Four Tips to Stop Arguments Before They Start: Travel Edition

Summer vacation season is here!.  Maybe you have a road trip, cruise, or flight to an exotic locale planned.  Vacations involve a break in the routine, high stress of deadlines and flight times, and all that extended time spent with our loved ones: a perfect recipe to set us on edge.  It can be easy to use harsh words to those around us, feel anger or frustration at not being heard, or end the trip wishing we hadn't come.

I know this from personal experience: when you’re in the middle of a fight on a vacation, it's difficult to snap back into a relaxed, vacation-ready mood.  What are the things we can do that will help us to snap back into that mindset?

Preparing for a trip in a way that prevents arguments before they even start can help you avoid these travel-related spats with your loved ones.

John Gottman, an expert on healthy couples, suggests that we can learn from past arguments in order to prevent those same fights from happening in the future.  Gottman focuses on the way we argue: how our tone of voice, personal triggers, and ways of responding when feeling threatened can take over.

Instead of finding yourself in reactionary mode during your entire vacation, take a few ideas from the list below before you leave for your trip to practice a more preventative approach.

Reflect on arguments you’ve had on vacation before and look for any trigger events.

How many times have you thought back on an argument and forgotten what started it?  It could’ve been about something as trivial as which fast food restaurant to stop at for lunch or which route to take.  But before you know it, it’s blown up into a huge dispute that highlights your insecurities or fires up anger in you.

Your strong emotional reaction in these situations may be linked to something deeper than the relatively minor event that started the fight.  It serves as a red flag of a trigger: an event that reminds you of something from your past or present to which you are particularly sensitive.  It could be that your spouse raising her voice reminds you of when your father used to yell at you and your siblings on family camping trips.  This memory can lead to feelings of fear or anger.  Perhaps your friend’s sharp words about your driving remind you of your own insecurities around your skill as a driver.  This trigger could be driven by shame or self-protection.

What are some common triggers for you?  Take some time to reflect back on past arguments you’ve had on vacations and how you felt in the midst of them.  When did something similar happen on a past vacation with family or friends?  Did you notice any shame or insecurity coming up that you felt you had to defend?  What stories in your life explain why you might be sensitive to certain issues?

Have a conversation with your travel partner about past arguments you’ve had on trips. 

Once you’ve explored your triggers in travel situations, you can more clearly communicate them to others.   Before you leave for the trip you’re going on, answer these prompts based on Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight intervention with your travel buddy.

  1. “When we argued last trip, I felt…” – List the emotions you felt.

  2. “In my experience, what happened was…” – Imagine you’re watching a movie of the event from your point of view. What happened?

  3. “This was particularly hard for me because of…” – Explain the trigger: the past event or the experience of shame that led to your response and why you were particularly sensitive to it.

  4. “The part I played in this was…” – Name something you can take responsibility for: maybe you responded with anger and defensiveness, or you shut down emotionally.

  5. “Next time, what I can do….and what I need is…” – Identify a change you’d like to make the next time you disagree, as well as a change you’d like to ask of your partner.

While practicing this exercise, use the authentic communication formula and responses in order for both of you to feel heard and understood.  Remember – the goal isn’t to get back into arguing: it’s to understand what can set each of you off so you can know to avoid those trigger points on future trips.

Have an open conversation about expectations for the trip and come to a compromise.

We each bring our personal expectations into vacations.  For example, a husband might see the trip as a way to relax and check out of his daily life.  But his wife might look at it as an adventure and pack in as much fun and activity as she can.  Imagine this couple vacationing without having discussed their expectations first, and you can guess what might happen.

To fend off this potential disaster, talk with your loved ones about your hopes or expectations for this vacation.  Be open to compromise.  For the couple above, they could plan two day-long excursions in their vacation locale throughout the week, while reserving one day for relaxing on the beach.  You may not have the ideal vacation you had desired, but you can create a plan that cuts back on conflict and caters to everyone's ideas of fun.

Accept the fact that you will fight – and make a plan to recover and bring yourself back to fun!

Even if you understand what triggers your travel buddy and you do all the prevention you can, in reality you may still fight while you are on the trip.  Travel is high stress – there’s no getting around it. 

Instead of being surprised by fights, make a plan now for how to recover from those arguments.  You can use the above conversation prompts on the trip if needed, but it can also be helpful to remind yourself of the ways you have fun together.  Make a joke with your spouse.   Play a game with your friends in the car or on your iPhones (a friend and I tried the Heads Up! App on a trip and it was a game-changer for waiting in lines).  Create a music playlist with your family and have 30-second dance parties.

What can you plan to start now to prevent arguments on your vacations this summer?

At Restored Hope, I know that relationships are tricky, and clear communication can be the trickiest.  As you prepare for your vacations this summer, you might find that none of the ideas listed above seem probable.  You could be struggling to understand how you get triggered in these arguments.  Or  it's possible the conflict with your spouse is so tense that having a civil conversation about expectations feels like it will end in an explosion.  If these stories ring true, I’d love to help.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based counseling office where I use principles from Gottman Method Couples Therapy to help foster authentic and loving relationships, romantic or otherwise.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me today.