A year of living dangerously: When Shoshana Foster decided to take time off from her marriage, only Brian, her husband, understood. Linda Joffee tells their story

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE FOSTERS are in nearly every respect an ordinary couple. Married for 17 years and living comfortably in deepest Wimbledon, Shoshana and Brian, both in their forties, give the appearance that life for them has always been content. As is often the case, however, appearances are deceptive: eight years ago the Fosters came within a hair's breadth of splitting up. But they found an uncommon answer to an all-too-common problem.

Initially, it was a case of Opposites Attract: she is American, he is English; she says everything she thinks, he thinks about everything he says. Brian says: 'I'm a very humdrum, unemotional guy married to someone who screams her head off for five minutes then shuts up because she's got it out of her system: most


Shoshana began living with Brian when she was in her mid-twenties; he was a few years older. For both it was, from the start, a fun, virtually problem-free relationship, and after sharing a house for a year or so they saw no reason not to marry. 'I wouldn't say I was passionately in love with Brian at the time,' recalls Shoshana. 'It was just a very happy relationship.' Brian shared her outlook. 'When it came to thinking about marriage, there were simply more pluses than minuses,' he says.

Finances have never been a worry for the Fosters. When they decided to tie the knot, Brian was already edging his way up the ladder in the multinational company where he still works, while Shoshana was in a secure local government auditor's post. Their relationship has always been spiced with holidays abroad and evenings out - plenty to spend, with enough to spare.

Nevertheless, amid all this sweetness and light, a malaise started to creep in. Nothing specific at first, and it was only Shoshana who was feeling it. It was the predictability of married life that gradually became so irksome to her. From the age of 18 she had been a free-wheeling person, always travelling; her most memorable year was spent roughing it in an Israeli kibbutz, where she adopted her Hebrew name.

Still, as with most of us, inside Shoshana beats a security-loving heart. Brian, a mild-mannered, accomplished man with an endearing wit, is security incarnate.

But by the time she reached her thirties, Shoshana had had her fill of security. Moreover, she realised that having a baby at this point - a frequent 'solution' to marital discontent - would be only a temporary palliative. The frustration came to a head and she realised she had to take action. She came up with the curious notion of taking a 'year off' from her marriage.

'Being married just wasn't very exciting,' Shoshana states. 'I suppose I thought we should have more high points in our lives. I began looking for something that might give me more excitement.'

During this period, Shoshana seriously considered divorce, then discarded the idea. She was in no doubt that she still loved Brian; but it was the feeling of being inextricably tied to him at that particular point in her life which seemed to be causing the problems.

Like many women, she had settled down before she had fully tested herself in the world at large, thus creating a sense of losing herself within the marriage. The fact was, she had never found herself in the first place. The idea of being out on her own and travelling around was alluring for one obvious reason: it took her back to exactly the point where she had broken off years ago.

Most of this was not apparent to her at the time. In fact it was Brian who had more of a grasp on what was happening, and encouraged her to act. 'The thought of losing Shoshana while she was away didn't occur to me until much later,' he recalls. 'Because at the time I had a much greater concern: that I'd lose her if she didn't go.'

Shoshana planned to trek alone around the world on a limited budget: it would mean dusting off parts of her personality she had not used for years, and living out the kind of fantasy she had not dared to dream about once she had settled down with Brian.

The trip took months of meticulous planning, and brought out a side of his wife that Brian had never known; she organised her solitary adventure with shrewdness and determination. While he would gladly have provided a helping hand financially, Shoshana preferred to manage through prudent budgeting and her own savings. 'It never entered my mind to ask Brian for help,' says Shoshana. 'In any case, if you do enough research it costs much less than you might think.' Besides, she realised that a major part of the enterprise meant knowing, when it was over, that she had done it entirely by herself. And a lot could happen in a year. 'It was a scary period for us,' she admits. 'We didn't talk about the future, because we both recognised that there was a very real possibility we might lose each other.'

Brian, says Shoshana, was the only person who understood why she felt compelled to take such a risk with their relationship. 'My friends thought I was a monster for leaving. They felt terribly sorry for Brian and were convinced that I'd gone out of my mind. My own mother wouldn't even speak to me. What no one could accept was that, once we'd talked it through, Brian came to feel the year was going to be a tremendous experience - for both of us.'

