If You Really Want to Get to Know a Person

Traveling with a companion reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Posted Nov 18, 2014

It’s been said that if you really want to get a know a person, travel together. Think about it. Not only are you spending a lot of time with the person, but it’s also a particularly revealing kind of time. You see a new side of a person as he leaves behind his routines and is pushed out of his comfort zone.

You might learn that your friend, partner, or family member has a deep sense of curiosity and exuberance about the world, and truly marvels at cultural differences and novel landscapes. When things get stressful, you see just how easily he can shrug it off, find the humor, and still manage to have a good time. You might learn that together you’re a good team and you may return home closer than ever.

But for every relationship that has been strengthened by travel, there is one that has been fractured. Traveling with someone might reveal things that you simply don’t like and never knew before: fear of new cultural experiences and a general sense of closed-mindedness; excessive rigidity and an inability to compromise or deviate from routines; frugality, grouchiness, clinginess, the list goes on.

I’ve had a variety of travel companions over the years; mostly good, but a few not so good. With the benefit of hindsight and armed with research on relationship maintenance, I offer the following advice on how to help ensure successful travel with another person.

Before your trip, be honest about your “travel personality.” Yes, travel can be transformative. Yes, it’s good to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. But here’s an important general principle: You are still you, even in a foreign country. If you know from past experience that staying in youth hostels is just not your thing, you should tell your budget-minded friend this right away. If you can’t possibly have a conversation before your first cup of coffee, let that be known too. In the moment, these things can easily become fodder for conflict. If made known ahead of time, they can be filed away as personal quirks.

Also, be clear about your need for time alone. Especially for those of us who spend a lot of time by ourselves, suddenly being with someone 24-7 can be jarring, no matter how much we cherish that person. Indicate upfront that the need to have “me-time” doesn’t signify any kind of a problem. Similarly, be clear about your specific interests and goals for the trip. You may want to exercise in the mornings while your travel partner would rather sleep in, or you might love art museums while your partner doesn’t. It’s important that you both get to pursue your own interests; otherwise, resentment may slowly build.

If you do find yourself in conflict while traveling, it is best to address it as soon as possible. First, identify the problem as you see it. Is your partner being too controlling? Chronically running late? Being a tightwad? Complaining excessively about the local culture? Only wanting to eat McDonalds and pizza? (It’s important to remember that travel can be intense. Something might roll off your back while at home, but it may become all-consuming when you’re constantly together on a trip, one that you’ve invested in heavily.)

After you’ve identified a specific problem, approach your partner with a calm, level-headed mindset (approaching him with an angry, accusing tone is less likely to be successful; resist that urge). Clearly communicate the problem and be specific (“I’m disappointed that we haven’t tried any of the local foods.”) rather than general criticisms (“You are so unadventurous.”). Ask questions to get to the root of the problem. Deep down, he might be anxious and uncomfortable in this new place, and seeking out familiar things, like that Big Mac, might help ease his anxiety. Once you know the source of the problem, you will be better able to work through it successfully. For instance, maybe you can ease into the local food scene by going to a place that caters to tourists and has a menu in English.

And as hard as it might be to believe, he may be annoyed with you, too. Give him the chance to lay out his concerns as well. In short, and as always, communication is key.

Research shows that positive experiences—a sweeping mountain vista, a grand cathedral, a white sand beach, amazing food, and so many of the things we seek out while traveling—are better shared. Travel can bring us closer, providing us with novel, exciting experiences and rich memories that can enliven our relationships. But traveling with someone also brings a unique set of challenges that we need to acknowledge to ensure that we fully reap these benefits.

I’d love to hear your stories of shared travel in the comments section. What kinds of conflicts did you experience? How did you deal with them? In your opinion, what makes for a good travel companion?

References

Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. (2000). Couples shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-283.

Boothby, E. J., Clark, M. S., & Bargh, J. A. (2014). Shared experiences are amplified. Psychological Science. Advance online publication, doi: 10.1177/0956797614551162

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2000). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.