Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wherever You Go...Why Vacations Aren't a Cure All

The restaurant, one of our favorites, sits on one of Maui's most beautiful beaches. The food is wonderful, the service friendly and efficient, the view at sunset sublime.

But none of this seemed to matter to a thirty-something couple we saw dining there not long ago. They were seated one table away from us, an attractive, well-dressed pair.  As the glorious panorama of a Hawaiian sunset spread before them, they looked past it and away from each other, into some dark place within. They didn't speak a word to each other during the whole hour-and-a-half of their excruciating dinner. Happy talk swirled around them as they sat in angry silence.  The dynamics of this couple, the cold anger with which they regarded each other, brought a slight chill to the room.

And I puzzled over what their story might be.  Had they taken this vacation to save or revitalize their relationship? Were they realizing that nothing external was going to help? That time away together, rather than being refreshing, was hurtling toward disaster?

Vacations can be stressful just logistically. There are travel schedules to meet.  There is unfamiliar food, unpredictable rental cars, tiny and expensive hotel rooms or vacation condos. Vacations always seem to cost more than anticipated and, especially if finances have figured into relationship woes, taking an expensive getaway can add to the stress. And any unexpected stresses encountered on a vacation can speed the implosion of an already teetering relationship.

Many years ago, when Chuck and I were coming apart at the seams in the romantic phase of our relationship (as opposed to the warm, treasured friendship and the long professional partnership we've since shared), he proposed a trip to Las Vegas to help us work out our growing list of emotional issues.

While I thought Las Vegas a curious choice for relationship renewal, I agreed to any last chance for us to talk, to be together and perhaps work things out.

The weekend was an epic disaster. All the way there, he talked about the person with whom he had had a relationship while also seeing me and with whom he had now broken up in order to save our relationship. He said that while he imagined he would get over him -- yes, him -- it would just take time. I sat listening, nodding and quietly wondering "What in the hell am I doing here? Have I totally lost my mind??"

Half an hour out of Las Vegas, the skies opened and torrential rain started to lash the windshield. When we arrived at Caesars Palace, we saw that a flash flood had destroyed the parking lot and every car in it. We waded through knee deep mud, carrying our luggage above our heads, to check in. After we spent the first part of the evening cleaning the mud off our shoes and ourselves, Chuck hit the casino, spending hours silently playing the slots as I sat by in angry exasperation. We went to a late night show where a tenor sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" and Chuck put his head down on the table, sobbing loudly, observed impassively by four thuggish black-suited men in sunglasses (at the midnight show!) who were sitting at our long table. After four drinks and barely negotiating the plank that crossed the still swirling flood waters to our hotel, Chuck passed out on the bed.

 The next morning, he was up early and moving briskly to pack. "This isn't working," he said. "Let's go." We drove back to Los Angeles without exchanging a word. It was the longest car ride of my life.

Being alone together in an unfamiliar place to work on a relationship can be very stressful -- even minus flash floods, thugs in sunglasses, the allures of a casino and specter of mixed orientation infidelity overshadowing everything. You're faced with unrelenting togetherness, are away from support systems, are spending a lot of money and probably not having much fun.

The fact is, if you're unhappy individually or as a couple, you're going to take this with you wherever you go, importing your own private hell into what could be paradise.

In many cases, it makes more sense to stay home and use your money for psychotherapy or marriage counseling instead.

Vacations are, at their best, celebrations -- of your life together, of life transitions, of your shared love of adventure or of a special place. Being alone together in a place you both love can, indeed, help you affirm your strengths as a couple and add yet another gem to your treasured memories.
And they can mean different things at various life phases.

Bob made the observation today that, in our previous trips to Maui, we were both working long hours away from each other and our vacation trips were a chance to enjoy uninterrupted time together. Now that we're retired, the underlying feel of the vacation has changed as well. "We have the gift of being together all the time now, whether we're at home or on vacation," he told me. "So this time, it's a relaxing trip to a place we both love that holds so many wonderful memories. It's a beautiful and familiar part of our shared history." I nodded in agreement.

We were fortunate to come over here expecting to enjoy this magical place as we always have. We came over with positive feelings and the knowledge that we can spend two weeks, every minute, together without feeling claustrophobic. Being with someone you love in a place you both love is a joy. Maui has often renewed our spirits. But the relationship work has been our responsibility in a variety of settings -- mostly at home -- over the years.

To expect a vacation to cure what ails a relationship is to expect too much. Beautiful scenery can't still that well of anger, the rancor between you or the ongoing depression you feel when things are not working out in your life or your relationship.

Whoever you are at home, you are on vacation. Sometimes that makes for silent and chilly evenings in seaside cafes. And sometimes it means that a person or a couple can spread sunshine in an already sun-blessed land.

Yesterday, Bob and I swam happily amid high waves and choppy seas in a wind-tossed bay. Our only companions were a young Japanese couple who caught each wave with excitement and joy, their laughter ringing over the sounds of the crashing surf. They reveled in the blue waters of Napili Bay, squealing with unabashed delight, jumping through and over waves, swimming like a pair of lean and lively dolphins in the rough surf.

Bob and I swam with them, squealing, laughing and jumping the waves, shared joy transcending time, language barriers and experience.  The day -- and they -- were an absolute delight.


  1. What a wonderful post! You speak such wisdom in it. I love how you call it the gift of being together. Both my husband and I work long hours, and that's exactly what we consider it when we are able to take trips without our kids or even just get away for a dinner for two. Enjoyed this post!