Parting was horrific. As they said goodbye, both believed it was the end of their marriage, though neither voiced it. While Shoshana wasn't looking for another man, she knew it was important to get everything out of her system. And once Brian had accustomed himself to the idea of the separation, he began to view a 'slice of bachelorhood', as he puts it, as an intriguing prospect.

Shoshana's travels took her to places she had never been: Africa, India, the Far East. She stayed in primitive villages, backpacked through the Himalayas, worked as a Red Cross volunteer.

The couple wrote to each other regularly and Brian missed Shoshana just as much as she did him - but he didn't sit moping. He went to parties; like Shoshana, he had the occasional dalliance. And after a while (also like Shoshana) he came to a firm conclusion about human nature: 'People fantasise that there's a lot more out there than there really is.' It left him with no doubts that he wanted Shoshana back for keeps.

Ironically, it was for this reason, when she phoned at the six-month mark saying she was ready to hop on the next plane home, that he urged her to reconsider. 'It seemed to me, if she returned at that point,' explains Brian, 'that she would have only half-fulfilled her goal. I suspected she would one day regret it.'

Shoshana was stunned. But she also thought there was a kernel of wisdom in what he was saying. 'After thoroughly considering it - the doubts, quite honestly, weren't totally dispelled as to what he might be getting up to, which really made me want to come home all the more - I sensed that I had to see it through.'

Looking back today, both she and Brian believe that making the trip was the best decision she has ever made. They learnt to appreciate a lot about each other during that year. 'I'd never been one to believe in 'absence makes the heart grow fonder',' says Brian, 'but my views on the subject have changed drastically.'

Shoshana says: 'Being so completely separated puts things in a different light. What's fundamental in a relationship simply became much clearer.'

Most important, however, it made them aware that they did have a choice: they could renew their marital commitment, or stay apart. And the knowledge that they had chosen to remain together, rather than simply feeling they ought to, made it more meaningful when Shoshana returned.

'When I came home,' she recalls, 'it was more of a honeymoon than the real one had been. I now knew quite clearly why I wanted to be married to Brian. Not only during that year did I discover a lot about myself, which made me feel so much better about who I was, but I also realised things about Brian, that he had so many fantastic attributes - the kind of things I just couldn't find in any other man - like his wit and sense of fun, and his intellect and supportiveness. All my doubts were dispelled. It may sound corny, but I was certain now that I wanted to be with him for ever.'

The Fosters celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary in November. What they learnt during the Big Break eight years ago is still not forgotten. 'The change in Shoshana is enormous,' concludes Brian. 'She's not the same person she was before she left.' The difference, she believes, lies in the marked shift of her priorities, and the knowledge that the source of her previous malaise was not really lack of excitement in their relationship - that was merely a symptom.

Like many women today, Shoshana had bought wholesale the notion that she had to be an 'achiever', otherwise she would somehow be a failure. Even though she enjoyed her job and many aspects of her marriage, she had lacked the positive self-definition she had thought only high- flying career success could bring.

It was when she had come back from her trip and decided to devote her time to writing a guidebook for women travelling alone that Shoshana finally made peace with herself, in a most unexpected way. The manuscript didn't sell. Had she been the person she was before her travels, she would have been devastated. But she wasn't. Indeed, it served only to help her see that real success is rarely the end product: writing the book, just like the trip, had demanded discipline and pluck, qualities that have carried over into all areas of her life. Suddenly, to achieve something just for the sake of proving her worth seemed a childish exercise. Liberated at last from other people's ideas of success, Shoshana today divides her time between home, their daughter, Susan, and part-time community work.

Still, happy though the ending may be for her, doesn't Brian feel her year 'off' was an act of supreme selfishness? 'Selfishness implies being spiteful in one's lack of regard for others' feelings,' argues Brian, 'and I don't think what she did was a matter of disregard of me. It was simply knowing what she wanted to do, and doing it. I don't call that selfish; it's just not being a martyr.'

Shoshana is less charitable. 'It was selfish. On the other hand, if the relationship was to survive, I really had no choice.' She is convinced that when a woman feels as she did, it is imperative that she takes some well considered 'selfish' action, along with a lot of honest soul-searching - preferably as far away from the relationship as possible.

'When a woman feels like that, it's just too easy to blame it on the marriage,' she says, 'instead of seeing the situation for what it really is.'

(Photograph omitted)