Does Absence Actually Make the Heart Grow Fonder?

A new book suggests that getting away from each other for prolonged periods of time is good for the health of your marriage.

Is time apart good for relationships?

For the past decade, Iris Krasnow has spent the month of July apart from her husband of 23 years, Chuck. For most of those summers, she was a counselor at a summer camp in the Adirondacks, where her sons were campers. Since their kids left home, Krasnow and her husband have continued the tradition by taking working vacations on opposite ends of the country, with Krasnow writing in California while her husband launched a rustic furniture company in Maryland. The separation allowed them to bloom as individuals, she explains in her new book The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes To Stay Married. And when they reunite, they are “hot to see each other, high on our personal accomplishments, and purged of the inevitable resentments that arise in the grind of the ordinary that long marriage becomes.”

Krasnow interviewed more than 200 women from different educational, social, and economic brackets, all of whom are in long-term marriages like hers (she defines “long term” as 15-plus years) in an effort to figure out what makes unbroken unions work. In addition to relating various pieces of more predictable advice (keep having sex!), many of Krasnow’s subjects shared her experience of prolonged separations, crediting the considerable time they had spent apart from their spouses with making their marriages stronger.

As Krasnow writes, the idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that is a cliché. But it is a cliché for a reason: A review of relevant research confirms that there can be positive aspects to time spent apart from a spouse—at least for wives. (Like Krasnow’s book, many of the sociological and psychological studies on the subject focus on separation’s impact on wives, rather than husbands.) This time apart can take many different forms: The studies don’t just talk about couples who take separate vacations or summer jaunts of the sort Krasnow and her husband have enjoyed. Research has shown that women who are married to fishermen and truckers—careers that can separate spouses for weeks or even months—also profit from time alone.

Time spent apart can benefit women by making them more emotionally self-reliant. As a 1980 study from the Journal of Marriage and Family about dual-career couples who live apart pointed out, “Wives are programmed to think of marriage as an intimacy oasis, an emotionally close relationship that will be ‘total.’ ” Learning that your marriage doesn’t have to be your emotional ballast can be tremendously empowering. One of Krasnow’s subjects, a woman named Tecla, who has been married for 44 years to a Marine Corps officer, backed this up:

Being independent, without a mate, makes day-to-day decisions easier. It eliminates the need to consult, negotiate, and acquiesce to another opinion. … I knew instinctively from early on that my husband was not going to be responsible for my happiness. My happiness depended on me.

Women may also become more physically self-reliant when their husbands are away. A study titled “Family Work and Relationships: Lessons From Families of Men Whose Jobs Require Travel,” published in the journal Family Relations in 2005, reported that while their husbands were away, the wives of fisherman and truckers undertook many traditionally male tasks like yard work and household repairs. Even when their husbands returned from their work trips, the women continued to feel a sense of accomplishment at their new skills. After a five-month separation, one fisherman’s wife said, “I found at the end of the time, I was really proud of myself. … I had to haul water three times and afterward, I felt really good about it, like, I can really do this.”

The communication between spouses can also improve both during and after periods of separation. Some of the wives of truckers and fishermen said that their husbands’ absences meant that when they did see each other or speak by phone, they really talked to each other, unlike peers who saw their husbands every day. One fisherman’s wife said:

Every night he’s gone, he calls and we talk about the day and that’s helped us get a lot closer. In fact, when I hear some of my other friends talking, you know, they’ve got their husbands home every night and during the day and yet they hardly ever discuss anything with each other. They don’t have the conversation.

There is, however, one situation in which separation does not have many benefits: When one member of a military couple is deployed in a war zone. Not surprisingly, a 2010 study from the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the spouses of deployed  Army members were more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders than the wives of nondeployed soldiers. As military wife Alison Buckholtz wrote for DoubleX in her “Deployment Diary” series, when every doorbell ringing could bring news of your husband’s death, it’s hard to see any benefit to his absence

In the prologue to The Secret Lives of Wives, Krasnow says that the most important marital lesson she took from the hundreds of women she spoke to was the importance of maintaining a sense of evolving self, apart from one’srelationship. It’s not that geographic space is the only way of achieving a separate identity—for example, several of the wives said reconnecting with physical pastimes helped them develop their sense of self—but it is a surprisingly effective one.  Healthy separation can even inspire the next generation. As Tecla, the military wife, tells Krasnow, she’s glad that she showed her children that it was possible to have adventures even when their father wasn’t around. “Now married with families of their own,” she says, “our daughters have a wonderful sense of independence and never hesitate to go off and have adventures with their own children.”