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.
"Any change can be stressful, even if it's good change," Canter says. If travel companions don't talk candidly about their likes and dislikes and strike some compromises before the trip, she says, the stress of a changed environment will help push differences -- even small ones -- into the open. The partner who outsourced the trip-planning to her travel-mate, or bit his tongue rather than speak up for his preferences, will be "seething inside, and eventually, it becomes obvious," Canter says.
Not surprisingly, money, sex and family often figure into the conflicts that divide travel partners. Differences over spending priorities and levels of expected comfort can arouse deep-seated resentment between friends and family members whose habits generally mesh seamlessly when they're home.
Therapists such as Canter say that when couples travel together, their expectations about how much sex they will have -- and where and when -- is a common, and avoidable, point of contention.
Talking about the sex you'll have on a trip may take some of the spontaneity out of the vacation, but it's important to share your hopes in advance, Canter says. Don't assume that a partner's libido will spring back with full force if it has been depressed, she adds. And if the trip follows a marathon of work for one partner, that workaholic may need a period of decompression before he or she is relaxed enough to enjoy a vacation romp, Canter says. And finally, for many travelers, having sex actually takes some planning: Couples traveling with kids may need to plan some "alone time" -- and maybe book an extra room.
Negotiating such details before a trip can help travelers enjoy their vacations more and avoid vacation dysphoria. "I always recommend a family powwow, where everybody sits down and makes a list of what they'd like out of a family vacation," says psychotherapist Wish. "Meeting people's needs is critical to removing stress from a vacation. You're never going to get 100 percent of what you want, but you can usually get some of it."
But compromise can take many forms. For many travel companions, the give-and-take may mean conceding the whole enchilada to a mate this vacation, and calling dibs on the next one, Wish says. Many therapists suggest that couples or groups vacationing together agree to split up for the day and come back together over dinner.
"We all need at times the experience of getting what we want," Canter says. "One of the problems is the idea that you have to spend every minute together or there's something wrong with your marriage or family life, and that's not OK. That's a myth and it doesn't help a relationship."
Melissa Healy writes for the Los Angeles Times.