As Ken and Carla arrived at the airport for their long-awaited 10-day trip to Spain, tensions were already high. The couple had hit traffic on the way, and Ken implied that if they had left earlier, as he suggested, this could have been avoided. Carla tried to change the mood by suggesting a 10-minute shoulder massage for both of them.

“No, you go…” Ken said, pulling out his phone. Carla sighed, feeling disappointed and alone.

This scenario is all too common for many couples who find themselves fighting on vacation, despite hoping for a relaxing and connecting experience. As a clinical psychologist, I’ve seen firsthand how these conflicts can quickly sour what should be a blissful getaway. So, why do couples fight on vacation, and what can be done to prevent it?

Common triggers for vacation conflicts

Unresolved relationship issues

Research suggests that couples who have pre-existing relationship problems are more likely to experience conflict during travel.1 For Ken and Carla, her long-standing concerns about not feeling prioritized were amplified by Ken’s apparent preoccupation with work emails during their trip. Vacations can cause heightened distress instead of needed R&R. Ken had verbally agreed to leave work behind. Still, travel anxiety intensified his unconscious worries about work.

The stress of high expectations

Couples plan a “trip of a lifetime” without ever fully appreciating the pressure this puts on each of them. Slight setbacks feel crushing, when the expectation is that everything should go perfectly. Vacations often come with elevated expectations and pressure to have an ideal time.

Fatigue and travel-related stress

Couples have different abilities to sleep while away from home and this directly impacts their first few days of vacation when traveling across time zones or overnight. Carla could sleep on the red-eye flight, but Ken could not. When they landed that morning, she wanted breakfast; he wanted sleep.

Different capacities to sleep undisturbed can impact a couple’s ability to stay in sync well into the next day or two. Apps can help. Timeshifter, for example, is an app that uses neuroscience to gently transition a traveler’s circadian rhythms and naturally decrease the fatigue that comes with flying across the world. The methodology revolves around four elements: light exposure, sleep, caffeine, and melatonin (optional). The couple could use methods like these to decrease the impact of time-zone changes.

Sleep/wake mismatches can result from differing jet lag impacts and physical or logistical challenges, especially on long journeys. This adds to travel stress.

Lack of personal space and routine

Sharing close quarters and being out of one’s normal routine can be challenging for couples, especially those who value alone time. Research indicates that a lack of personal space and privacy can contribute to vacation-related stress and conflict.2

Carla knew Ken was a light sleeper, and at home she seldom woke him. Her routine included laying out her work clothes in the other room and using the second bathroom. This was not possible on vacation. Her exhausted husband was woken up when she came back to the hotel room to grab her swimsuit. This led to an argument.

Clashes like this are more easily negotiated when discussed ahead of time. However, when they aren’t, hard feelings result. Like the massage in the airport, as Carla sat at breakfast, she felt increasingly solitary, irritable, and abandoned. She was also unhappy at the thought of swimming alone.

When you are on vacation, you are out of your normal routine. However, you are still the same people with the same needs for personal space. Couples may have different thresholds for alone time, which can cause friction.

Will one of you go off alone? Take a nap in the afternoon? Knowing yourself and your partner’s needs for together-time and alone-time can help you navigate this difference without upset.

Differing expectations and priorities

Once Ken got a good rest, he was eager to see the sites. Carla was now exhausted and wanted to nap. She hoped this would be a romantic getaway. She imagined waking up from her nap next to Ken and making love. THEN going site-seeing.

Ken envisioned an active holiday where the couple created many happy sightseeing memories. Besides, he reasoned, sex could come later. After all, he had just spent time in bed. Now he was ready to go!

Studies have shown that mismatched expectations are a significant source of vacation-related stress for couples.2 When Carla wanted to sleep in and enjoy a romantic morning, Ken was eager to start sightseeing, leading to frustration on both sides.

Financial disagreements

Carla wanted first-class seating allowing the couple to stretch out and sleep more comfortably on the long flight. Ken felt this would be a waste of money.

Ken was also unhappy with the noisy hotel room, despite the fact that he had argued for a cheaper room. Carla was unsympathetic to his plight. She had argued for a suite in a more upscale hotel.

Money is a common source of conflict for couples, both at home and on vacation. Ken and Carla’s disagreement over the cost of first-class seats and hotel rooms illustrates this tension. Disagreements may arise when determining the budget, making purchases, or managing expenses during the trip. How much should we allocate? What do we spend money on?

