Thirty-year-old grad student Natasha and her boyfriend, Marcus, had been together for just over a year when they boarded a 1,500-room Princess Cruise ship slated to set sail from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Cozumel, Mexico. It was the couple’s first summer vacay, the cherry on top of a new relationship that had, so far, been going great. They’d met each other’s families, were planning on moving in together and had even unlocked the relationship achievement level in which sweats were an acceptable date uniform. But as the floating behemoth drifted away from the Florida coastline and the two settled in, Natasha was hit with a sudden realization: She hated everything about him.
For one, he wouldn’t leave the room. He spent the first few days mindlessly watching golf on TV, waving off her pleas to explore the ship or one of the many Caribbean ports they docked at, saying, “I’m relaxing, babe. Chill.” Then there were his intermittent panic attacks about sinking. Though it was his idea to go on a cruise, every hefty wave seemed to convince him that the Caribbean Princess was the next Titanic, and he spent most waking moments plotting his escape route to the nearest lifeboat.
Worst of all was his “vacation diet.” At home, he ate healthy and with some semblance of restraint, but now, confronted with the limitless options of a cruise ship buffet, he was eating a combination of crab legs and Cheerios for every meal. Sickening as that was, Natasha tells me it was nothing compared to the growing awareness she was dating an actual man-child. “I barely recognized him on that trip,” she says, noting they broke up almost immediately after they got home. “That vacation brought out parts of him I’d never seen.”
According to relationship expert Susan Winter, experiences like Natasha’s are extremely common. Though many studies have found that couples who travel together are happier and have better sex, it’s also true that taking a vacation together can reveal the parts of yourself and your relationship that, well, kind of suck. These revelations, says Winter, often come from friction between each person’s “travel style,” or the specific preferences they have for getting around and enjoying themselves on a trip.
“Travel incompatibilities,” explains Winter, are surprisingly telling in the way they illuminate how each person likes to spend their leisure time. For example: Do they splurge on an exquisite hotel room with an exotic bidet that cleanses their asshole of all stress and sin, or do they save their money and stay somewhere cheap like a motel or friend’s air mattress? That says something about their view on materialism and how they ration their finances.
Do they plan a thorough and well-researched itinerary that thrills and delivers down to the minute, or do they just shrug, scratch their crotch and figure out what to do when they get there? Well, that tells you a lot about their decision-making capacity and how much — or how little — they need to feel like they’re in control.
Would they rather go on a nice, guided tour of the city’s historic sights than veer off the beaten path in search of the “local experience”? Cool — their choice is indicative of their independence, self-sufficiency and sense of adventure.
Even more telling is how they handle conflict, something traveling tends to throw at you in spades as you navigate different cultures, languages and locations that might be outside your comfort zone. Do they lose their cool when things don’t go their way? Do they shut down when their small European rental car gets stuck between the narrow, medieval walls of a dilapidated Spanish mountain village, accidentally blocking the front door of the home of a bizarrely good-looking family and barricading them inside, or do they simply lean into it and accept that their car is stuck, the family is toast and that they live there now? When one partner skews “freak out” and the other passively accepts their fate, you’ve got a bit of an incompatibility on your hands — one you might not have known about were it not for the itch to see the world with the person whose face you suck.
It’s usually not a big deal when couples don’t sync up on these things, says Winter. More often than not, they figure out a happy medium where everyone gets most of what they want out of a trip, and they move on. Other times, however, travel incompatibilities can be a total shitshow. In cases like Natasha’s, they reveal not just a fleeting disagreement but a glaring mismatch in values and personality that can call into question the point of the relationship as a whole. “People really show their true colors when they’re traveling,” she says. “You can really glean a lot about their values, what they’re really like and if they’re right for you by witnessing how they are on vacation.”
Take the contentious “getting to the airport early” conundrum, for example. It’s a classic problem: One person wants to get to the airport five hours before their flight because they’re a neurotic control freak hellbent on catastrophizing everyday processes; the other wants to roll up with less than an hour to spare because they’re fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants people who prefer to let fate take the wheel. On the surface, it seems like a small incompatibility, but if you take it a few steps further, it says a lot more about each person than how much time they like to spend sitting lifelessly at the gate, People magazine in hand as they wait for the plane to arrive.
