First vacation

First vacation (Taxi photo/Getty Images / August 28, 2012)

Test. Milestone. Fantasy. Romantic upgrade. Uplifting adventure. Crash and burn. A couple's first trip away together can be any of those. Some trips can go from bad to worse. Some can go from bad to better. And some are just delightful.

It all depends on homework, communication and, especially, expectations, relationship experts say. An appreciation for the absurd and a go-with-it attitude won't hurt either.

Now-experienced Los Angeles traveler Lisa Niver Rajna remembers checking into a hotel on her first trip with her future husband, George, (who booked it) and hearing a dog barking. Later, they saw a dog in a car outside the hotel. Yep, it was a hotel that welcomed dogs — and every room seemed to have one. Neither cared for the noise, the smell or the dogs themselves. Bad start.

Then they had a fight about her weight, which was dropping but apparently not fast enough.

"I thought, this is it, we're going to have to cancel our trip to Fiji this summer because this is never going to work," Niver Rajna says. "(But) we found our sense of humor, went wine tasting, found a hot tub and made it through the weekend."

"Don't go in with fantasies and expectations," says Beverly Hills psychotherapist Barbara Neitlich. "Many couples come to me and complain their first weekend together was not how they imagined. It almost never is." Even a first argument, Neitlich says, is normal couple's behavior.

New York City psychotherapist Allison M. Lloyds suggests speaking about feelings before the trip — and aim for compromise and split time so each partner feels acknowledged and content. "It's important to ... have a shared vacation vision for how you might like the trip to play out," she says. "Don't just assume you'll figure it all out when you arrive."

There are other practical issues to consider to help ensure the trip remains positive and fun. For instance, Neitlich recommends you discuss finances beforehand, keep plans simple — and view your partner's idiosyncrasies as an amusing learning experience, not a warning to run away.

"When you're new to a relationship, traveling together will usually put you in close proximity for much longer periods of time. This can expose things about each other you may not have previously seen, such as hygiene habits, tidiness or messiness, sleep issues like snoring, eating schedules and habits," says Tina Tessina, a Southern California relationship counselor and author of "Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences."

Freelance writer and blogger Aimee Cebulski, of San Diego, took her first trip with boyfriend Jeff Stokes to Belize, Guatemala and Honduras — for three weeks. Some would call that adventurous, others would call it nuts. Both had traveled extensively on their own before. By traveling together Cebulski says she learned, among other things, that you should be sensitive to each other's routines (morning person, nonmorning person) and look for lodging with two rooms to create some space and accommodate separate use of time.

Her advice on a first trip together is to be flexible and forgiving. "You're supposed to be enjoying the destination as well as the journey," Cebulski says, "and it's important to realize you have different ways of dealing with things."

Perspective is everything

Think your first trip was a disaster? The experts say, essentially, get over it. "You're just a normal couple getting to know one another," says psychotherapist Barbara Neitlich. Remember that even long-married couples have their ups and downs, and try not to compare yourselves to characters in a movie.

Psychotherapist Allison M. Lloyds also warns against jumping to conclusions. "Sit back and try to take stock of what happened between the two of you," she says. "If you ended up getting into arguments, what brought them on? This doesn't mean your relationship is doomed."

Aimee Cebulski says problems could be as simple as addressing bathroom protocol. "This can be a real point of stress for couples," she says. "Carve up bathroom time. And adopt the 'closed door rule.'"

sunday@tribune.com