Last year, a flight delay almost ended my marriage.
My wife and I were en route to a West Coast wedding when a storm diverted us from our layover in D.C. to an unexpected landing in Richmond, Virginia. Ever easygoing, my wife embraced the situation, securing us a flight out the next morning and reserving a room at a boutique hotel. Prone to panic, I soon broke the serenity when I realized our bags were still on the original flight. To save our orphaned luggage, I forced us back on the plane to our nation's capital—headed to an airport we no longer had tickets out of. Tensions were high; regrets were immediate. As we approached, the pilot announced that another squall had us rerouted, once again, to Richmond. We submitted to fate, and ended the evening sharing laughs, Korean tacos, and one-too-many craft brews in the historic Virginia capital.
Though the stakes may be exaggerated, the point is sound: Travel is a test kitchen for a committed relationship. When a couple spends uninterrupted time together for an extended period in an unfamiliar setting, the challenges that arise truly test their mettle. But for those who endure through adversity, the rewards of a travel-centric relationship are bounteous—and research backs this up.
When a couple spends uninterrupted time together for an extended period in an unfamiliar setting, the challenges that arise truly test their mettle.
A 2012 survey by the U.S. Travel Association revealed that couples that took regular trips reported higher levels of satisfaction with their relationships, and considered their vacations an important venue for romance. Similarly, a 2013 Journal of Travel Research article by experts at Texas A&M found that partners who traveled together experienced improved communication, and that connectivity extended into their life back home—with one important caveat. For a couple to reap such benefits, they must want the same thing out of the vacation, and that experience must include shared activities that nurture the relationship.
“Vacation experiences are made up of seeking and escaping motives. Some are seeking adventure; others are escaping and want to relax. The dyad has to match up,” says Dr. James Petrick, professor of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences and co-author of the Texas A&M review. “Outside of your usual environment, you have to process much more and evaluate situations in an in-depth manner. Vacations awaken all your senses. You’re more in tune with each other, with the environment around you.”
Cincinnati residents Jocelyn Gibson, 34, and Justin Leach, 33, were married last October after dating since 2014. Part of what drew them together was a mutual love of travel—the pair have already flexed their compatibility on excursions to Madrid, Copenhagen, Marseille and Berlin in that three-year span. While they cop to the occasional argument—Justin likes to plot things out, while Jocelyn prefers to wander—they have similar interests, leaving much to bond over.
“We are constantly noticing the historic architecture, street life, public spaces,” Gibson says. “We both love food, so our meals are satisfying and memorable. On countless occasions we will be doing something ordinary, and we’ll recall a specific memory from one of our trips and be struck by nostalgia.”
The guidance to “keep your relationship fresh” has been prescribed by every advice columnist from Ann Landers to Dear Sugar, but it’s an adage proven by science. A 2000 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that long-term couples who participated in new, exciting activities together—like regular travel—experienced boosts in relationship quality. Study subjects ranged in age from young couples to seniors, and relationships varied in length, but the effects of regularly engaging in new things on overall relationship happiness remained consistent across both generation and duration.
“It promotes novelty,”says Dr. Jaime Kurtz, associate professor of psychology at James Madison University and author of the book The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations. “If you normally see one another as partners in child-rearing and housework, this isn't always so romantic. Breaking out of those roles can give you the chance to rekindle romance and see one another in new ways.”
Other activities can provoke this same positive impact, of course—say, taking a cooking class together. But, travel facilitates a specific kind of intimacy. Shared exploration—whether through the halls of the Louvre, the cobbled streets of San Sebastian, or the historic ward of Richmond, Virginia—breeds special shared memories that no other enterprise can replicate.
When you travel together, you both get to understand other cultures and, in a way, understand each other.
In fact, not only are couples who travel together happier, but travel itself can help rehabilitate relationships on the ropes. Petrick cites the Second Honeymoon Programme, which the Malaysian government instituted in 2010 to help revive relationships on the brink of divorce. Participants are whisked off to a tropical island, where they are granted private time to reconnect. A 2016 article in the Malaysian newspaper The Star reported that the program had a whopping 99 percent success rate.
Vacation is no secret salve—it’s important to note that the Second Honeymoon Programme included time spent with a marriage counselor. But even so, the evidence that travel indeed enhances a relationship—for pairs with at least some overlapping interests—is undeniable. A 2010 survey by UK travel company sunshine.co.uk found that out of 1,927 participants, most couples reported having more intimate relations after a one week vacation than during a full two months at home.
Take Jim and Gail Nelson, for example, who have been married since 1973 and together ventured to more than 40 countries across Europe, South America, and Asia. From those many journeys, what they’ve come to value most is the intimacy of joint experience—fond mental snapshots of a night in an Italian pensione or of a home-cooked meal in Shanghai.
“We together have a better understanding of the rest of the world,” Gail says. “If only one of us traveled, the other wouldn’t understand those experiences. When you travel together, you both get to understand other cultures and, in a way, understand each other.”
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