By Richard Asa
Special to Tribune Newspapers
3:01 PM EDT, August 27, 2013
You would think the last person to have relationship problems on a vacation with friends would be Hailey McDonald, a marketing and public relations professional for adventure travel companies.
You would be wrong. McDonald, of Virginia Beach, Va., is a veteran world traveler who went backpacking through Europe with a close friend — and the trip began with problems revolving around planning.
"She didn't do any preparation for the trip but expected me to have everything figured out," McDonald says. "It was a lot of pressure for me to communicate with locals in every country."
Other sources of friction involved their very different personalities. While they patched things up, much like sisters who fight like wildcats but with love, McDonald vowed never to travel with her friend again. They just weren't simpatico on the road.
Then she went to Bali with her best friend, someone she knew even better. They had long dreamed of taking a trip together. The idyllic tropical vacation proved anything but, she says: Pouring rain, filthy conditions, heat and humidity all made McDonald dream of going home — when she could sleep, while her friend charged forth to make it work.
They clashed and had all-out screaming matches, she recalls. Though they have reconciled, McDonald says her friend harbored resentment for some time, believing she had ruined the trip.
Travel can greatly enhance relationships through mutual experiences, which is what McDonald and her friends thought would happen on each trip.
But these new experiences can also erode our sense of safety and security, no matter how plush the trip might be, says Margaret King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis in Philadelphia.
"We're away from the familiar and dependent on a very small friendship group for all our trust issues," King says. "This means that decisions have to be made on the ground quickly and with good coordination; everything is 'now' without the luxury of having much time to think things through. Opportunities or problems arise that must be addressed. This is stressful and promises conflict."
In addition to the condensed time available to figure out a mutually reasonable solution to a problem — or how to prevent one — the common vacation often creates other challenges: the convergence of emotionally charged issues over personal boundaries and rituals, values and needs related to money, and emotional reaction to social interaction and the need for control, says New York psychologist Joseph Cilona.
"These are all often very charged emotional issues in their own right, but when they are encountered together or too closely to one another, things can really get heated," Cilona says. "Vacations can and usually do wreak havoc almost instantly on what can be a delicately balanced dynamic. Something as simple as spending time with a friend at different times of the day and night than what you are accustomed to can have a dramatic influence.
"When you add differing needs around boundaries for personal time and space … being in a strange environment, spending what is usually a much higher amount of money than the norm, and even eating, sleeping and drinking habits, it's easy to see how things can really shift rapidly and in different ways."
Take a test drive
Michael Brein, who has carved a special niche that has earned him the title of "The Travel Psychologist," says the one thing you can do to improve the odds of a trip in which the primal urge to kill does not well up from the gut is to put on training wheels first — which means take a short trip or two way in advance of the big one to flesh out any unapparent travel incompatibilities and acclimate to what you might consider strange behavior.
"You never really know a person until you've experienced them in a speeded up, time-crunched time capsule of a journey," Brein says. "It's akin to being locked up with them with a ball and chain you drag together."
Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist from Dana Point, Calif., adds that traveling friends often get blinded by the sparkle of an ideal vacation, which means having nonstop fun, fun, fun together.
That won't happen. In fact, people need time alone to recharge.
Like Brein, Bahar believes that laying it all out well in advance of a trip is helpful, even cathartic, so begin with a pre-trip "idiosyncrasy list" that gives fellow travelers a heads up, Bahar says. Be very frank.
"Maybe you need to go to the bathroom before the day begins, whereas (your friend) has no problem going to the bathroom when the urge occurs. We all poop, so talk about it," she says.
You could also face weird reading times, television show fanaticism early in the morning and anything else an imagination can conjure a friend doing in the privacy of her own home.
McDonald certainly was schooled the hard way.
"Lessons were learned, and if we ever did travel together again, I think we'd likely be much more upfront about our needs and goals for the trip," she says. "Also, I think having a little compassion goes a long way.
"People have different breaking points and comfort levels, and if you go into a new experience knowing that, I think it makes dealing with situations like these easier, or at least quicker."
How to prevent trouble before you take off? Psychologist Joseph Cilona weighs in:
Plan ahead. Before you ask your boss for days off work, much less make airline and hotel reservations, get together a few times to discuss a possible vacation together. Individuals should talk about needs, preferences and goals to gauge if they're compatible. Recognize that even the best of friends simply may not be good travel partners.
Negotiate conflicts. Negotiate possibilities to resolve conflicts — again, before any commitments or purchases are made. Remember that fair does not always mean equal. It really comes down to priorities and what's important to each person. Be sure that each person addresses the importance of the issue being negotiated.
Preplan timeouts. Discuss and agree on how conflicts will be handled before you leave on the trip. Also, create a specific plan to enact should things get heated during your trip. Use experiences from the past with each other to devise a strategy that will work for both of you — again based on being fair, if not equal.
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