trips, he pulled off a one-night stand. Consumed by guilt, he confessed to Millie--not a very wise move, perhaps, but it led them to recognize their problems and to seek the therapy that saved their marriage.

To repeat, the most obvious peril of separate vacations is that infidelity will more than likely occur. In other words, if you’re bored or unhappy with your partner and spend a restful week on the beach or at a resort with others, it is far, far easier to stray from the marital bed. The fact is, it’s almost an invitation.


Guilt, I must repeat, enters the picture when you begin experiencing qualms, even while you’re enjoying your separate vacation. You begin to experience less joy. Then animosity sets in when you return home. I can recall case after case in which this occurs. In other words, you’re locked onto a shattering collision course.

The bottom line is that a first-rate marriage, a super-marriage, is based on love, respect, trust, commitment, mature intimacy, friendship, communication, flexibility and tolerance, a sense of humor and the ability to resolve your differences. Although a marriage may survive, separate vacations rarely (if ever) improve a relationship. It’s better to recognize the problem and try to deal with it than to flee on separate holidays.