When you need a break from vacation

Sometimes all the planning in the world can't keep travel companions from disappointing each other

June 01, 2007|By Melissa Healy | Melissa Healy,Los Angeles Times

You want to linger over lunch in a charming village. Your best friend, however, is itching for a quick bite and a sprint through three museums. The secluded beach looks like heaven to you, but your teenager pronounces it creepy and heads instead for the pool. Your partner wants to have sex immediately after tipping the bellhop, and you just want to sleep for two days.

Welcome to vacation dysphoria. It's not a destination; it's a state of mind, and you know you've arrived when you look at your beloved travel companion and ask, "Who is this person, anyway?"

Although there are many known causes of vacation dysphoria, psychologists and couples therapists say that among the most common is the unexpected discovery that travel companions -- so compatible amid the comforts of home -- seem to have nothing in common when on the road. It is a complaint they often hear, with myriad common variants. The lingering symptoms -- conflict, disappointment and regret -- can provide grist for therapy sessions long after the suitcases have been stowed and the credit card bill paid.

"You always hear this stuff from people," says Peter A. Wish, a psychologist in Sarasota, Fla., who counsels couples and individuals. "People come back `from vacation' and they're disappointed, frustrated, there's a letdown." In the therapy sessions that often follow, "we take a look at why, what broke down, where's the disappointment, the frustration and then you need to set up a program so it doesn't happen again."

Although the word "vacation" stems from the Latin word vacare -- to empty -- the time during which we break from workaday life is anything but. Whether the plan is a weekend at an inn or a month shuttling from port to port, Americans have come to pour their hearts and souls into their fleeting respites from the routines of home and work. When it is marred by conflict with a travel partner, a vacation can drain rather than reinvigorate, and deflate rather than destress. "There can be anger and disappointment and exasperation and all sorts of bad feelings," says Mathilda B. Canter, a clinical psychologist in Phoenix, Ariz., who has developed a special interest in relationships and vacations.

Bad feelings over a trip to Italy in the 1990s poisoned relations for months between Elaine Schmidt, a University of California, Los Angeles communications specialist, and her sister, Barbara Serby. Each thought she knew her sibling's likes and dislikes, but neither was prepared for the other's differing tolerance for spontaneity, contrasting attitude toward money and divergent view on sleeping late versus getting an early start on sightseeing.

More than a decade later, Schmidt laughs as she recounts the night when the two sisters' mounting exasperation with each other erupted in an argument -- over the placement of their respective toothbrushes -- that shattered the tranquillity of the convent in Siena where the two were staying. After several more days of hostilities, the sisters returned home ahead of schedule and didn't speak to each other for months.

Those who treat victims of vacation dysphoria note that even before couples, families or friends hit the road together, they often have made two crucial mistakes: They have built up unrealistic expectations of their vacation and have failed to communicate with each other (or within their group of traveling companions) their hopes and plans for the trip. Those are easy mistakes to make, especially for families and individuals overstressed by work. The busier people are, psychologists say, the more they tend to imbue their vacation with magical powers. And those who have their noses to the grindstone until the day of departure also are less likely to share their visions of the perfect trip, and make the necessary compromises, before they depart.

"It starts with the high expectations you have: If you only get to the right place at the right time, things will be perfect," says Marion Lindblad-Goldberg, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Often, one person -- travel industry experts say it is most often an adult woman -- carries the burden of planning the vacation, and invests her hopes and fantasies in the getaway she has planned. But, Lindblad-Goldberg says, "it's her vision, her idea: and often the vacation is just not everyone else's vision."

Once those fissures become clear, they can interact powerfully with the normal stresses of travel -- jet lag, unfamiliar surroundings, cramped quarters. The result is frayed nerves, flaring tempers, a travel planner who feels unappreciated and a fellow traveler who feels aggrieved.

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