Welcome to Dear Here, an advice column from Here Magazine where we tap into the hearts and minds of travelers, working with the experts to find solutions to travel issues you can’t always solve with a search engine.
I’m in the middle of talking to my relatively new boyfriend about planning our first trip together, and it’s making me really anxious. People say that a trip can make or break a relationship—that travel is like a microcosm for what the rest of your life will be like. There’s a lot of pressure riding on the success!
I worry that we might not want to do the same things.
We’re already facing a bit of a conundrum: I suggested for our first trip that we go to a cabin upstate and just be alone. Something chill, easy. But my biggest fear is that I might get bored with him. Boring is scary. You don’t want the rest of your life to be boring!
On the other hand, he’s really enthusiastic about doing something more adventurous, something neither of us has done before that we can experience together for the first time. But I worry that we might not want to do the same things. What if we don’t find the same things interesting? What if we realize we enjoy spending our downtime really differently? The rest of our constructed life is usually there to help us make decisions, but on vacation, it’ll just be us against the world, wherever that is.
To be honest, I think both trip options come with their benefits and their challenges. I guess my biggest fear is that so much of our relationship is around other people, our friends, family, etc—in either scenario, what if we just don’t hold up alone?
What if we just don’t hold up alone?
Off The Heartbeat-en Track
We hear you—traveling with your partner for the first time can feel really, really stressful, but the good news is that it seems like you’re asking great questions. You just need some guidance on how to approach these questions IRL.
For some expert help, we reached out to Laura Heck, a licensed couples therapist with a private practice in Salt Lake City, Utah. She’s a member of the international Gottman Institute, which provides practical, research-based tools to strengthen relationships, and helped co-create their Seven Principles Leader Training. Below, she shares some specific, tactical advice for taking your relationship abroad.
First, don’t sweat it.
“Especially with newer relationships, it feels like there’s a lot riding on these trips. [It feels like] a make-it-or-break-it moment, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that,” says Heck. Yes, things might not go as planned or turn out as well as expected, but it doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything. In fact, it’s possible to imagine a scenario where a couple goes on their first trip, and it goes really poorly, but they wind up getting past it. Years later, they’re laughing about how terrible that first vacation was, and what seemed like such a disaster at the time can make for really great shared comedy down the line.
I think some of the best stories that we have are the stories where things didn’t always go as well.
“I think some of the best stories that we have are the stories where things didn’t always go as well, especially in those first months together,” agrees Heck. She also contends that experiencing a trip together for the first time is important in evolving the relationship. “Novelty is great for relationships. So for couples that are doing everything for the very first time, it’s exciting and it’s new and it’s not always going to be great, but you’re learning about each other along the way.”
Heck suggests that while you just have to embrace all that comes with traveling with a partner, there are some strategies for maximizing your travel time together.
Explore each other’s intentions beforehand.
“It takes a while to work into a space where you can anticipate what your partner is going to do,” says Heck, so in these early stages, it’s especially important for both of you to have explicit conversations about how you want to spend your time.
I want couples to imagine what the stories are that they’re going to come home and want tell everybody about.
“Anytime couples are getting ready to go on a trip, I always have them ask one question. No matter what kind of traveler they are—whether they’re detailed planners or more go-with-the-flow—I want for couples to imagine that they are driving home or flying home from whatever adventure they’ve gone on, and I want them to imagine what the stories are that they’re going to come home and want tell everybody about. What is it that they’re gonna be so amped and so excited about, they can’t wait to bust their cell phone out and show people those pictures?”
This question, Heck says, will help you clearly identify where your expectations lie in a way that gives each person a tangible framework to express their desires. But often, simply having that conversation isn’t quite enough.
Deeply understand each other’s expectations.
What if you do wind up having wildly different desires for the trip?
“I would try and understand what’s underneath it all,” says Heck. “What are you truly seeking as a result of these activities?” In other words, if you want to lay low and snuggle, and he wants to go zip-lining, it’s important for each of you to get curious about what it is about those things that’s appealing to each of you.
This is how you can approach perhaps the #1 on-going conundrum in any relationship: compromise.
For example, you might think that getting cozy and staying indoors will spark intimacy between the two of you, and that’s great. But he might be thinking that doing exciting new things together will also bring you closer—so both of these activities can potentially accomplish a shared goal. Once he understands your needs, your partner might discover that he doesn’t actually need to be outside and doing all those crazy things. He may realize that he just wants to get closer to you, and vice versa. This is how you can approach perhaps the #1 ongoing project in any relationship: compromise.
Talk about past travel experiences.
You have to have your first time traveling to sort of understand how you do things as a couple.
“You have to have your first time traveling to sort of understand how you do things as a couple,” says Heck, but you can go into it with a deeper understanding of who your partner is as a traveler—and who you are as a traveler—by talking about past travel experiences. Is your partner the type that always stops at every sight to take a picture? Do you throw your diet out the window on vacation? Is your partner historically a detailed planner or more go-with-the-flow? Was their family always late to the airport and did they find that super stressful?
Heck believes that it’s important to ask what was special about those previous experiences—and what they would change if they could. This can illuminate even more about what you and your partner can expect from a travel experience and the history that shaped those expectations. Travel can bring about our best and worst selves, but this way, you won’t be as thrown off guard by any new behaviors between the two of you.
Have a post-mortem.
What if you go on a trip with your partner and the worst comes to worst? Nothing goes right, you’re bored, you fight, or you feel like your needs and expectations weren’t met. You already know it doesn’t have to mean the end of the relationship if you don’t want it to—so what can you do to salvage things?
It all starts with having a conversation.
“On the way home, start with asking yourself and your partner: what were the highs and lows of this trip?” says Heck.
Never assume the worst intentions from your partner.
As with any conflict, never assume the worst intentions from your partner. “You might be surprised as to what your partner has to say about what went well or what didn’t go well.”
Heck says that it’s important to focus on the highs first, “because we do tend to have a revisionist history, where we start to look for what was negative. If you have your shit-colored glasses on, it’s going to be really hard for you to see the positive.”
Go into the conversation with the goal that you want to walk away having learned something about how you both might have done things differently if you could. “Think about how we can make this better in the future,” says Heck. “What did we learn about each other? What did we learn about ourselves? Did we share our best self during this adventure or could we have done better?”
Accept that it’s part of a learning process.
There’s so much you can learn about a person when you spend all that consecutive time together, just the two of you. Heck believes that this is important work for a relationship, good or bad:
Couples do need to sort of strip away all of the other things in life.
“If you’re always getting together and it’s a big group of people and you feel like your conversations are driven by other people rather than talking alone, travel will help give you a pretty clear picture as to how your dynamic is, and I think that’s important. I think that couples do need to strip away all of the other things in life and just spend some time connecting with one another.”
So whether or not it works out with your partner after you travel together, you’ll certainly get an idea one way or the other if your dynamic is a long-term fit. You won’t know until you try—and what a blessing that can be, no matter which way it shakes.
Happy Valentine’s Day, travelers! We hope you found this helpful. To submit your own questions to “Dear Here,” shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “DEAR HERE.”