Trippin' Out Before the Trip Begins

mind the gap

There is an axiom, said by Confucius or Carnival Cruise Lines:  the couple that travels together, stays together.  In the five years I’ve been dating Zack, we’ve been to Europe and South America, the California coast and Los Angeles, Boston and the British countryside.   We have not, thus far, killed each other.  We’ve made it through the Spanish siesta time where every restaurant closes at exactly the time your stomach begins grumbling. We’ve survived a white knuckled bus ride that careened around Ecuadorian cliffs, dropping us several thousand feet in elevation in approximately 10 minutes.  When we’re fighting on a damp British day, we can look back at our pictures from a beach in Columbia, me in a bikini, him with a sun burnt nose and beer in hand and say, oh yeah.  I remember when everything felt wonderful. This, though, is not a column about traveling with a significant other.  It’s not chock full of tips about how to make it a rewarding experience for both of you (be flexible about scheduling your days!  Take time to explore by yourself!  Take probiotics; a wildly pooping partner tends to dampen the romance!).  Today, I’d like to talk about what happens before the trip even begins.

I am a planner.  After booking a flight, I’ll spend hours perusing TripAdvisor, Google images, Lonely Planet and Rick Steves (whom I may or may not have a small crush on).  I’ll Wikipedia the history of my destination; I won’t book a hostel until I’ve cross-referenced it on at least three sites.  This is in stark contrast to my regular life, where I spend much of my time searching for lost keys or money, or solving the case of the missing shoe.

There is a school of thought that suggests most of the happiness gained from a trip comes from the act of planning it, rather than being on the trip itself.  A study of 1,530 Dutch adults showed that planning a vacation boosted happiness for 8 weeks prior, while after the vacation, happiness levels quickly returned to normal.  The pleasure, it suggests, come from the anticipation of the vacation more than the vacation itself.  This is me, to a T:  when I’m on-line, scouring for deals and reviews and background, the picture of the place that I’m going is coming into tighter, brighter focus.  Instead of any beach, it’s a white sand one with turquoise water and an unusually good donut stand; instead of any Old Town, it’s the one where I can still see the bullet holes in the stones from World War II.  The more I know, the more I can picture myself there, and the more excited I get.

Zack, on the other hand, likes to wing it.  We’re planning a trip to Portugal and southern Spain right now, and when we were trying to figure out what cities we wanted to include, his eyes glazed over somewhere between Lisbon and Lagos.  “If we spend more time in Lagos,” I said, “we’ll have more warm beachiness, but then we’ll have to cut out some time in Cordoba.”

He sighed.  “What’s good about Cordoba again?”

“Here.”  I turned the computer to face him, and began clicking through images I’d opened.  “I’ll show you.”

“Liz,” he said.  “I don’t want to see all of this.”

“Why not?” I asked.  “I’m not planning this trip on my own.”

Here is what the study does not address:  when your partner is unhappy, you will likely be unhappy.

“I don’t like doing this,” Zack said.  “Going through pictures, getting an idea in my head of what it’s going to be like.  The real thing will never be the same, better or worse.   Flooding yourself with the place before you go removes the newness you get to experience when you first arrive.”

I paused; I’d never thought of this.  Still, for me it was simple math:  given the choice of happiness for a few months prior to a trip and slightly less happiness in the week or so I was on it, I would always choose the former.  For Zack, the authenticity of the experience mattered more than the fantasy leading up to it.  No amount of happiness derived from planning could make up for marring the moment itself.

Most things travel related merely serve to magnify that which exists in normal day-to-day life; this is why traveling is a test of a relationship.  I tend to be a person who thrives in fantasy. I write books and hang out with characters that are only real to me all day; I’ve always been someone who will spend much of the time in the present dreaming wistfully of another time.  Zack is more grounded in reality: he’s constantly assessing the world as it is so that he can invent products that fit in with it.  The constraints when he’s making said products are grounded in the real world; is there an existing part for this element, or does he need to create one?  When the pieces are in place and he flicks the power switch, he can’t write a successful outcome; it needs to actually happen.

We haven’t entirely solved our problem. I take the lead on planning now, just as I clean the bathroom or he handles the laundry, both tasks the other despises.  Still, there’s a part of me that misses sharing those dreamy moments with him, and I have no doubt there’s a part of him that craves the surprise reveal of the picture falling into place in an instant.

Do you and your partner sync up in your approach to planning, or fantasy in life in general?  If not, how do you deal with it?