What to do on holiday isn’t our problem. In two-plus decades together, we’ve gotten into a nice vacation cadence. We spend the mornings at art or culture museums or exploring Town X’s historic synagogue/main square/Instagrammable pile of archaeological rubble. In the afternoon, we savor long lunches or go for hikes. We sometimes split up for a few hours — he goes birdwatching, I wander local crafts markets or shopping zones.
But choosing a destination often causes turbulence. I crave exotic, faraway locales (India, Laos, maybe a gorilla safari in Rwanda?). Callan loves U.S. national parks in the mountains, preferably with a high chance of bear encounters. He keeps a wanna-go list that seems to include every last, obscure city in Europe. (“Hey, what about Liepaja, Latvia? There’s a prison museum!”)
We’ve fought over why he doesn’t want to see Morocco (Too dusty! Rug shopping is dull!) and why the suggestion of an Alaskan cruise makes my eyes glaze over (buffet lines, seasickness). And I’m much more willing to spend money on a jaunt somewhere than he is. He’ll often bring up savings accounts and budgets when I’m talking about trekking in Bhutan or a nice weekend at the beach.
“In the U.S., working couples only have a few weeks off a year, and everyone has different interests,” says Rebecca Lueck, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Berkeley, Calif. “Your time becomes precious, and everyone wants to get the most bang for their money. So, making that decision about where to go on holiday can be stressful.”
Callan and I were certainly stressed when we made that therapy appointment, our first. I was between full-time jobs and wanted to take advantage of my open schedule to jet to Southeast Asia to slurp noodles and gawp at the Transformer-sized Buddhas. He said no way, not now or ever — the flight was too long, the danger of nasty food poisoning too great, and he just wasn’t into it. Why were we squabbling so much? Were we the only couple who couldn’t search Kayak together without ruining a Saturday afternoon?
“Couples all think they are 100 percent compatible during the ‘cocaine-rush’ initial phase of their relationships,” says Shauna Springer, a Walnut Creek, Calif., psychologist and author of “Marriage, for Equals.” “But after time, many people discover that they don’t want the same things from travel. Maybe your husband wants adventure, and you just crave downtime with no distractions. It’s often about figuring out how to meet in the overlap.” Or not, as you’ll see below. Here are some possible strategies.
Lueck counsels couples to try to alternate who chooses destinations or daily activities — Monday is yours, Tuesday is your partner’s. This year you plan the vacation, next year your spouse does. If that doesn’t work, you can create a Harry Potter-esque sorting hat by tossing slips of paper with destinations or activities on them, then drawing one at random and booking tickets. “And if you have kids, sometimes they break the stalemate,” Lueck says, though that might mean nothing but Disney parks. You could craft an itinerary around your ballet-loving son that takes the family to Russia to see the Mariinsky perform, or let your outdoorsy daughter draw up a wish list of U.S. national parks for a summer road trip. Either way, focusing on a third family member’s wishes could help you both venture outside your travel comfort zone.
Go it alone
Increasingly, people with incurable wanderlust and slightly more moribund partners just go it alone, blasting off to Bhutan with a friend or joining a group tour to Papua New Guinea or New Mexico. According to a 2019 survey by YouGov, 47 percent of people who travel alone do so because they want “the freedom to choose my itinerary without input from others”; 32 percent say they choose solo trips because “certain destinations are appealing to me, but not to my family/friends/partner.”
“The majority of my clients are women who are coming solo, and they’ve often got a partner at home,” says Erin Lewis, founder of travel company Eat Pray Move, who leads small-group retreats combining yoga sessions with visits to historic sites and spas in destinations such as Italy, Iceland and Indonesia. “Sometimes their spouse has a crazy job, or maybe they’re afraid to fly. Trips like this are a way to go by yourself but not be completely alone.”
Springer approves of traveling separately. “If you ultimately hit a wall, you don’t always have to travel with your partner,” she says. “We should all be free to explore our bucket lists, and I don’t support the idea that an unwilling spouse should just be a cheerful companion.”
Travel together but apart
Some couples combine a trip together with solo outings. “I’ve always been more interested in active things like biking than my husband, who is content to just relax on the cruise ship deck,” says Scott Schwartz, a retired lawyer in Alexandria, Va., who has been married to retired lobbyist Mark Smith since 2005.
So, while the couple usually vacations together, Schwartz and Smith split up sometimes. In Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011, Schwartz went on a 75-mile guided bike ride, while Smith visited the horse-racing track. “We ended up sharing great stories at the end of the day,” says Smith. And they’ve found that cruises, with their many activity options, are an ideal way to journey together and pursue diverging passions. Even if, for Smith, that often means he reads a book on the deck.
Similarly, for Houston’s Julia and Bob Sivia, trips to Santa Fe, N.M., or Park City, Utah, with their teenage son usually include mom-and-kid hikes. Bob, who gets altitude sickness, often kicks back at the lodge or meets them afterward for lunch. “If they’re having fun, that’s fun for me too,” he says. “Or I’ll fly fish, which neither of them like. But maybe they’ll enjoy the fish I catch later.”
Talk it out
Our therapist had us both talk honestly with her about our frustrations, and then try discussing them without going into battle. She had us make “I” statements (“I’d like you to come with me on this trip.”) as opposed to “you” ones, which she said often turn into accusations. (“You never go where I want to go.”) We also explored whether my “Thailand-or-bust” campaign brought up other things we should work on. Was I being controlling? Did his stubbornness mean he felt I wasn’t listening to what he wanted? We resolved to try to look deeper into what was going on before fighting about travel. “It’d be bad to make your spouse continually just go on vacations or do what you want, say, zip-lining or even going to art museums,” Lueck says. “You don’t want them to feel de-selfed, like they’re living your life.”
Our eventual solution was to book a trip to Argentina, which intrigued us both. And though he hates horseback riding, Callan went riding with me near the foothills of the Andes and was rewarded with a rare condor sighting. Sports bore me, but I helped my soccer-mad husband buy Boca Juniors soccer gear in Buenos Aires, and we went to see the team’s snug “Bombonera” stadium. The next spring, I went to Thailand and Cambodia with my neighbor and buddy Deepa, and Callan was okay with my spending the money on a solo trip. I think he might even have felt a bit rueful when he saw my Angkor Wat selfies.
Still, he’s gunning for his Alaskan vacation, and I’m dreaming of Japan. Think there’s a cruise ship that visits both in one trip?
Jennifer Barger is a Washington-based travel and design writer and a senior editor at National Geographic Travel. Follow her on Instagram @dcjnell.