They looked every inch the happy couple, but in reality their relationship was crumbling. So these empty nesters made a drastic decision… Want to save your marriage? Take a gap year together
When our third child left home in 2018, Galina and I knew we were at a crossroads. Many marriages fall apart once kids leave, and we’d already begun sensing for ourselves how this could happen. Boredom set in. We knew each other too well, it seemed.
When we stopped saying the words ‘I love you’ before falling asleep, as we’d done for years, it seemed more than symbolic. My wife had the courage to acknowledge this, and said she wasn’t even sure what it meant, and why bother saying it simply out of routine?
Of course, she knew what it meant: she just wasn’t feeling it any more. And yet it seemed like a huge waste to give up on so many years together without trying our hardest to save it.
Chris Saye and his wife Galina (pictured) took a midlife gap year after their third child left home in 2018
We met in 1995, when I was working for the consultancy firm Arthur Andersen in the gas and oil industry and Galina was a PA and translator. It was love at first sight. Indeed, we were drawn together that day by a force I’d never felt before, and have never since.
Two years later, we married. I formally adopted Galina’s six-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, Natasha, and we had our two boys, Nicholas in 1998 and Marcus in 2000. By the time we felt our marriage was under threat, Natasha was happily married herself and living in America; Nicholas was studying design in Spain and Marcus was off on a gap year before university.
If it was Marcus’s departure that sparked our marital crisis, it was also his manner of leaving — with a backpack, off on an adventure — that seemed to offer a potential solution. Galina and I decided to do something radical. In a move that would either make or definitely break our marriage, I’d give up my job in finance and we’d head off round the world on our own midlife gap year, using our joint savings.
To give us purpose, we decided to visit four of the world’s Blue Zones — the regions around the world identified by National Geographic explorer and author Dan Buettner as the places where people live the longest and are healthiest.
Visiting the Blue Zones would focus our adventure on a quest to discover for ourselves the secret to a long, happy and fulfilled life. And if part of that was discovering our love had truly ended, so be it.
Chris said he and Galina have always told their children that if they wanted to test a serious relationship, they should travel together. Pictured: Chris and Galina with their children Natasha and Marcus and Natasha’s children
Galina had always told our children that if they wanted to test a serious relationship, they should travel together. Now we were doing just that.
I shut the door on my office and mothballed my business. Though we both felt a sense of excitement at the freedom of it, there was no denying the feelings of insecurity and loss, too.
The Lessons we’ve learned about lasting love
Money isn’t everything
Making money no longer drives my aspirations in life. People living in the Blue Zones don’t generally have big bank balances or retirement portfolios. Instead, they live day-to-day surrounded by friends and family.
We learned a great lesson from the Melis family in Sardinia — own your own bar so that you can’t be fired or forced into retirement! Never stop doing something productive or meaningful. We are planning to open a plant-based cafe by the time we reach our 60s.
Use it or lose it applies to all aspects of our bodies! People in the Blue Zones are known for having sex well into old age. Yes, it really does keep you young.
Belief in something bigger than ourselves makes life easier: it lessens stress and offers hope for the future. Most Blue Zone communities have a devout religious belief at their heart. Gratitude and gathering with like-minded friends are key.
Make time to party
An active social life that offers opportunities to cut loose and have fun has a huge impact on happiness. Making time to laugh with friends was a key takeaway for us, whether on a weekly golf date or a sunny weekend away.
Drink (a bit)
One centenarian in Okinawa swore the secret to her long life was drinking a daily cup of mugwort sake. We learned that moderate consumption of alcohol (1-2 drinks a day) is a common factor in each of the Blue Zones we visited.
Walk, walk, walk
All of the Blue Zones have a mountainous, rural terrain, which means you get a cardio workout just walking to the shops. Try to incorporate regular strength training into your exercise regime, too.
Get a pet
Being needed — even if it’s just a pet — keeps you energised. We have now adopted a dog.
Then we were off. Our adventure began on the Japanese island of Okinawa, famous for the extraordinary longevity of its people and their relative immunity to common killers in the West such as heart disease.
We came here to study the diet, and rented a cottage in the small village of Chinen. On long walks around the town and small farming valleys, we noted what grew there, and then bought and cooked what was sold in the shops. We ate plenty of sweet potatoes (a staple in the local diet), mushrooms, bitter gourds and lots of salad and greens.
As we posed in front of a turquoise sea, smiling for photos we then posted on social media, the image was of a happy couple embarking on the next phase of life together. Neither of us would admit out loud how fragile our relationship was.
But this wasn’t just a sight-seeing visit. Our plan was to live with local families and work alongside them, to immerse ourselves in each place and really get to know it from the inside. We started to look for work as volunteers and quickly learned about the websites WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and WorkAway, two platforms which match up volunteer workers with ‘employers’ who exchange room and board for daily labour. One day off in every six is the norm, and workers are generally expected to work at least four hours a day.