Natasha, who is also one of my closest friends, is a late arriver. She not big on rules or over-preparing, and has the perpetually laid-back attitude of someone who knows everything is going to be okay. She’s the type of person who’d cram for an exam in college the night before and get an A, and tells me she fundamentally does not understand people who take hours to pack a suitcase. Unsurprisingly, she’s not big on getting to the airport early. “I could never date an early-to-the-airport person,” she says, shuddering visibly during our coffee date as if she just stumbled across a Creed CD covered in recently hatched spiders. “It says so much about who they are as a person: neurotic, anxious, a rule-follower, someone who doesn’t question authority. Gross. Why be at the airport for longer than you have to?”
Meanwhile, Emmitt, a 28-year-old art director and friend of mine, finds Natasha’s cavalier attitude towards timeliness and preparation nauseating. “What kind of monster wants to gamble with missing their flight?” he asks, noting that he’s dated several of these people and was turned off by every one. “Anyone who’s okay with paying extra money for a new flight and camping out in the corner by the magazine stand while they wait to get rebooked isn’t someone I can look in the eye, let alone make sweet vacation love to. To me, it says they’re sloppy, irresponsible and bad with time, none of which is appealing. I guess I’m of the belief that it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Another major travel incompatibility many couples deal with is the dogfight between spontaneity and planning. “The most discord I see when I work with traveling couples is when there’s a big discrepancy between the person who wants to be more spontaneous and adventurous and the person who wants to plan and stick to their routine,” says Jenni Skylar, a sex-and-relationship therapist and the director of the Boulder, Colorado-based Intimacy Institute. “It can be incredibly annoying when people’s travel styles don’t match up in this regard.”
Once, on a road trip up the West Coast with his partner, Emmitt had plotted a route up from San Francisco that landed him in a town where he knew there would be a YMCA each night. “I work out in the mornings, so I thought it would be cool to stay in places where I knew I could keep up my routine,” he says. But when his car broke down in a small town outside Arcata, it was meltdown time. He didn’t know where he and his partner were going to stay, he didn’t know when his car would be fixed and he knew the inconvenience would throw him off his workout.
Meanwhile, his partner loved every minute of it. “He was thrilled to be in a new place on an adventure,” says Emmitt. “I appreciated his positivity, but it also felt like he was minimizing everything. In all his excitement, he forgot to be empathetic towards me and my needs, and it still bothers me to this day, mostly because his acceptance of the situation made it so I had to be the one to sort everything out. At the time, I remember thinking he was like one of those sucker fishes that latches on to a shark — all take and no give.”
Incompatibilities like that aren’t always bad, though, and as both Winter and Skylar agree, they don’t necessarily “make or break” a relationship in the way Natasha and Marcus’ differences did. This is especially true when one person is lacking a skill set their partner has, and vice versa. “My wife is a meticulous planner and I’m not a fully free-form guy but I’m definitely more for improvised plans,” writes redditor LupineChemist on an r/travel thread about traveling with a partner. “It actually works out great since I just kind of go with the flow and follow orders for how to research … in the end we manage to make our differences complement both in the research and in the actual execution.”
Not making time for each other’s “must-haves” is also a common problem for traveling couples. “A ‘must-have’ is something like ‘I have to see that cathedral’ or ‘I came here to go rock climbing,’” explains Winter. “I’ve seen so many people turn into absolute beasts when they don’t get to do the things they went on vacation to do. On one hand, it’s understandable — you take time off and spend a bunch of money, so you expect to do or see the thing you planned to. On the other hand, life happens, and you don’t always get you way. It’s all about how you react and adapt in the moment, but a lot of couples don’t do so hot with that when they don’t get what they want. I’ve seen some of them act like petulant babies.”
That’s why, in order to avoid the headache of travel incompatibilities entirely, Winter has an entire 20-minute Q&A session she engages in with new partners before she goes anywhere with them. “Before I take a trip with a partner, the first thing I say to them is, ‘What do you need to do or see in order to feel like you had a good trip?’ Each person has their own idea of what a vacation or a trip is.” She suggests each person tell each other the top three things they’re trying to achieve on the trip so everyone knows what the expectations are and can start figuring out how to compromise so that everyone gets the vacation they wanted. The key to doing this, she says, is to have conversations like these before you ride off into the sunset on your 30-minute Jet Ski rental.
Realizing that you’re allowed to do things on your own also helps. “Just because you went on vacation together doesn’t mean you have to do every little thing with each other,” says Skylar. “If you want to read and shop but your partner wants to go hang gliding and jump off cliffs all day, there’s no reason you can’t separate for a bit and then come back together later.”
Of course, that doesn’t help much if you’re stuck with your partner on a floating hellhole surrounded by shark-infested waters like Natasha was, but hey — that’s just another reason never to go on a cruise, romantic getaway or not.