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Travel is no vacation when couples clash

kikuo johnson

When Travel Channel host Don Wildman began exploring the world with the woman who is now his wife, he noticed something wasn’t quite right. Wildman is a free spirit with yearnings for bohemian adventure. He has no problem wandering aimlessly in the chiaroscuro alleys of Venice or chatting up the locals for a restaurant recommendation in Central America.

She, however, leaves no detail to chance. Every moment, destination, and restaurant is meticulously planned and researched in advance with the help of dog-eared travel books.

Their oil-and-water dynamic made trip planning as precarious as a sumo wrestler waltzing with a hippopotamus in a shop full of Wedgwood goblets.


“Opposites attract, and we are totally opposite,” said Wildman, the host of “Mysteries at the Museum.” “Her approach is the antithesis of what travel should be.”

Opposites may attract, but that attraction can make for some very stressful moments when deciding what to do, where to go, and how to pace a trip. Toss the stress of airport lines, flight cancellations, language barriers, and occasionally sketchy accommodations onto that smoldering fire and a trip can suddenly feel more like work than a carefree getaway.

“What I hear as a therapist is that couples often go into trips with high expectations and return from a trip finding those expectations were not met. It can be a disaster,” said Ian Kerner, who is also an author. “They come back not feeling as bonded as they hoped they would be, or even in a state of disconnection or estrangement.”

If you’ve never experienced travel incompatibility with a significant other, then you are probably a hermit, or perhaps your temperament is sweeter than a roll of butterscotch Life Savers dipped in Dr Pepper.
A few years ago I visited Portugal with a dashing paramour, and learned very quickly that the trip was going to be a challenge. With a Rick Steves guidebook in hand, my inamorato dutifully marked out every church, statue, and fountain we needed to visit in Lisbon. I just wanted to get to a beach.


After the second day of zigzagging several miles around the city in 90-degree heat, I snapped. I wanted to throw his guidebook into the harbor. Tense conversation ensued, followed by a series of negotiations and concessions that rivaled the Treaty of Versailles. Those fragile discussions were the cellophane tape that held the rest of the trip together.

According to experts, it would have been helpful to talk about those details before we headed to the airport.

“I think couples should sit down and plan a trip in advance,” said Cambridge-based psychologist Jessica Wexler after I had relayed my tale. “They need to talk about what they’re hoping to get out of the trip, and manage their expectations before they go.”

Wendy Perrin, a travel expert who runs an eponymous blog, also stressed the importance of pre-departure planning, but she takes it a step further.

“My biggest piece of advice would be figuring out what you want to get out of the vacation. Figure out what your goal is, really articulate it to yourself,” she said. “Your partner should do the same thing. That way you can figure out how to integrate those goals. If you’re trying to accomplish two conflicting goals at the same time, neither goal gets accomplished.”


Perrin claimed plenty of experience in this arena. She began to laugh uncontrollably when describing her travel conflicts with her husband. She said their disagreements begin at the airport and continue through the trip. He’s a photographer waiting for just the right light; she’s anxious to hit the ground running.

It’s also important to stay flexible, said Travelzoo senior editor Gabe Saglie.

“Sometimes people focus too much on what they don’t want to do,” he said. “There needs to be more focus on what you’re willing to do, and then you’ll find more middle ground with your partner.”

National Geographic Traveler writer Robert Reid and his wife also find themselves at odds over vacations. He wants to stay on the move; she wants to stay on the beach. The solution? They divvy up days into his and hers. But Reid’s advice to couples is make sure both parties stay equally involved in the planning.

“I don’t think either person should dominate the planning,” he said. “If they do, it’s not a sign of a good relationship.”

If couples come to an impasse, discussions often veer toward the idea of separate vacations. This became a hot topic two years ago when President Obama and the first lady took separate vacations. Speculation about marital discord was rampant. The experts have varying opinions about such separations.

“I’m skeptical of separate vacations,” said Wildman. “I think you’re cheating your relationship out of not facing obstacles.”

Kerner said, “A separate vacation is not something that gets practiced often, but it’s something that should be practiced more often.”


There is also a diplomatic middleground to the separate vacation debate. One half of the couple may go beer tasting for a weekend while the other goes to New York with friends.

“I don’t see a problem with separate vacations. Sometimes you just need to get away with friends to decompress,” Reid said. “But if a couple only has the time or the means to take one vacation, they should take it together.”

Conflicts between couples are just the beginning of the woes that travelers can face. Add children or extended family to the mix and you’re left with a potential for a lot of grumbling and whining.

“Planning a family vacation is very much like juggling chain saws. The results aren’t very pretty,” Perrin said. “If you think it’s bad for couples, kids can make it that much more difficult.”

Expert advice may not be what you want to hear, but compromise is required if you want to remain on speaking terms with your dearest. There are hidden benefits to occasionally throwing your pride into the dustbin.

“I never wanted to go on a cruise, absolutely never,” said Reid. “But I went on a cruise with my family, and it’s hard to be grumpy when everyone around you is having such a good time. I was enjoying myself just seeing how happy everyone was.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at