Traveling as a Couple: Survival, Growth and the Pursuit of Harmony
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We’ve been together for almost ten years now. In fact, we met on Match.com back when it was rare for people to use online dating sites! After a decade we think we know each other very well.
When we committed to each other, we committed for better and for worse. We also knew what we were getting into. We knew each other’s strength and weaknesses. We knew the things that drove us crazy about each other (both the good crazy and the bad crazy), and we still chose to spend our lives side by side.
This isn’t unique. Couples around the world choose this and live their entire lives together. Fewer couples however, travel for months and years together without interruption.
The dynamics change when you’re together 24-hours a day, seven days a week. At home we spent time apart, with work, friends and other commitments. Now that we’re traveling, our commitments are solely each other.
Traveling as a Couple: How Things Change
We no longer have the everyday stresses that many couples have.
We’re living ‘the dream’ we talked about for years. The sense of accomplishing and living out our goal brings us closer together.
A set of stresses we had has been removed as our life is dramatically changing.
Our nine to five work is gone and we don’t worry about paying monthly rent. Car repairs and maintenance are no longer an issue. Juggling schedules with friends, professional commitments, and errands isn’t a concern anymore.
Over the years we’d grown together as our lives became intertwined. We learned to function and even thrive under the stresses of our daily lives. We not only became a successful couple together, we flourished.
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We Have an Entirely New Set of Stresses on Our Relationship
We weren’t naive though. We knew that new challenges would arise when we set off for continuous long-term travel together.
Just because we were leaving behind the stresses of home and achieving a goal we’ve worked towards for years, didn’t mean that life would suddenly be easy and smooth sailing.
On the contrary, life is now full of new challenges, ones we haven’t faced together before.
Life is now a series of constantly changing circumstances because of the ever changing cities and environments.
Our sleeping arrangements change in level of comfort. Our means of getting about change from city to city. Our ability to get a good hot shower depends on where we’re staying the night.
Our work commitments as digital nomads (IT and PMP consultants) go from overdrive to vacation periods depending on client needs. Our work area and internet connectivity can be a ‘learn to live with it and make-it-work’ situation to a ‘similar to being at home’ setup.
Our responsibilities for pets and homes we’re caring for vary depending on the house sitting job we’re on. Our ability to communicate with people around us and navigate a city can be limited due to language barriers.
These are just a few of the quirks we now face. We’re grateful we’re not facing them alone, but balancing these unique challenges as a couple is work. We lean on the skills we’ve learned over the last 10-years and we’re building new ones daily.
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Marriage is Work, Traveling as Couple is More (or Different) Work
We have no shame in saying that we’ve (proactively) been to couple’s therapy and actively read relationship books together (John Gottman, PhD).
Being married is no easy task and it’s certainly not a fairy-tale where we tied the knot and lived happily ever after!
You may think married life sounds hard. On the other hand, isn’t that what’s required in all parts of life to be happy and successful?
So, we’re confident saying that we haven’t been naive about our marriage. We also knew that things would change when traveling.
Lessons Learned for A Healthy Relationship as a Couple Traveling
We prepared as best we could. But as always, there are lessons to be learned along the way.
Getting frustrated and escalating the tension just makes things worse. We’ve learned to keep things calm. When one person raises their voice, it’s tempting for the other to take it an octave louder. Naturally, from there it often spirals out of control.
We've found this especially helpful when we're trying to navigate our way to a destination. Finding the right path, bus, or train in a foreign place and language is already a high stress situation, so staying calm with each other can be challenging.
If we can manage to not let our stress take over our conversations with each other, we not only don't end up mad at each other, but we're more clear headed in finding our way to our destination.
We’re in This Together
Don’t think that you’re against each other. This belief and attitude can be divisive and lead to escalation in disagreements.
Success tends to revolve around winning and in the business world, that’s typically okay. However, in a relationship we must remember that if one of us wins, the other loses.
The problem is that if one of us loses, then we've both lost since we must remember that we’re a team. We need to remind each other of this occasionally!
“I Think What You Mean Is...”
This is a really challenging one. Instead of immediately blurting out a response to your partner’s point, take a moment and repeat back to them what you understood.
You may be surprised by how often what you heard, or what you interpreted, or what you felt, is outright wrong, or is wildly off from what your partner actually said.
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Have a Pause Word
We knew we had a tendency to spiral and go off on tangents when arguing. Therefore, we agreed that the best solution to this was to pause our discussions when they started to get heated and come back when we were calmer.
Great idea, but we never did it. Even if one of us said we needed to stop, we’d keep on going. So, we’ve put a unique word in place. One that we can say that will pause the discussion and allow us to calm down and reflect on our own. We can then come back ready for resolution.
A few tips:
Make it unique. Something that you wouldn’t say otherwise.
Make it meaningless or silly. Don’t choose a word that will make things worse. We chose something that under normal circumstances would make us grin.
Don’t say it with spite. The first time we used the word in an argument, it was said in a tone that was interpreted as spiteful. It was like it was said to cut the other person off. That just made things worse. Say the word calmly and without a negative purpose.
Respect the word and its agreed meaning. Once it’s said, both people need to step back. No last words, just back away and reflect.