Strategies for a harmonious getaway

Communicate openly and empathetically

Effective communication is key to preventing and resolving vacation conflicts. Couples should express their needs, desires, and concerns openly and empathetically, taking care to listen to and validate each other’s perspectives.3 Carla’s attempt to communicate her desire for connection at the airport was a step in the right direction, but Ken struggled to respond empathetically due to his own anxieties.

Learning to leave work behind

As well as planning ahead to physically leave work behind, Ken had to learn how to emotionally leave it behind as well.

Ken felt most secure when he was productive at work. In contrast, plane travel made him anxious. He used work to distract himself from this anxiety.

He was also worried about spending so much money on a vacation, but was reluctant to talk about this directly with Carla. Instead, he saw a work email as a way to “constructively” redirect these anxiety.

Plan and compromise

Before embarking on a trip, couples should discuss their expectations and priorities, finding ways to compromise and create an itinerary that satisfies both partners. This can help prevent misunderstandings and ensure that both individuals feel heard and valued.

Most couples know that they should discuss issues like how much money to set aside for vacation, and how long the vacation should be. Less often, however, do they discuss their anxieties about leaving work behind, and what they actually need, time wise and emotionally, to do so.

Ken realized that he needed to find a replacement to cover his email inbox while he was away, and needed a full day before the vacation to wrap up his work, and a full day upon his return, before jumping in head first.. Scheduling those extra days reduced his level of stress.

Create space for individual needs

Recognizing and respecting each other’s need for personal space and alone time can go a long way in reducing vacation tension. Couples should consider building in moments of solitude or separate activities to recharge and maintain a sense of equilibrium.4 Ken and Carla could have benefited from acknowledging and accommodating their different sleep schedules and need for rest.

Parents also have to decide whether a vacation with children will include “adult time.” Deciding this ahead of time allows for adequate planning and fewer hurt feelings.

Practice mindfulness and stress management

Mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation, can help couples manage travel-related stress and maintain emotional regulation. By staying present and attuned to their own emotions, partners can respond to challenges with greater patience and understanding.5

Talk about sex

Couples often avoid talking constructively about sex, especially if there are sexual difficulties. This is a mistake, especially during vacation. It’s often helpful to call a “truce” during vacation, and lower the expectations for what will happen over the time away. Aim for attainable goals, like increased affection, hand-holding, and six-second kisses. Lowering the anxiety and tension can improve chances for a more relaxing and satisfying time away.6


Every couple has unresolvable relationship differences, like Ken and Carla. However, the difference between happy and unhappy vacationers is how well they can discuss conflicts and emotional issues.

When we don’t feel valued in our marriages, we feel even more sensitive to rejection when physical exhaustion takes over. Our expectations are high, and our patience is low.

Vacation conflicts, like those experienced by Ken and Carla, are common among couples, often stemming from unresolved relationship issues, differing expectations, financial disagreements, and a lack of personal space. However, by practicing open communication, planning and compromising, respecting individual needs, and managing stress mindfully, couples can prevent and overcome these challenges, paving the way for a truly restful and rejuvenating getaway.


  1. Rosenblatt, P. C., Titus, S. L., Nevaldine, A., & Cunningham, M. R. (1979). Marital system differences and summer-long vacations: Togetherness-apartness and tension. The American Journal of Family Therapy7(1), 77–84.
  2. Durko, Angela & Petrick, James. (2015). Travel as Relationship Therapy: Examining the Effect of Vacation Satisfaction Applied to the Investment Model. Journal of Travel Research. 55. 10.1177/0047287515592970.
  3. Kozak, M. (2010). Holiday Taking Decisions – The Role of Spouses. Tourism Management, 31(4), 489-494.
  4. Chen, C.-C., Huang, W.-J., & Petrick, J. F. (2016). Holiday Recovery Experiences, Tourism Satisfaction and Life Satisfaction – Is There a Relationship? Tourism Management, 53, 140-147.
  5. Keng, S.-L., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1041-1056.
  6. Coffey, John & Shahvali, Moji & Kerstetter, Deborah & Aron, Arthur. (2024). Couples vacations and romantic passion and intimacy. 100121. 10.1016/j.annale.2024.100121.