Travel takes a look at make-or-break holidays for troubled couples. Photo / Getty Images
The power of a make-or-break trip
The concept of a make-or-break trip is hardly new. A quick web search will bring up many last-chance retreats, led by licensed therapists and set in an exotic, exclusive spots. Televised train-wreck variations of the same concept are wildly popular: reality shows dumping off couples in a far-flung location as they fumble through their issues in front of ever-present, rolling cameras.
For better or worse, the rigours of travel can test any romantic relationship. Some partners find a change of scenery turns out to be a terrific way to reconnect. For others, a holiday can force pre-existing issues to the surface, causing a relationship reckoning.
Here are a few ways travel can provide clarity for couples at a crossroads.
A new destination can act as the ultimate trust fall exercise. At some point, partners will need each other’s input, let their guard down while trying new things, and perhaps give each other a little “me time”, during a getaway. They might discover their mutual safety net is still strong, despite a rough patch.
“I work with many couples who are in therapy as a last-ditch attempt to save their relationship and who include travel in their efforts to revive it,” explained New York-based therapist Ricki Romm. “Sometimes a couple travels and remembers all the things they used to love about each other.”
However, Romm warns the opposite can also be the case.
“Other times, they might fight more than ever, or worry they no longer seem to have a lot in common,” she said. “Then the question is do they want to use that information to work on the issues that came up, or are they ready to terminate the relationship?”
Challenging teamwork skills
Just like a committed relationship, travel requires a lot of teamwork. Tony Everitt, a Kiwi who heads up Hike Hakone Hachiri in Japan, doesn’t market specific “make or break” trips. Nonetheless, he’s often had to act as amateur marriage counsellor while guiding struggling couples during forest hikes. A remote location and demanding itinerary can up the ante, and either bring a strong bond to the forefront or reveal cracks in it.
“Japan is a wonderful place to visit but the limited English, particularly out here in the countryside, has its challenges which can trigger underlying tensions,” he said. “However, it can also force joint problem-solving.”
Everitt says at the end of a hiking excursion, he knows he will likely never see a couple again but hopes a bit of good comes from their time together on the trail. And for those wanting to level-set where their marriage is really headed:
“I’d recommend an adventure as a great way to strengthen a relationship,” adds Everitt.
A whole new world
There’s something inherently romantic about travel. Trading in the ho-hum patterns of home for an amazing alternate location can bring couples closer, even those who might be on the brink.
“A change of scenery can provide a reset,” she said. “Seeing your partner in new surroundings, trying new activities, outside your usual routine can inject some mystery and excitement back into the relationship.”
Conversely, if there’s no spark, it could be a warning sign that needs to be addressed.
A strong couple knows how to support each other, no matter how frustrating the situation or circumstance. When travel throws challenges your way, having each other’s backs is essential. Richard Campbell, founder of Canada-based 10Adventures, says such an experience was a wake-up call for him.
“In my case, the marriage was saved before it went bad, by bringing us closer together and making us a team of equals,” he said.
Campbell recounts he usually took charge in the early days of the relationship with his wife. But when a foot injury sidelined him during a long-haul trek in France, he shifted his thinking as she was the one to save the day, taking on most of his pack and helping him slowly walk to the next village. The event marked a turning point.
“Being vulnerable isn’t easy for some men, and definitely not for me, but that day I learned that we started a new path in our marriage. Fifteen years later, life has only become better,” said Campbell.
Can you still compromise?
Taking a trip together can show a couple if they can still manage the essential art of compromise. A healthy relationship requires partners be cognisant of and accommodate each other, and there’s no better activity than travel to see if there’s still that shared goal.
“When you’re travelling together, there is often more of a need to get in sync,” said Romm. “If one of you likes to plan and the other is more spontaneous, or one of you wants to catch up on sleep and the other wants to catch the sunrise, these are conflicts you’ll have to navigate together.”
Whereas deciding what to have for dinner, choosing a favourite excursion or weighing up museum options might seem like small holiday decisions, the give and take required is a crucial part of a strong partner bond that can be shored up, or further ravelled, being away from home.
When you’re on the road with a partner, you’ll be spending a lot of time together, in accommodation that might be smaller than those at home. There’s nowhere to hide habits, quirks, preferences, or idiosyncrasies. Uncomfortable conversation topics or confrontations might arise. And then, there are the garden-variety travel delays, and unforeseen itinerary shifts that can throw hiccups into the best-laid plans.
Although it can all be a lot of pressure, Romm says taking a trip still has the very worthwhile power to rekindle a romance. But she offers an important caveat: travel probably shouldn’t be treated as the last or only step to resolving issues.
“I’ve seen travel have really positive effects on couples’ relationships, but I recommend framing it as an opportunity rather than a test,” she said.