Use the paused time wisely. Reflect and calm down. Ask yourself what you can do to make the situation better and come back with an attitude of resolution.
We’re Different From Each Other
It takes a wise, patient person to realize that your partner’s needs and way of thinking are different. What makes them tick and makes them happy may be slightly (or very) different than you.
We have to remember this as we both try to keep ourselves happy and satisfied. For example, one of us may need time in solitude while the other may need time around others. One of us may need to talk about our thoughts while the other needs self-reflection.
We both must accommodate the other and know that what works for one of us, may not be what works for the other.
As we travel and are around each other most of the time, respecting our differences has become more important than ever. When we were settled into life at home, we had naturally built in time and space to meet our different social, personal, and professional styles and needs.
Now that we're traveling, we need to not only respect and recognize the other person's differences, but also find a way to incorporate them into our days together.
Share and Divide Responsibilities
We find that it’s best that we both know the fundamentals of all of our responsibilities when it comes to bills, finances, booking accommodations and activities, planning a day, and planning travel, etc.
This allows either one of us to take on a task if needed. We’re each other’s backup. However, we also know that we each have our strengths.
While each of us knows how to operate the computer VPN, sync the camera and map out transport directions, we each have our specialties. Sergio is an IT consultant, so he knows the ins and outs of our technical set up. Shannon is a project manager consultant, so she plans out the attractions and manages communications. Essentially, we both know the ABC’s, while one of us knows the details and the ins and outs.
The Most Consistent Thing We Have Is Each Other
Lean on each other! Helping your partner succeed leads to your own success.
When times get rough, and they will, the only person around will be your partner. Take joy in this and be grateful for them. Take the time to reflect on the good times and the things you love most about your partner, and then share your feelings with them. Staying positive and validating each other will make things even better when the times are good. And when times are a bit rocky, this is where it'll help the most!
Travel can be pretty stressful. So, we each have our days when it's a bit tougher to be as upbeat and cheerful as we'd like to be (hopefully we don't have them at the same time!). In these times, having each other is the biggest help in getting through the day. There's a lot of comfort in having your partner at your side. Their support, empathy, and picking up a bit of the slack is a great boost to attitude, as well as a bit of relief to a rough day.
Don’t Forget the Little Things
It’s common for driven people to see the faults in themselves. They become better and more successful in life by seeing where they can improve and they work endlessly to continue improving and never settle.
It can then become a problem when you apply this same thought process to your partner, seeing their faults and where they need to improve. Of course, these areas shouldn’t be ignored and should be an ongoing discussion for growth and success as a couple. However, there needs to be a balance.
Be grateful for the small things and be sure and tell you partner, don’t just appreciate them to yourself. We find this helps us stay positive and also feel acknowledged and valued.
With what seems to be a magnifying glass on our faults, traveling can make it difficult to see the little things. It can be quite easy to focus on the day to day tasks and completely forget to see or acknowledge the things your partner is doing to improve the travel experience.
We try to keep in mind the 5-to-1 rule, five positives for every one negative (John Gottman, PhD: Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last). This allows for an overall positive tone where both of us feel appreciated, but still lets us bring up grievances or complaints.
Communicate With Each Other
Of course we can’t write this post without talking about communication.
There’s always room for improvement though. We’ve found that since we’re with each other all hours of the day and we now share all aspects of daily life, it’s vital for us to discuss things more. We run things by each other, getting the opinion or thoughts of the other person.
This helps in making decisions, not only so that we both agree, but also so that we’re both aware of what’s happening. It may cause some things to be a bit slower moving, but in the end we both feel included and satisfied with plans and decisions.
Another aspect of communication is letting our partner know where we’re at mentally. Sometimes we may be having a rough day, we may be low on sleep, or we may just not want to talk much. Rather than letting our partner come to their own conclusions about what’s going on, we do our best to be proactive and vocalize our emotional and physical state.
This avoids frustrations and unnecessary arguments. Our partner doesn’t need to come to their own conclusions about why we’re silent or a bit curt in conversation.
It also helps in supporting each other. When one person is down, it’s great when the other can pick up the slack, be a bit more empathetic or just a bit more patient.
Figure Out the The Larger Issue/Question/Goal
We find that when arguing we can easily go off on tangents. An argument may start off talking about Issue A and end up 45 minutes later talking about Issue X and Issue Y.
This is exhausting and extremely unproductive. We’ve learned to keep the original matter at hand. When we veer off, one of us needs to bring it back to center and the other needs to be rational enough to come back to the matter at hand.
Endorphins Lift Our Moods and Improve Our Relationship
And finally, when things get rough and frustration is at a high, we find that a release of endorphins can be a huge help. We’ve taken a pause from our argument or discussion and gone for a run.
We usually convene after a run (or ‘trot’ as Sergio likes to call it) and are able to see things in a new light and find a solution or common ground that didn’t seem to be visible before.
We’re Still Working on Our Relationship
Please don’t assume that we think we’ve got it figured out. We’re only learning and growing together as we go. In a few months, a year, or five years we’ll probably look back at this and think, “wow, we knew so little”. We learn from our experiences and each other.