Dear Dr. Chani,
I recently returned from a week-long vacation alone with my husband. Unfortunately, it was far from the bliss I had expected. Instead, we seemed to be fighting all the time. Of course, we did enjoy the vacation, but, looking back, it seems like we had more tension than relaxation. This made me wonder about the general state of our marriage.
If you asked me, I would say that my husband and I have a good marriage. We usually get along and we enjoy talking about things together. Of course, we have our arguments, but they are never too serious. But on our vacation, it was out of control. Even when there was little to argue about, we were still arguing. It seemed like one of us was always in a bad mood.
I cannot really explain it. Sometimes we argued about what to do that day, other times we quarreled about some detail about preparing for the day, and sometimes we just seemed at odds with each other. There was a general feeling that instead of being spouses and vacation partners, we were in each other’s way.
I am embarrassed to say that I also felt two-faced. Whenever we were in public, I tried to put on a good show and seem like I was really enjoying my time on our vacation. I did not want other people to know how tough it was for me. But that also made it harder. I looked around and saw everyone else smiling, laughing, and having a great time. Yet I was different, I only pasted on my smile, but did not feel happy inside.
Do you think that there is something wrong at the core of my marriage if we cannot have a relaxing time and get along on our vacation? How can we avoid this happening in the future?
Thanks so much for your guidance,
It must have been very disappointing, after planning a vacation, to discover that you and your husband were not in sync with one another. You were so upset by your experience that it even led you to wonder about the health of your marriage. After all, how good can your relationship be if you cannot simply enjoy a vacation together? Based on your description, it sounds like the tension in your vacation was the exception in your usually harmonious marriage, rather than the rule. What could have led to this disturbing friction between you?
There are usually several factors at play that can cause a couple to have increased tension on their vacation. One of the reasons is that both spouses have high expectations for their time away. A typical vacation involves setting aside time, investing financially, and planning activities. Since you devoted time and money to arranging your vacation, you were looking forward to a valuable payback, enjoying a great time. In fact, research on happiness reveals that anticipation leading up to a wonderful experience, such as a vacation, is an integral part of the pleasure of the experience itself. You looked forward to your vacation fulfilling your needs and living up to your vision of what it would be like. When there were bumps along the way, they may have felt particularly jolting because of your idyllic expectations. The tensions came as an extraordinary disappointment to you in contrast to the emotional excitement leading up to your vacation.
Another factor that might have led to your vacation being a time of surprising tension between you is that on a vacation you have fewer distractions around you. Most couples have many distractions that interfere with their ability to spend time together. There might be careers, children, or other focuses and responsibilities. On vacation, you are out of your normal routine. There is an opportunity to focus more on just the two of you and your relationship. Surprisingly, and perhaps ironically, the undivided attention you have for one another on a vacation can make you feel tense. There is a spotlight on each of you and your relationship which is not usually there. You can feel pressure to fill the time, notice your interactions more closely, or be more attentive to natural differences between you. The closeness you have can also bring distance.
Also, the average happily married couple has perpetual (meaning never fully resolved) conflicts about their differences in needs, preferences, values, and beliefs. For example, they might have differences in their ideas about spending money, family boundaries, and religious beliefs and practices. Since you are away from your routine, all of the differences between you that cause perpetual conflicts are more difficult to navigate.
On a vacation, these differences can be more pronounced. Spouses might notice differences in their opinions on how to spend money, when to call or visit family, and about what activities are relaxing or appropriate to do on vacation. She might prefer to visit museums; he might want to relax on the beach. All of the normal, perpetual issues that you are used to navigating, and that you might have mostly ironed out in the daily routine of your lives, can suddenly pop out to the forefront when making decisions together about your vacation.
What can you do to make your vacation go more smoothly? One way to spend more time enjoying your vacation and less time stressing over things that did not go well with your spouse is to normalize your experience. When you feel shocked and worried about a disagreement with your spouse, you create distance between the two of you. This leads you to scrutinize your relationship, which leads to further tension and distance, and the cycle repeats. However, if you know that your marriage is usually fine, and you recognize that it is normal to have some tension or quarreling on your vacation, you can reassure yourself and stop the cycle of negativity. This internal mindset of accepting when your relationship is not perfect, especially on a vacation when your expectations may run high, can help you feel more positive and relaxed.
Another way to create a better vacation experience is to communicate with your spouse about your feelings and expectations before, during and after your vacation. For example, it would be helpful for you to each share your vision for your ideal vacation before you plan it. Discuss how you prefer to vacation and why. Go beyond the facts and explain what led you to create the picture in your mind of your ideal vacation. Try to understand your spouse and allow your spouse to understand you. This can help you to join together to better meet each of your expectations on your vacation. You might even decide to schedule in “alone” time, if that is something you or your spouse need.
Considering that this vacation has now passed, you might discuss with your husband some of the highlights and low points of your vacation. Try to balance your conversation between reminiscing about enjoyable moments and pointing out areas for improvement in the future. Talking about your feelings may feel uncertain and risky, but this will help you to close the gap between you and your spouse and resolve the tension and frustrations you still feel about your vacation.
As you reflect on your vacation together, you and your husband can understand each other better and validate each other’s feelings. In this way, you will grow together from this vacation and be able to better prepare for many wonderful vacations to come.
Wishing you much success,