We started volunteering at a dairy farm. Our services weren’t required for milking, but primarily for feeding the cows and clearing away the endless manure. Our first shift started at 6am. In the UK, our lifestyle had been more than comfortable — we especially loved a good restaurant — yet here we were, living like students.
Physically it was challenging, but our fascinating co-workers came from all over the world, and as the days went by, we started to get into a groove with the ‘back-to-basics’ lifestyle. Every day, Galina and I had a clear sense of purpose and a shared set of responsibilities — to keep the animals alive.
Neither of us knew better than the other how to do it, and as we learned together, we began to talk, and occasionally laugh, as we’d not done in months.
The key was a mutual goal — something we needed and would have to find again back in the UK. And yet, the cracks in our relationship still gaped. One day I found myself walking ahead of Galina, lost in my own thoughts. ‘Why the hell are you walking ahead of me again?’ she asked. ‘What are you thinking about?’
She interpreted my silence as aloofness or, worse, selfishness.
‘It’s not going to work if we go on like this,’ she said. ‘From now on, we walk side by side, hand in hand.’ I took her hand. We would fake it for a while and see if that helped.
Our next stop was another Blue Zone — the isolated Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica, where we stayed for six weeks. Homes here are built with patios and each one, we noticed, had a number of rocking chairs on the porch. Driving around in the evenings, we saw how many of the porches were filled with multiple generations of family sitting together and talking to each other. Notably absent was the glow of smartphone screens.
Chris (pictured, in Japan) and Galina began their adventure in Okinawa, famous for the longevity of its people and their relative immunity to common killers in the West such as heart disease
In March 2019 we travelled to Sardinia, off the west of Italy. Tourists love its beaches, but it’s the inland, mountainous areas that hold its longevity secrets.
Specifically, we headed to the Nuoro province, where the ‘Blue Zone’ name was first conceived by Dan Buettner, and the cluster of villages whose inhabitants shared a rare genetic marker, known as the M26 marker, which researchers believe is correlated with long life.
We stayed in Perdasdefogu, a town high up in the mountains famous for holding the world record for one family’s collective longevity — at one point, the Melis family of six sisters and three brothers had a combined age of 818.
We visited the aptly named Longevity Bar, still run by one of the Melis brothers, who was 96. I asked his son what he believed to be his father’s secret to a long life. ‘Hard work!’ he exclaimed.
Galina (pictured, in Italy) and Chris began changing their diet during their travels – learning a better balance between plant-based foods and animal products
It was another lesson. Even in old age, Galina and I had to find something to occupy us.
For our final Blue Zone trip we spent six weeks exploring the Greek island of Ikaria, where food and community are the cornerstones of a long and successful life. We booked into a traditional Ikarian farmhouse and helped the host Eleni with the cooking. Our diet was changing: we were learning a better balance between plant-based foods and animal products.
On Ikaria, something changed. On this magical island, they love nothing better than a festival and the chance to party. They eat and dance together for hours.
Our trip coincided with Greek Orthodox Easter and this allowed us to experience another of the key Blue Zone takeaways — spiritual belief. Whatever your faith, it’ s been proved in studies that participation in religious groups improves longevity. Galina and I began to hold hands out of desire, not duty.
As we headed back to London, however, we still hadn’t talked about our marriage. We were tired and it felt too hard to have the conversation out loud. So one morning after our travels, I grabbed my laptop and typed a letter to her instead.
Chris said their Blue Zone travels brought them face to face with the key factors that add up to a long life, such as good food eaten with family and a sense of togetherness. Pictured: Couple in Costa Rica
I wrote of what I’d learned on our trip: the core values of family, the dedication to work and community that I’d seen in every Blue Zone we’d visited. I wanted to be loved by her and I wanted to stay with her, I wrote.
I handed Galina my letter to read — and she wrote one for me, too. Our gap year had shown her the need for purpose and meaning in her life. She took responsibility for her own part in our bumpy past, and said she wanted to retrain in a new job now the children had left home. She pledged to write me a letter or send me a song each day.
Here were solid ways to work at the connection we both craved. Any doubt was gone. We danced together in the kitchen, amazed at our breakthrough.
In our Blue Zone travels we’d come face to face with the key factors that seemingly add up to a long life: good food eaten with family and a sense of togetherness, both real and spiritual.
Even though the kids were now adults, we still had a family and we were still together. The secret was sitting right under our noses the whole time.
Fly: An Empty Nester’s Quest For The Holy Grail Of Life, Love & Longevity, by Chris Saye, is available on Amazon