How Vacations Can Help or Harm Your Relationship
Research-backed tips for how to make the most of a couple's vacation.
Posted Mar 17, 2018
As spring approaches, couples may be planning their summer vacations. A couple vacation can be a great experience, in terms of your individual experiences and the health of your relationship. On the other hand, vacations can also lead to relationship trouble.
So what are the potential pros and cons of traveling with your significant other, and how can you make the most out of those two weeks' vacation?
1. Novel and exciting activities increase passion.
Relationships enable us to expand ourselves – to increase our skills, our perspectives, and our sense of who we are. And we are more satisfied with our relationships when they help us do this.
When relationships are new, they are best able to help us expand ourselves.1 But self-expansion can happen at any point in a relationship if we engage in self-expanding activities with our partners.
A large body of research shows that engaging in exciting and novel activities with a partner increases feelings of closeness and passion. Field experiments where couples were asked to spend time together doing things they both found exciting, and lab experiments in which couples tried fun, novel, activities together, have shown that these activities increase feelings of intimacy and closeness.
Travel provides many opportunities for excitement and adventure, such as visiting new cities, going water-skiing, or trying out a cuisine you've never eaten before.
2. Travel creates memories.
Couples can use the vacation as a way of creating positive memories and meaning in their relationships.2 Recalling warm memories with a partner can increase feelings of intimacy, as can looking back on and laughing at a funny memory.3,4
3. You may learn something about your partner.
One reason that relationship satisfaction tends to decline over time is that people crave novelty. Early in a relationship, everything is new and passion is high. But long-term relationships often involve comforting sameness.5 We develop intimacy with others by learning new things about each other.6 This creates a rapid increase in intimacy during the early stages of courtship. But even if you've been together for a long time, you can still learn new things about your partner, and a new experience and new setting can be a great opportunity for that to happen.
1. Travel increases opportunities for conflict due to increased interdependence.
One reason that we fight so much with our partners is that we are highly interdependent. Our lives are deeply entwined, so what one partner does has a big effect on the other partner. Often, as people's relationships become more serious, they encounter bumps as they try to integrate their lives.7 But this tension between a desire for independence and a desire to be linked with one's partner creates problems throughout the entire span of our relationships.8
A couple vacation involves suddenly ratcheting up the degree of interdependence. Couples must negotiate every decision together (where to stay, what to do for every hour of the day, where to eat). In our daily lives as couples, we're used to a lot more independence than that. This can make a vacation the perfect breeding ground for these kinds of conflicts. In fact, even in our daily lives, conflicts over how to spend leisure time are common. In one study where couples tracked their conflicts for two weeks, it was the fourth most common cause of conflict.9
2. Spending a lot of time together can magnify existing tensions.
Traveling together usually involves constant contact — spending whole days, even weeks, together with little separation. If there are already problems or tensions in a relationship, extra time together can make them more obvious.
For example, in one study of married couples in which one spouse was a teacher, researchers found that for couples who had a high likelihood of relationship problems, such as patterns of disrespectful behavior or differences in their values, their relationship tension was especially high in the summer when the teacher spouse was home more.10
3. Travel may be stressful and exhausting.
Some vacations can be quite tiring. Trips that take you from city to city and place to place with barely any time to catch your breath can be fun, but also exhausting. Unfortunately, when we're tired, we're especially like to lash out at our partners.11 This can even create a cycle where poor sleep leads to more negative interactions with partners which fuels more poor sleep the next night, leading to more conflict.12
What should you to do ensure that your vacation benefits your relationship and doesn't run into those possible pitfalls?
1. Try something new and exciting.
2. If there are already tensions in your relationship, choose a relaxing vacation that will run fewer risks of conflict – but make sure to intersperse some novel, exciting activities.
3. Make sure that both partners get a say in what they want to do and you're not dragging the other person along.
4. Don't exhaust yourselves.
5. Plan some quiet time or independent activities if you're getting frustrated.
6. Plan and reminisce together to create shared anticipation beforehand and shared memories after.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for a vacation that will improve your relationship. But if you keep these pros and cons in mind, it can help you cope with the ups and downs and make the most of your trip.
1 Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Norman, C. (2003). Self-expansion model of motivation and cognition in close relationships and beyond. In G. Fletcher & M. Clark (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Interpersonal processes (pp.478-501). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
2 Shaw, S. M., Havitz, M. E., & Delemere, F. M. (2008). I decided to invest in my kids' memories: Family vacations, memories, and the social construction of the family. Tourism Culture & Communication, 8(1), 13-26.
3 Alea, N., & Bluck, S. (2007). I'll keep you in mind: The intimacy function of autobiographical memory. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21(8), 1091-1111. doi:10.1002/acp.1316
4 Bazzini, D. G., Stack, E. R., Martincin, P. D., & Davis, C. P. (2007). The effect of reminiscing about laughter on relationship satisfaction. Motivation and Emotion, 31(1), 25-34.
5 Ahmetoglu, G., Swami, V., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2010). The relationship between dimensions of love, personality, and relationship length. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(5), 1181-1190.
6 Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363-377.
7 Solomon, D. H., Weber, K. M., & Steuber, K. R. (2010). Turbulence in relational transitions. In S. W. Smith and S. R. Wilson (Eds.), New directions in interpersonal communication research (pp. 115-134). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
8 Erbert, L. A. (2000). Conflict and dialectics: Perceptions of dialectical contradictions in marital conflict. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17(4-5), 638-659.
9 Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M., & Goeke‐Morey, M. C. (2009). For richer, for poorer: Money as a topic of marital conflict in the home. Family Relations, 58(1), 91-103.
10 Rosenblatt, P. C., Titus, S. L., Nevaldine, A., & Cunningham, M. R. (1979). Marital system differences and summer-long vacations: Togetherness-apartness and tension. American Journal of Family Therapy, 7(1), 77-84.
11 Gordon, A. M., & Chen, S. (2014). The role of sleep in interpersonal conflict: Do sleepless nights mean worse fights?. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(2), 168-175.
12 Hasler, B. P., & Troxel, W. M. (2010). Couples’ nighttime sleep efficiency and concordance: Evidence for bidirectional associations with daytime relationship functioning. Psychosomatic Medicine, 72(8), 794.