Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Vacations are great. They help us relax, de-stress, engage in pleasurable activities and enjoy each other. Except when they don’t. As a psychologist, I see both individuals and couples in my therapy room. There, I often hear about couples vacations gone terribly wrong, sometimes even precipitating breakups. Can science help to ensure that your next vacation makes you stronger as a couple?
The answer is yes. Studies show that vacations are generally good for your health and wellbeing. Going on vacation with your significant other can indeed help you get to know each other better, make new joint memories, and try new things together – all beneficial for couplehood. But it can also create tension and induce arguments as you spend concentrated time together, outside your routines and sometimes outside your comfort zones.
Here are proven ways that research suggests will help you maximize the chances of having a great couples vacation and strengthening your bond:
1. Let go of expectations, especially when it comes to feelings.
Humans are really bad at “affective forecasting” – predicting how events or situations will make them feel in the future. When you expect you or your partner to feel certain way (overjoyed, romantic, relaxed, elated) on that planned sunset boat ride or mountain summit, you might be disappointed. She might get mildly seasick and feel too hot to enjoy the boat, or he might be exhausted and apprehensive thinking about hiking down the mountain.
So instead of expecting to have specific emotions or trying to control them, focus on what you can control: your actions. Accept your and your partner’s emotions as they are, even it you don’t like them. The good news is that, most of the time, emotions are like the weather: “If you don’t like it, wait five minutes!”
2. Acknowledge your differences in tolerance of uncertainty and plan accordingly.
This is one of the most common things that trips couples up. One of you might be a spontaneous daredevil who is eager to explore all that is unknown, uncertain, and unpredictable. And the other might get anxious at the mere thought of anything unplanned, uncertain or unpredictable. You are both likely somewhere on the continuum between these two extremes.
Talk about this honestly before your vacation, figure out what you can compromise on, and leave the rest for some scheduled solo time or another vacation. It is OK to go parasailing while your partner reads on the beach – as long as you have both agreed to it.
Be understanding that humans can have very different biological makeups, which greatly determine how much one tolerates uncertainty or pines for adventure. But also be mindful that pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone can be good for you and often brings about unexpected life joys and opens new paths.
3. Discuss interests and pleasurable activities, and compromise.
Have a conversation early and honestly. What kinds of things do you actually enjoy on vacation? What do you absolutely hate? Making lists and comparing them is a good strategy. It is important that each of you gets to have some control over your joint and solo time because that positively affects how people feel during and after vacation.
Make sure that you also agree to do some activities because your significant other really wants to do them, especially if one of your values is being a supportive and open-minded partner. So, partake in that beach volleyball game even if you would rather stay the whole day under an umbrella solving Sudoku puzzles. Remember, you can’t control how you feel, but you can control your legs and feet as they leap toward a ball. Behaving as you would like your partner to behave can go a long way toward creating a thriving relationship.
4. Relax and prioritize sleep.
This seems obvious, but it is surprising how often we forget to focus on it. Between traveling, heat, change in routine, and trying to cram in too many activities, I often hear people talking how stressful their vacation was. Make sure to schedule plenty of down time, because relaxation is one of the major predictors of health and wellbeing during and after vacation.
Both the quantity and quality of sleep predict more couple conflict the next day. And more conflict tends to lead to worse sleep, creating a vicious circle. So, make sure that both of you are getting enough sleep on vacation. Moreover, create good conditions for healthy slumber: Sleep in a cool, dark, and quiet space; moderate your drinking; choose comfortable bedding.
5. Detach from work and unplug.
People who successfully detach from work during vacations end up feeling better and being more satisfied with their lives. Importantly, this detachment does not lead to being less engaged once they come back to work. So, give your work problems a rest and resist checking your work email on vacation. If you truly have to monitor work messages, do it on a fixed schedule for a limited amount of time (for example, once a day at 5pm, for 10 minutes).
More generally, try to unplug from screens and electronic devices as much as possible. Even five days off Facebook has been shown to reduce stress. And using your vacation as a tech or social media detox period can dramatically reduce their negative effects. You will be surprised how much more you and your partner will enjoy your vacation if you just put your phones on airplane mode, even for couple of hours at a time.
6. Learn something new together.
If possible, use vacation as an opportunity to try to learn something new as a couple. Research shows that couples’ relationships improve after they engage in novel and at least somewhat exciting activities. The effect is especially strong for the couples who have been together for a long time. This does not mean that you have to try tandem bungee jumping next time you take off for vacation. A Southern cooking class in Charleston or a dance lesson in Spain will do the trick. But if you are both game for that bungee jump, an arousing activity is sure to boost your psychological and physical connection!
7. Beware of mood contagion.
You might think that the only thing you can catch from you partner is a virus. It turns out that you can also “catch” your significant other’s mood; studies show that emotional contagion can spread from one person to another through mostly unconscious processes. Unfortunately, bad mood is transmitted quicker and more easily than good mood.
Since the mood contagion is more likely to happen when you spend a lot of concentrated time with your partner, you should be particularly mindful of this phenomenon on vacation. When you are feeling irritated, anxious, or sad, pay attention to whether this started as an intrinsic emotion or is showing up as a result of your partner feeling that way. If you realize that you have, indeed, “contracted” your partner’s negative mood, you can talk to him/her about it or choose to spend some time by yourself.
Following these seven suggestions will help you have a great vacation with your partner. Bon voyage!