A number of my recent blog posts have been on the cautionary side (e.g. things to be aware of when considering marriage to anyone). This week, I’d like to intentionally take a break from this cautionary theme to talk about the possibility that for many married individuals, periods of solitary travel can increase marital satisfaction.
Despite being happily coupled with my husband for the last 15 years, I have always craved what I think of as Walden Pond interludes—that is, lengths of time when I can meet life on my own terms, often in solitude, and sometimes in various new social settings. At various times in my life, I have strongly identified with Henry Thoreau, who once said, “To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”*
My husband and I find expression of love in both our attachment to, and detachment from, each other. For instance, we have intentionally incorporated Walden Pond interludes as a regular rhythm of our life together. The support of my need for moments of complete autonomy is one of the most precious gifts my husband gives me within the context of our marriage. As author May Sarton reflected, “Perhaps the greatest gift we can give to another human being is detachment. Attachment, even that which imagines it is selfless, always lays some burden on the other person. How to learn to love in such a light, airy way that there is no burden?”**
To illustrate the life-giving quality of these gifts of solitude, I’d like to briefly tell you about a few of our Walden Pond interludes. When I finished my Ph.D., I took a two-week walking tour through the hill towns of Tuscany to unwind from graduate school and prepare for the next chapter in my life. I found a touring company that moved my luggage from inn to inn, leaving me free to walk from town to town with only a day pack filled with a few thick slices of bread, a wedge of good pecorino cheese, a bottle of water, some maps, and a journal. I had no cell phone and was glad of it.
For that two-week period, I lived entirely at my own whim, off the grid, pursuing whatever interesting adventures I might discover along the way. After a few days of unwinding, my mind began to explode with new ideas and insights. I wrote more than 100 pages in my journal, and to this day, I am still renewed when I remember this golden solitary interlude in my life.
A few years later, when I was feeling somewhat burned out, I pursued another Walden Pond interlude, this time a week in a cabin in the backwoods of a small town in North Carolina. Once again, my senses came alive during this trip, as I faced both new and anxiety-provoking situations. For instance, on the night of my arrival, I followed my GPS to a location in the wrong county, travelling several miles in a car without four-wheel drive up a one-lane, unpaved, slippery, snow-covered road with a sheer drop off to my left side, only to find myself blocked by a locked gate to someone’s remote mountain lair.
When I came to the locked gate and realized that my GPS must have led me far astray of my destination, I had to resist the urge to panic. I had no choice but to figure out a way to stay calm and back slowly down the hill in the pitch dark of night with the driver’s side door open to light the way so that I wouldn’t miscalculate and pitch off the sheer cliff to my left. Experiences like this one have strengthened my ability to remain calm and address a number of anxiety-provoking situations without panicking (for example, I call on these abilities often when helping severely traumatized combat veterans readjust to life after deployment).
During the same week in North Carolina, I also created some wonderful memories of hiking alone through the local mountains, interacting with the locals, and forming my own impressions of the costs and benefits (as I see it, anyway) of their way of life. In the midst of both the harrowing and pleasurable events of this trip, I noticed that somehow, my senses seem sharper when I’m alone.
There were some very challenging times when I’m traveling alone. At the same time, there have also been many moments of pure exhilaration and renewal, in a way that is different from the renewal I experience on adventures with my husband. These Walden Pond interludes have been a vital component in keeping our relationship vital and happy.
How have your experiences with solitary travel increased the quality of your life?
*Thoreau, H. (1854). Quote taken from “Solitude” within the book entitled Walden, or Life in the Woods as included in the Norton Anthology of American Literature (1994). Fourth Edition, Volume 1; New York: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 1789.
**Sarton, M. (1973). Journal of a Solitude: The Intimate Diary of a Year in the Life of a Creative Woman. Ontario, Canada: Penguin Books, p. 201.