The traveler’s rite of passage: a trip with your sweetheart. This is the relationship crash course, the testing ground of compatibility. With relentless together time we start to answer those necessary questions. Can we trust each other in unknown situations? Does more time make us better or worse? When we are too tired for our best selves, who are we really, together? And of course, how much do we fight?
Here’s the good news, traveling couples: It’s not what you fight about or even how you fight. What predicts relational success is the meaning we create about our fights and all the moments in between. All of the obvious arguments will happen while you travel. So pay attention instead to how you treat each other during all that together time and the corrosive, insidious effects that these have on relationships. Here are seven ways to cause a breakup when traveling and how to avoid the pitfalls.
1. Ignoring your partner’s ideas
Don’t be a bulldozer. When traveling with your partner you should look around occasionally and find yourself doing something that isn’t your first choice. If you find yourself living your dream trip and not a shared trip, odds are you’re bulldozing. Relationship bulldozing is when you use unrelenting assertiveness, passive manipulation, or even outright aggression to get your way without acknowledging the other person. If multiple times a day, day after day, you are showing their interests, desires, and opinions don’t matter, then you are likely doing serious relationship damage that will last beyond this trip.
2. Spending all your time with a screen
Your body may be there, but your mind and your face are not. Whether it is for work, media, habit, or boredom, being buried in a screen for most of the trip is guaranteed to drive your partner nuts. In fact, this is one of the most argued about issues on vacation with over half of all traveling couples saying they have argued about a partner not being able to unplug, especially for work. Nobody likes feeling alone when they’re on a trip with their significant other. Turn the device off and remember what eye contact feels like.
3. Blaming your partner for travel mishaps
Being upset and arguing about stressful travel is predictable. Real problems come when contempt sneaks in. Ask yourself this and be honest. How many times have you been stressed and accused your partner of getting stuck in traffic or yelled that you told them not to pick this flight? Yeah, me too. We’re all human. But criticism becomes contempt when we attack who our partner is and act superior. Avoid contempt as much as possible and repair it when it happens because this common travel scenario, when not repaired, is the single greatest predictor of a breakup.
4. Focusing on things that aren’t working
Most people have an image of their ideal vacation and the way things should go. It’s normally a picture of wildly spontaneous, laughing people straight out of some car commercial. You know, the people that we rarely are in our real lives. Those things may happen, but we are ultimately ourselves, still fussing at each other about shared sink space. Sometimes trips themselves aren’t that amazing. They can even be…disappointing (you know it’s true). Hurling idealized expectations at your partner is a guaranteed way to make this trip, and ultimately the “story of us,” a bust. Our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative experiences and when we focus on what’s not working, we create a story of this trip, and perhaps even us, not working too. These typically look like, “but we should be,” “why don’t you want to,” and “if you want this to work then.” Couples trying hard to “rekindle romance” are the prime suspects for this pitfall, but don’t pull rank just yet, it can happen to all of us. Turn the pressure down a notch.
5. Dragging your partner around on your schedule
Unless you are acting as a hired tour guide, slow down. Traveling couples tend to have two set roles: one plans and leads and one agrees and follows. Some couples are more extreme in these roles while others are more balanced. That part doesn’t matter; what matters is how you treat your partner. If you are the planner, make sure you are paying attention to your partner’s energy level. Hanger is real. 22,000 steps in a day is intense. That to-do list is important to you, but it may be a chore for your partner. If you tend to be the partner who is along for the ride, speak up for yourself when you need a change. Storing all the resentment is bad for you and the relationship. If you do speak up and are not heard, time to rethink your traveling companion.
6. Not talking about or respecting limits
There are some trips that are about no limits. Vegas. Carnival. Burning Man. And yet, even with these trips, you need to be very sure of the no rules approach before you leave. More often than not there are limits, even if they are unspoken. These are the most immediate deal breakers with the most immediate betrayals. This can be infidelity, radically different approaches to what “having some drinks” means, or reckless abandon for a previously agreed upon budget. I know it can be a bit of a downer beforehand to communicate expectations, but these trips cause many relationship crashes. If it’s important enough to stay together, talk it out first.
7. Bringing up a trip with your ex
Comparison is natural. You’re thinking about a past trip with a past love while traveling with your new someone. You might be thinking about a great place or experience you had with your ex and want to share that with your new partner but don’t mention the ex. You may be deeply appreciating your new travel buddy compared to the last one, but seriously, don’t mention the ex.
Sure, not everyone is bothered by this, but you would be surprised how much it comes up after the trip, even after years of unmentioned festering. It tells your partner that here, in this “our time” vacation, you still have room in your head for your ex and that your partner’s intimate space is still a shared space. The grateful comparison might play well later, outside of the moment itself. But when you are in the glorious moment that travel makes possible, just be with your partner and don’t bring anyone else into it.