  2. While "excruciating" is certainly the word I would use to describe vacation with Chuck, it certainly left you with a story! :-)

    And you're right on re: vacations: being away from home, spending money, away from the routine that binds some of us together can leave us staring at the other -- or away! -- wondering what in the world we'd done to get in such a predicament and just what we can do to get out of it...


  3. Your post is so absolutely right! And I am sooo glad to read the last two paragraphs -- sounds like a lot like heaven!

  4. Your posting today, Kathy, reminded me that we take ourselves wherever we go.

    Several years ago, one of my nieces kept changing jobs because something was always going wrong or someone was always troublesome. I suggested to her that the only common denominator in all these jobs was herself. And that she took that self into each job. So perhaps she needed to look inward.

    Of course, she bristled on hearing this, but as the years have passed I have noticed that she herself now says this to her children. So she must have experienced the freedom of accepting who we are and also accepting the responsibility of changing those patterns that no longer work for us.

    Your postings always help me realize just how important taking a step backwards is. Getting life and its experiences into perspective. Thank you.


  5. So glad you are having a wonderful vacation. Maui is so lovely and it's a shame to waste its beauty if you're there with the wrong person or for the wrong reasons.

    This was a terrific, thought provoking post. Thanks you. jj

  6. It is a shame dueling couples can't read this post before they throw their money away. I totally agree with you.
    So glad you and Bob have reached the stage where vacations are wonderful. Enjoy.
    Arkansas Patti

  7. Your post suggests a series -- worst vacations you've ever had. While you're on them, they're agonizing. But often, looking back years later, they're hilarious.

    Dunno if there's much humor in your Las Vegas trip (altho' an interesting story) -- but maybe that 30-something couple in Hawaii will later have something to laugh about.

    Anyway .. thanks for the thoughtful post, and enjoy the waves!

  8. Another terrific post, Kathy. It is interesting how our vacations change as we change. I love that. And yes, I agree, you can't go away to fix the things at home. Because home is where you land and it's different there. Beautiful -- and I'm thrilled you are having a wonderful time!

  9. I´m glad to hear that you are enjoying your time together! I can only imagine the beautiful sunsets and if the relationship is good, it´s all the better.
    Your post is so right on. I have watched many couples at restaurants that have nothing to say to each other.

  10. Thanks so much for your kind comments, Shelly, Pearl, Broad, Dee, Joanna, Patti, Tom, Jeanie and Betty! Bob and I are, indeed, having a wonderful time here and also won't mind going home where a wonderful time awaits as well. (This is the first vacation we've taken in retirement and it's a different feel when you're not looking at going back to work after your return!) Tom, your suggestion is great! Maybe we all ought to do a post on our worst vacations and what we learned from them and how we laugh. I do, as a matter of fact, laugh about that awful Las Vegas trip, helped by the fact that Chuck and I remain dear friends and have written several books together subsequent to our romantic breakup. And you're right, Pearl. The trip itself was quite a story and the story behind it was quite an epic as well!

  11. Dr. Kathy,
    The last big vacation trip my husband and I took was to Italy in 2007. It was for 15 days. By the time I had gotten to day 14, I couldn't get out of the bed in Milan. I missed seeing the Last Supper. I was exhausted from all the sight-seeing, walking and traveling.
    After I got home, I slept in my bed for 3 days. I couldn't move. It wasn't a vacation. It was an Italian safari!

    I like staying home. Or day trips to nearby towns. I use the money saved to go out to dinner, see a show, go on an excursion. My days of taking a 'vacation' are thankfully over.

    Yes, I'd like to go to the French Riviera or The Grand Canyon, but the memory of my exhaustion over Italy keeps me home. Vacations are for the young.

  12. Dr. Kathy, This is a great post, one that needed to be written. All of us are a compilation of our life choices. It seems that you made the right choice, those many years ago. I am so glad that you and Bob are having a great time on Maui. My Bob and I have vacationed in Hawaii many times over the years. We watched the outer islands grow and change over the years but we still love spending time there. We have spent many fun times on the Kanapalli Coast. I regret that Bob's health is not as good as it has been.Out traveling has become limited. Our last European trip, he was hospitalized in Paris. We haven't traveled a lot since.
    You are so right, when love is present, we can vacation on our own front porch, rocking and watching the wildlife and know that life is good.
    Have a great week.

  13. This post brought back lots of memories swirling through my head this morning.
    Once again you have written a great post for all of us to gain knowledge from or in a lot of cases been there done that. lol
    Your so right vacations can not solve existing problems and sometimes they may add to them.
    Wonderful reading how much this trip has been such a delight to you and Bob. Made me want to be there too
    Love ya

  14. Well, wish you were here, too, Maggie! And you, too, Ginger and Bob! We really are enjoying ourselves before heading home late Wednesday night (arriving in Phoenix on Thursday morning). We love Kaanapali -- and our honeymoon there was at the Royal Lahaina, which you may remember. I have a post going up about honeymoons today and then a bunch of pictures -- and then it's back to regular life and regular posts! We're very aware, Morrison and Ginger, of how finite our capacity to travel and enjoy a very physical vacation is. We may only have few years left of being able to haul ourselves out of water of Napili Bay (the incline above and below the water is very steep) so we plan to return while we're still able bodied. I've been joking that I'm going to go into training and keep losing weight in order to be ready for Napili Bay the next time. When the time comes that we can't travel anymore, I think we'll be very content at home with each other and our cats.