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

March 19, 1989|HARVEY L. RUBEN MD | Dr. Ruben , an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University, is the author of "Super Marriage" (Bantam Books)

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.

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