Most of us have at least one nightmarish story about traveling with a partner that still makes us shudder to this day. Like the time you had a 14-hour layover in a tiny airport. The time you spent a summer night in an AirBnB with no air-conditioning. Or the time you both got diarrhea in Morocco. As wonderful as it is to share adventures and new experiences with your partner, trips are not always full of vacation sex and romantic Instagrams.
Some people say that traveling with your S.O. for the first time is a big test of your relationship, and in a way, it can be. "It highlights how you manage the world and relationships in a very condensed way," says Lisa Brateman, LCSW, a relationship therapist in New York City. Usually, you end up spending more time together over a span of a few days on vacation than you would in a typical week at home, which is why it can feel like a test. "It gives you a window of what needs to change, or what works, and how you see yourself with this person," she says.
On vacation, you and your partner will have to make a lot of decisions together — from where to eat to what activities to try — which you might not be used to, Brateman says. You may discover along the way that you don't prioritize the same things when you have free time, or you have different ideas of how to compromise when you disagree on something, she says. Additionally, it could be eye-opening to see how your spending habits differ on a vacation, she says.
All of these tricky situations can lead to inevitable missteps or road bumps. Watching people deal with bigger adversities or just complicated logistics gives us a window into how someone would be as a partner, says Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships. "They cause us to work together in a team-based way, so it ups the ante in terms of our need to rely on each other for more than just pleasant conversation," she says. Likewise, your partner might see your "true colors" when you're stuck on a layover with no snacks, or navigating complicated rental car paperwork.
If you're about to embark on a trip with your partner for the first time this holiday season, just remember that, while this is an opportunity to gather more information about your partner, holiday travel is going to be stressful, Dr. Carmichael says. "Take some of that stress with a grain of salt, because there’s a lot of extra situational stressors that are related to the travel," she says. Before you leave, have a conversation about what your expectations are for the trip, Brateman says.
Then, make sure you schedule in a pocket of time that's just for you, Dr. Carmichael says. Maybe book a massage for yourself at a nearby spa, for example, or find a gym that you can escape to. "Plan that in advance, then it won’t seem like you're stomping off because of tensions," she says. When problems inevitably arise, it's also a good idea to keep a journal so you can jot down exactly what you're feeling and what happened, she says. That way, you can look back and think, What was I so upset about? The luggage that was lost? "When you have a written record of what was bothering you, then it’s a lot easier to try to sort through it," she says.