Considering Couples Therapy? Why Not Travel Instead?

FEBRUARY 13, 2017

It’s an overcast January afternoon in New Orleans and I’m not particularly thrilled. As I sit across from my sweetheart in a facsimile Cafe Du Monde, housed in a suburban New Orleans shopping mall, I’m feeling free floating anxiety, courtesy of the prior night’s alcohol and too little sleep.

While on this trip to New Orleans, I’ve been keenly aware that I haven’t changed much from when I used to routinely visit here 20 years ago. I still tend to flirt with excess in eating and drinking and appreciate of the southern charm of beignets, oysters and voodoo. However, there are clear reminders, like my hangover induced anxiety, and my crankiness about the price of this rip off tourist coffee, that I am now, obviously very much an adult.

And, so, even in the midst of our our romantic getaway, I worry. I have some momentary abandonment as I “laissez les bons temps rouler,” but my real life is waiting nearby, patronizingly indulging my younger self, like the buzzkill mother, whose sheer presence and vague judgement dilutes everyone’s good time.

In my adult worries, I’m thinking about my daughter graduating from high school and launching to New York, I’m hand wringing over politics, I’m thinking about my son’s navigation of 9th grade, I’m aware of spending here and bills at home, all while trying to gracefully dodge the 10 lbs. I seem to acquire every time I visit this delicious town.

***Research would say that even though every moment of this trip might be less than ideal, it is important.

Vacations offer a wealth of benefit. Travel gives us vital opportunities to create perspective. New neural net pathways are forged through novel experiences. Taking time off improves our productivity, our immune system, our empathy. The leisure built into travel allows us to shift from task to experience mode.

Traveling with someone special deepens these positive benefits. As we share perspectives, our brain encounters cognitive complexity. Even the stress built into being a tourist provides intellectual nourishment. Such as the cross cultural “Who’s on First” sequence of misunderstandings that happened this morning between my partner, who is occasionally a bit deaf, and the native Louisiana cab driver speaking in rapid fire, old school Cajun slang. We didn’t exactly reach our preferred destination relaxed, but it was highly memorable.

Travel also allows more open time with two people in experience mode, not task mode, to connect. Having space in the middle of the day, we can more easily meander in our conversations, or just be physically close. Even the inevitable tensions that arise between two people sharing time and small spaces are valuable. Confinement allows idiosyncrasies to come into sharper view, and a partner can become more endearing. For example, I am sure my partner enjoyed hearing the thrilling details of my carsickness at the exact moment he’s negotiating with the cabbie (especially because I share this information on almost every excursion that involves us turning a corner). The fact, however, that he remembered later and checked in on me certainly makes me love him deeply.

***

As a couples therapist, I highly recommend romantic getaways at least twice a year, ideally every quarter for optimum relationship health. I hate to turn away business, but think about it. If you could spend your money on a yearly romantic rendezvous or battling traffic after work, rushing to Starbucks* before a session at couples therapy, strained and worried, which one would you choose?

This prescription is often met with, “That sounds nice, but….” While there are lots of credible reasons for this initial reaction, including the expense of travel, it’s always a bit ironic that the person stating the reasons for the no, is often the same one paying for the current session and booking the next one. You do the math.

My passion is to help couples with these concerns and the deeper relationship issues that linger underneath. I’m hoping to save you both time and money (which you can invest in your next romantic adventure) or if that doesn’t work out so well, towards a future appointment for couples therapy.

The No
Whether you are a young couple with or without children, a retired couple, newlyweds or married for years, couples often have a hesitant response to the suggestion of travel for the sole purpose of enjoying their relationship.

“We don’t have the money.”
“We don’t have childcare.“
“We are too busy.”
“We can’t decide on a place we both like.”

First, let’s address money. Travel with your sweetheart does not have to be expensive. In fact, the Victorian B&B where we are  staying while in New Orleans, while stunning, is very affordable and truthfully, haunted. Envision a southern mansion where an antique knight of armor ghostly stands guarding our blood red room. Spooky, right? The experience of spending time with each other, making memories, is what’s important. Each person should feel special, but the amount of money spent is not what creates this outcome. It’s the focus, imagination and openness to the whole project.

Second, childcare is a real challenge. I raised two little ones on a shoestring with  no family help.  Running a simple errand was  an exhausting Rubick’s cube of juggling the needs of multiple parties. I remember when my kids were 1 and 3, I fell into an addiction of “running to the thrift store for a minute” during nap time. It was a perfect 45 minute dose of alone time which led to a substantial collection of “vintage” (okay, junky and cheap) shoes. I thankfully detoxed from this particular form of retail therapy, however, the point is, that it’s always hard with a young family.

The planning a trip when you have young children can be a significant obstacle for many reasons. As caretakers, you are intimately attached to their needs, thoughts and schedules. You’re always under the gun. The chronic, constant stream of stress hormones influences your energy. To be healthy, you have to replenish these energy reserves or your synapses for  problem solving become too thin. When this happens, you have less bandwidth to face stress, less imagination, less sex drive, less patience for others. This tends to specifically end up seeming to be about your partners – the phrase,“You are gettin’ on my very last nerve!” sums it  up.

This is precisely why it’s so important for couples with young children to travel together. Think about it from a long term perspective. Leaving your young kids at home, with a trusted sitter can be a massive hassle for everyone, but isn’t that a small trade-off to a strained relationship and/or even later divorce? Take my advice from my own personal experience. Build in travel as part of your mindset and budget now. It doesn’t even matter where you end up going.

