My partner and I have lived abroad and travelled through 11 countries together over the last 7 or so years — and it hasn’t always been easy, but it’s always been worth it.
Travelling with your partner is a great way to test and strengthen a relationship. I’m not saying it’s easy to be a happy and loving couple while living “normal” daily lives, but living through tense, stressful, and ever-changing circumstances can put a strain on a relationship that many couples may never face (or at least, not so much at once). This is a good thing — it teaches you to adapt as a couple, be more accepting and tolerant of each other, and to make decisions based on the needs and comfort of another person. Plenty of relationships don’t make it through strenuous backpacking trips, but the ones that do are stronger for it.
All that being said, there are a few things I learned along the way while travelling with my partner and witnessing other couples on their own adventures. Here are some of the more effective ways of making it work.
1. Make it clear what each person’s vision, goals, and expectations are at the beginning.
You might have a completely different vision for your trip than your partner. That’s OK — you aren’t expected to be the same person.
You might want to climb mountains, but your partner who fears heights may be more interested in checking out famous museums and markets. You can certainly have both on a trip, but not being upfront about what you really want to do may mean that one person goes along with another’s desires in silence (building resentment along the way) or neither gets to do what they really want.
Have a discussion before you leave home and regularly check in throughout your journeys. Not getting to do the things you envisioned on a trip can leave you feeling dissatisfied at the end, and you don’t want that for yourself or your partner.
2. Feel like fighting? Sleep on it.
The old adage “don’t go to bed angry” makes a lot of sense. I don’t mean you should bottle your emotions and fall asleep resenting your partner. But it’s important to understand that being exhausted, stressed, anxious, and in an unfamiliar setting can toy with your emotions and make you a bit (or a lot) more difficult to get along with.
While hiking the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador (a three-day trek where you stay in hostels in villages along the way), I ended up in a room next door to a couple that didn’t have a great day by the sounds of it. Lots of screaming and crying, along with a breakup ensued (not sure if it lasted, but it sounded rough at the time — I swear I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but the walls weren’t exactly soundproof).
I remember thinking to myself how I could easily pick a fight at that moment — my body felt like it was falling apart and I could break down in tears myself. Your emotions can play tricks on you, and better to let your body rest and decide whether that anger and frustration was real before you pick a fight that you’ll regret.
3. Learn to accept the little annoyances.
I’m not sure if this is more a skill that comes with maturity, but being around another person for 24 hours a day, every day is sure to make you aware of their little annoying habits or behaviours. Let’s be honest, we all have them. And if you are noticing them in your partner, they are certainly learning yours as well.
The trick is taking a moment to think before you rush to criticize. What will be the consequence? Will it just start a fight? Is the thing that’s annoying you really that important? Maybe your partner sneezes too loudly or talks while they yawn so their words make no sense or something similar (just examples, I swear). Do these behaviours really irritate you so much that you are willing to start a fight? Maybe it’s time to take a look at your own annoying habits and learn to accept and move on.
4. Encourage your partner to pursue their travel goals, even if you can’t (or don’t want to) take part.
I am afraid of heights. I’ve climbed plenty and faced that fear many times, but it never quite goes away. So, one thing I had absolutely no interest in a few years ago was bungy (bungee?) jumping. But, Tim wanted to do it so I was happy to encourage him to go for it on his own.
Just because you travel together doesn’t mean you have to do all the same things and pursue all the same experiences. This goes along with the first point above — you need to figure out what you each want and help each other achieve the goals and experiences that matter most.
5. Put in more effort to meet other people.
Do you ever notice those solo travellers you come across on the road, how they seem to effortlessly connect with other travellers and locals? There seem to be two reasons behind this. For one, solo travellers have to make an effort to meet new people if they don’t want to spend all their time alone. And second, being on your own in a social environment makes you appear more approachable to others.
It can be easy to stay within your comfort zone and only interact with your partner during your travels. But this can really hold you back — part of travelling is getting out of that comfort zone, meeting new people, and experiencing new cultures. Solo travellers are more likely to approach other solo travellers, so there’s more pressure on you to make the effort to approach others.
Luckily, this doesn’t mean you have to walk up to strangers in bars. Choosing to stay in dorms, hanging out in hostel common areas, chatting up other travellers on buses, and taking part in group tours and activities are all pretty easy ways to engage with other travellers even if you’re a socially anxious introvert. Once you get used to these sorts of interactions, you’ll find meeting other people (travellers and locals) becomes a lot easier.
6. Be grateful for the perks of travelling with your partner.
Travelling with a partner means you can split meals and share private rooms. It means support on your down days and someone to help you realize when you just need to calm down. You’ve got an automatic partner for those dancing classes and rock climbing excursions, a sounding board for new ideas that come to you along the way, and someone to take your photo when you’re in the middle of nowhere and a selfie just won’t do.
Sure, there will be frustrating moments and opportunities to really practice patience, but those moments are definitely worth the shared experiences that you will have for a lifetime.