When Ken and Carla arrived at the airport for their long-awaited 10-day trip to Spain, tensions were high. The couple hit traffic on the way to the airport. 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 the couple.

"No, you go..." Ken said, and he pulled out his phone.

Carla sighed.

The airplane had not even left yet, and Carla was already upset. She pushed herself to get a massage anyway. When she returned, Ken barely acknowledged her. He was finishing a work email.

Carla wanted both of them to feel connected and closer. Ken's behavior told her that today's work emails mattered more to him than she did.

Now, with some of the weight lifted from her shoulders, given her massage, she sat down to talk to him.

Carla: "Ken, you matter so much to me. I want this to be a vacation we will remember as a time of togetherness and bonding. I hoped the massage would help get us both get in the mood, and I was disappointed when you didn't join me."

Ken: "I know, you matter to me too, Carla, but this email just came in, and I had to answer it. It will just take a minute..."

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.

Even before this trip, Carla wondered how much she mattered to Ken. She believed that he placed work concerns above his relationship. Now she interpreted his behavior to mean that even on vacation, she would not get his emotional attention. The shoulder massage was not enough to calm down these threatening feelings.

Leaving work behind means leaving work behind

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

Ken felt most secure when he was productive at work, but plane travel made him anxious. He was also worried about spending so much money on a vacation. Ken's amygdala was shouting, "Danger!" his neocortex interpreted that as the email that had just arrived. Answering an "urgent email" appeared to be his answer to what was actually his travel and money anxieties.

Stress and high expectations

Thirty-five percent of millennials say travel-related disagreements are deal breakers for them. Planning a vacation alone can cause tension.

Vacations often come with elevated expectations and pressure to have an ideal time. 

Fatigue and travel-related stress

Carla could sleep on the red-eye, but Ken could not. When they landed that morning, she wanted breakfast; he wanted sleep.

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

Financial disagreements

Vacations usually involve spending money, and financial matters can become a source of contention. 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?

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. Ken argued for a cheaper room, while Carla wanted a suite.

Lack of personal space or privacy

Carla knew better than to disturb Ken's sleep when they were home. She had developed a routine at home to address that, she laid out her clothes in the other room when dressing for work.

Sharing space in the hotel meant that she had to bother him when she came back to the hotel room to get her swimsuit.

This led to an argument.

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?

Agreements like this can be more easily negotiated when discussed. However, when they aren't, hard feelings result. Like the massage, as Carla sat at breakfast, she felt increasingly solitary, irritable, and abandoned.

Differences in interests and priorities

Once Ken slept, he was eager to see the sites. Carla was exhausted and now wanted a nap. She hoped this would be a romantic getaway. She imagined waking up from her nap next to Ken and making love.

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

Different timing around quality time are frequent concerns.

Unresolved relationship issues

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.

Differences in travel preferences can cause tension between partners with varying desires for luxury.

Being away from the usual routine and surroundings can disrupt communication patterns. Your circadian rhythms might be off, disrupting executive planning and logical thought.

Take time to plan

Discussing and compromising on vacation plans can resolve misunderstandings and enrich the experience.

When planning a vacation with children, decide if it should be a family activity or if parents can occasionally split off from the group.

Learning to compromise and tame perpetual issues

The couple addressed their perpetual issues and work-life balance using a science-based approach over an intensive weekend.


Ken had to grapple with his issues workwise to feel comfortable tying up loose ends and traveling. When he was away with his wife, he needed to prepare for the trip mentally. He later learned to add one additional day between leaving work and his first day of vacation. This allowed him to be mentally focused and enjoy his time away.

Emotionally connect

Carla also got better at expressing her needs. She was encouraged to continue the formula she demonstrated at the airport before take-off:

  • Express her desire for closeness and mutual connection
  • Identify her emotions.

Only one step remained:

  • Ask for specific behavior changes.

Carla should have asked Ken to stop using his phone and checking his email for the rest of their vacation.

Ken was also better able to address communication concerns as well. Once he had a better idea of the underlying issues that kept him tethered to work, he could spend time connecting with Carla and being fully present.

Effective communication and understanding can minimize conflicts and enhance couples' vacation experiences.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. K

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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