What Travelling With My Partner Taught Me About Our Relationship
This isn’t an advice article about how to travel with your partner. It’s not about how you should learn to compromise, it’s not about learning to listen to each other or valuing time apart. I’m not going to tell you travelling with your partner will be the best thing you can do for your relationship – because, who knows, it could be the worst.
This is more personal. This is a no-bull recount of how scared I was – or wasn’t – before blindly embarking on a year of backpacking with my partner of not even two years. We hadn’t lived together. We hadn’t even travelled together before. It could have been a disaster.
Jumping in seemed easy, because it was
I don’t remember the first discussions that sparked a the desire for our trip. It escalated so quickly that it almost came down to a game of chicken, with neither of us wanting to back down first.
All I remember is, a year into our relationship, we had the idea of taking a short holiday together. The plan snowballed to one-month, three-months, six-months. Before I knew it we had moved out of our respective share houses, sold most of our belongings (and put the remainder into storage at our parents’ places – sorry, Dad, I promise I’ll come to collect it soon), and we were taking off with one-way tickets to Singapore with no real plans to be back within the year.
My personal justification was this: If I was going to resign from my job for a three-month trip, why not do 12 instead? My partner had a “no harm in asking” approach that shaped the rest of our trip. He asked his boss for one year of leave and a job to come home to. When the answer was “yes”, we had no excuses to not do it.
We would be spending day in, day out together; every meal, every decision, every long squashy van ride and every airport delay. Could we hack it? The risk I was taking with my career was at the forefront of my mind, but I gave little thought to the possible strain a year of budget travel might put on my relationship.
Sure, we joked about it – “I hope we come back together, LOL”. Perhaps that’s because we had to have a clear, positive frame of mind about what we were about to tackle for it to ever be a success. The thought of our relationship not passing this “test” was too scary to deal with, and not helpful for our cause. If either of us gave legs to moments of hesitation, we might have pulled the plug.
The little memory I have of those first conversations makes it sound easy, because it was. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t concerned about our relationship at all. It just felt like the right next step for us, and for myself.
Chalk and cheese
We were coming at this trip from two very different perspectives. We were at different stages in our lives, we wanted different things from the trip, and we’d left different things behind. I had resigned from my job. He had one to come back to. I had a backpackers’ baked-beans-on-toast budget. He had a smashed-avo-with-a-side-of-salmon budget. I wanted to go to Central America. He wanted to go to Eastern Europe. I wanted to travel for 12 months. He thought maybe three. I wanted to spend time in the countryside. He prefers the city.
And there was more: I’d travelled long-term before. This was his first time. The extrovert in me was excited to meet new people. He, as an introvert, was stressed by the thought of spending time with strangers. I wanted to go anywhere and everywhere. He needed to know “why” we were going to each place.
My travel wish list included seeing a volcano erupt, learning Spanish, visiting Cuba, spending a month on a beach in Mexico, spending time on a remote island. His wish list was more about watching Liverpool play an English Premier League match, attending a major golf tournament, seeing LCD Sound System on their comeback tour and meeting his mate Dave in Berlin.
I’ve read stories about how, with any travel buddy — be it a partner, a friend, a family member or a stranger – you should get on the same page with your budget, lifestyle, priorities and goals. We couldn’t exactly do that. On paper, this journey made no sense.
But it worked
These differences and departures from our individual comfort zones are what defined our trip.
I pushed him to spend more time in the countryside, to camp, to hire scooters and to road trip through the Slovenian Alps. I took him to off-the-beaten-track countries that he’d otherwise had no intention to visit. I encouraged him to meet people and, in the end, he became much more sociable than me.
He pushed me to embrace the culture in big cities, to try weird foods, to go clubbing in Berlin, and to go to my first big international sports match. He taught me to slow down. He helped me to realise the importance of a day off (which yes, even with travel you need days off), and he helped me overcome a severe and life-long case of FOMO. I started to value time alone, and began choosing a quiet dinner instead of the hostel pub crawl. These become my favourite moments, and the changes in myself that I’m most proud of.
And when he wanted to fly to Scotland to see the British Open golf major, I said, “You go nuts, I’ll be here in Poland. See you in a week, mate”. In the end, I loved Eastern Europe most. He loved Central America most.
The hardest part
Anyone who tells you that travelling with a partner is all smiles and picnics is lying. We certainly had our fair share of tiffs, mostly due to me getting mad at him for not capturing the (admittedly often impossible) Instagram shot that I was envisioning.
But the biggest turning point in our nomadic relationship was this: about three months in, we became tired. Really tired. We soon realised that it had been weeks since we’d had a conversation with each other that wasn’t about our trip. Our trip was our baby. It had engulfed us, we had become smothered by our own holiday and we’d forgotten everything that made us, well, us. We’d somehow forgotten to have fun. We’d forgotten to ask each other how we were.
The turning point
That’s when we made a decision. We took a week’s worth of cash from the end of our budget and we threw it on a plane ticket to Little Corn Island, a paradise off the coast of Nicaragua. We badly needed to rest, to recover, and to remind ourselves why we were doing this. Little Corn Island would be our holiday from the holiday.
We booked a cabin for a week and spent the mornings on the beach and the evenings sitting on the patio, drinking wine, listening to our favourite bands. For that one week, we didn’t mention a thing about the actual trip. And it was heaven. It slowed us down, reminded us that we were on the adventure of our lives, and that we needed to embrace every moment, because life won’t be like this forever.
The biggest lesson
After the initial shock of returning home to Melbourne, life is almost back to normal. At first, we spoke about our trip a lot, but now we need to make a conscious effort to bring it up with each other, so we don’t forget what an amazing experience we’ve had.
That said, if I had 10 bucks for every time someone said to me, “now that you’ve travelled together, you can get through anything”, I could probably afford another around-the-world trip. But, for me, that statement isn’t true. Travel is easy; it’s life at home that’s hard.
In travel, you have to make lots of decisions, but they are fun and temporary. What do you want to eat tonight? Should we take the train or the bus? Should we get a private or dorm room tonight? Should we travel overland through Costa Rica and Panama, or go straight to Colombia instead? Do we choose Croatia or Slovenia? (We chose Slovenia, by the way. Zero regrets.)
But at home, the decisions we face as a couple are immensely more real and more life-altering. Where do we want to live? How does my career change affect my partner? Do we want to have a family? Would we consider getting married? Are we spending this Friday night with my friends or yours?
After 10 months on the road with my partner, I learned a lesson I’ll never forget: not to let the stresses and intricacies of daily life consume me or consume my relationship. Whether we’re travelling or at home, we must remember to have fun, to ask each other how we are, to share a quiet glass of red together, and to sing The Smith Street Band while watching the sun set.
(All images: Kate McCabe / supplied)