***

If you are a couple that doesn’t have kids or that is retired,
what’s holding you back?

Other Reasons for No
Scheduling, prioritizing and committing to a plan are also real challenges. Adults, regardless if they are parents, get worn down and pulled in a hundred directions daily. We get into task mode for so long, it can be easy to forget what “down time” actually feels like.

The Deeper No: Couple’s Underlying Friction, Not Just Logistics
The prospect of couple travel can also make people, squirm or hesitate for reasons they aren’t quite aware of, such as:

Fear of expressing long buried anger at a partner.

Fear of facing issues in the relationship that could destabilize the status quo.

Fear that your partner will break down if you are honest with your needs or worries.

Fear of voicing one’s own needs for love, attention, affection or respect.

Fear of getting closer. Intimacy can make people feel vulnerable, which can be scary, particularly if someone has experienced mistreatment or rejection in the past.

Fear of sex. Sexuality can invite all sorts of vulnerable areas to be exposed.

Sorting all of this can be overwhelming.Fear of facing the prospect of ending the relationship.

The Yes: How to Make A Couples Trip a Success

  • Make the trip affordable, whatever that means to your individual budget.
  • Organize the outing to reflect shared interests, but don’t make it so interesting that it will divert your focus from each other.
  • Do not invite anyone else. Children, in-laws or friends make the whole experience null and void.
  • Do not just make suggestions or “agree” with your partner’s request to go somewhere. Work together on childcare and logistics, or graciously take on all responsibility in this arena as a gift to your partner. The partner receiving this gift should be grateful and supportive. No micromanaging the results, that impairs the love underlying the effort
  • Plan the trip well in advance. Shared anticipation encourages bonding. Positive connotations of exciting new adventures, becomes associated with positive perceptions of the partner.


***
When Travel Doesn’t Help: Private Couples Retreat

Once executed, if a trip fulfills even half of what you desired, book the next one before you even arrive back home. If, however, you can’t think of anything to say, if you find yourself kind of hating your partner at times or thinking he/she is somewhat of an idiot, if you are bored out of your mind, sad, lonely, sexually frustrated, or attracted to the cute server instead, pay attention – this is important information. Do not sweep it under the rug. Don’t dismiss it or tell yourself it’s normal, par for the course in marriage after the “honeymoon period.”

These negative experiences aren’t “just what happens” in relationships. They are also, I hate to say it, not usually due to the negative external variables encountered on the trip. It’s not due to the crappy service, food, or weather. If you are disappointed with the trip, it’s 90% likely that it’s due to an underlying relationship issue that needs attention.

Negative realizations about your relationship from your travel experience is obviously not a pleasant souvenir, but that’s okay. Sometimes we need the sucky travel experience to shed needed light on what’s happening. If you come home deflated, disappointing or pissed off, it can be an ideal time to seek out couples therapy. Addressing issues, in real time, when they are still “hot” can be very helpful in the long run. I’ve designed my couples therapy services with this in mind.

If you would like the rewards of travel, combined with support to look at relationship issues, the Private Couples Retreat may be for you.  I’ve designed the experience to integrate you travel experience with concentrated focus.  My office is in a small college town, walking distance to a beautiful, spring fed river. Even if things aren’t ideal, you both might still want to pack your swimsuit and indulge in a float down the river. M y office is also close to a fantastic outlet mall (that I personally love) and a vintage car museum (that I have to admit, I’ve never stepped foot in).

For more information and a brochure, see Private Couples Retreat.

***A Few Souvenirs

As I wrap up my time writing in New Orleans, I see the sun star to set over the Mississippi River and watch the lights of the city emerge. My earlier ennui has shifted and I am feeling better. I look over and see my sweetheart’s long legs and adorable hoodie. He’s looking good, like a handsome, distinguished, middle age  basketball player, and I feel a surge of love.

The fact that my afternoon wasn’t the most exciting moment of our romantic getaway, in some ways, makes it even sweeter. Love is about so many things. It is found in the big adventures and major life accomplishments, as well as in the mundane details.

Take my advice, plan a trip this very moment with your sweetheart. Use your imagination to creatively design within your particular life constraints. It can be a lavish train tour of Europe, a tree house adventure in South America, a state park visit twenty minutes away, a tent in your backyard, house sitting for a friend. While you are at it, lovingly coach your partner through any of his/her concerns. Be lovingly assertive. Share this article, hold their hand and help them envision stepping out of their very important task mode, out of their everyday, to be with you, their sweetheart, soaking up your attention while you both relax amidst the backdrop of your choice.

Good luck lovers!


* Postscript(s)
(1)*I have noticed a significant trend involving people squeezing in a Starbucks pit stop prior to their therapy appointment, one client called it “pre-gaming.” If you do the math, a coffee is on average 5 bucks a pop, plus couples therapy at $150/hour, plus gas, as well as often a nice dinner and bottle of wine afterwards, as a reward for all that emotional catharsis. Now the sum of all of this could actually equal the price of adomestic flight. See what I am getting at here?
(2)*I realize I’m stereotyping a very American high value on work cultural mindset. It was delightful when I lived in Australia for a short time to experience a culture that cultivates a very generous attitude towards travel and relaxation. There were many funny moments when my American Puritan work ethic roots would shoot up, as I realized how stressed I could become in response to how much we were relaxing

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