My friend Meredith was wide-eyed when I told her about the upcoming trip my husband and I were planning. The two of us were going to Italy and France for two weeks, stopping in five cities and making it back just in time for my husband to start school.
“We could never do a trip like that,” she whispered, nodding to her husband down the hall. “We’d kill each other.”
I laughed. They had the happiest marriage I’d ever seen — until I saw her face fall. “Oh wait – you’re serious?”
According to marriage and family therapist Julie Malloy, fighting with your significant other while on a trip can be a common problem. “I’ve found in my work with couples processing the tension brought about by a vacation, that these events can often serve as a microcosm for existing problems in the relationship,” She explains.
It turns out, a lot of couples fear traveling because, once they arrive at their dream destination, an otherwise happy relationship transforms into a cutting pit of sarcasm and the silent treatment, sprinkled with a tinge of anger. Blame it on the jet lag, the unusual amount of time together, the a-a-a-a-a-alcohol – it’s real, and it can ruin an otherwise lovely and much-anticipated vacation.
There are so many reasons to fight on vacation, all of them unique to each couple, but there are a few “triggers” that are especially responsible for sparking controversy when traveling, according to Malloy.
What Are You Fighting About?
Differences – He wants to watch a pro-sports game. She wants to visit a museum. He wants to lay on the beach. She wants to go shopping. With two differing sets of opinions on how to use hard-won vacation days, it often takes more than compromise to resolve travel woes, especially if going abroad.
Money – Money is one of the biggest issues among couples who are home, and traveling exacerbates the problem. Where to spend money, on what, and how much can spark major friction between couples. Malloy says, “Couples who are used to making discreet purchases at home are apt to feel like their spending habits are now being questioned when on vacation.”
Decisions – We’re presented with far more decisions when traveling than we are in real life. Where to eat? Where to spend our time? Take a cab or walk? Don’t even get me started on navigating new roads. With so many decisions to make, you’re bound to disagree on a few. (Or all. Okay, all.)
Why Are You Fighting?
“Relationships are made up of two different people with different worldviews,” Says Malloy. “We think and communicate differently than our partner. We deal with stress differently. We have differences of opinion about life and love and parenting and politics and faith. And yes, we also vacation differently. Sometimes, instead of deciding the problem lies between us, we decide the problem exists within our partner. We need to slow down in order to reflect on what we are really fighting about.”
So why are do couples fight so much when they’re traveling? Why can’t they seem to work out their differences then, when they seem to be just fine at home?
A few factors come into play here:
You’re Tired – Anyone with a young child knows that without a nap, an otherwise happy child can turn into a raging beast. Adults, unfortunately, are often the same. Jet lag, long days without a nap, a lot of walking, and late nights make you a person you’re usually not — short-tempered, grouchy, easily frustrated, etc.
You’re Together – If you’re a busy couple with dual careers (and maybe even kids), you actually aren’t around each other that much. So traveling is one of the only times you’re with your spouse or partner nonstop. This is likely the case for a lot of modern couples and, while in a perfect world, all of that 24/7 togetherness should be paradise… It does allows for unresolved issues to surface.
Negotiations – At home, much of what couples do is negotiated: who takes out the trash, pays the water bill, picks up the take-out, etc. While some trips are structured as a vacation (think cruises and all-expense-paid-resorts,) a lot of them, especially when traveling abroad, require an entire new set of negotiations. Negotiations can include explicit and implicit actions, but some may include: who pays the driver, who navigates, who chooses where to eat. Different from decisions, negotiations have an aspect of ownership. One party may begin to feel that they are carrying the brunt of the work, while the other is just along for the ride.
How Can You Address It (Together)?
Prepare – Know about the issues you could face as a couple when traveling and you’ll be much less likely to confront them. Decide ahead of time where you will spend your days, how much money you will spend — even look at restaurants in the area and hash out the palate debate before your trip, thus preserving the memories you’ll make there (Bonus: making reservations can also save you precious vacation time). Preparing in advance and especially recognizing the “triggers” in your relationship has can save you a lot of heartache.
Take Turns – While this advice is about as basic as it gets, it can be a very powerful tool when traveling as a couple. If your partner chose dinner last night, it’s your turn tonight. The hard and fast rule of, “You pick today, I’ll pick tomorrow” will actually encourage you to choose things you think he might like and vice versa – instead of just focusing on your own interests.
Plan a Mini-Vacation – Popular blogger Joanna Goddard swears by taking a mini-vacation from each other when on vacation. She and her husband Alex always spend one day apart from each other when traveling, free to do their own thing without compromise. “It’s refreshing and liberating to have time alone to do exactly what you want, and then you can meet for dinner to share stories and photos” Goddard writes. “Having one day completely for yourself is such a treat, and you might even surprise yourself with what you choose to do.”
So next time you’re planning a romantic getaway or travel abroad with your significant other, take time to prepare with each other, in addition to booking flights and setting up budgets. After all, people travel to escape our everyday lives. Try to make your escape a chance to reconnect — not disconnect.