Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes the Fulfilment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.
Midlife brings with it the potential for even the best relationship to slide into a set of predictable routines. You’ve got your kids to deal with, piles of bills and housework, and worries and woes in such key areas of life as in-laws, community obligations, and even holiday planning. You and your partner would love to spend some quiet time together, but can’t imagine how you could afford either the time or money needed to do so.
Despite all the reasons why you can’t, Texas A&M’s Angelo Durko and James Petrick (2016) conducted research to show why can’t not afford to go somewhere with your partner. Testing a bold model using holiday satisfaction to predict relationship satisfaction, and in turn relationship commitment, the Texas researchers believed that the impact of vacations on relationships would be so strong that it would outweigh the role of psychological investment in the relationship, or the extent to which couples felt their relationship trumps all else in providing them with specific benefits and rewards.
Anyone who’s been on a holiday knows, obviously, that flight delays, traffic jams, and less-than-perfect hotels or other accommodations can you and your partner can offer comfort to one another. But think of the opposite: the less perfect the holiday, the more you and your partner discover each other’s hidden strengths. Who knew that your partner would be so resourceful at plugging a leaky faucet with a pair of eyebrow tweezers? What a creative genius!
Through an online survey of 472 adults, 74 per cent of whom were currently married and living together, the Texas A&M team investigated the network of relationships involving relationship satisfaction, satisfaction with the most recent vacation, investment in the relationship (who irreplaceable you think it is), attractiveness of alternatives to the relationship, and commitment.
The primary question of interest was whether holiday satisfaction would predict relationship satisfaction which, in turn, would predict commitment. Amount of psychological investment in the relationship and quality of alternatives were the two remaining predictors of commitment. The findings showed that the best fit to the questionnaire scores indeed came about I the direction of vacation satisfaction to relationship satisfaction and, in turn, to commitment. This led the authors to conclude: “travel enhances relationships”.
There are implications for travel marketers, as the authors point out: “the travel industry could learn from the red wine and dark chocolate industries, which utilised knowledge of their products’ inherent benefits… once touted as a guilty pleasure (like red wine and chocolate), travel could possibly be promoted … to include the benefits it has not only for an individual but for the couple’s relationship and their family”.
The kind of vacation that would seem to have the most benefit, then, is one that a couple actually enjoys. That frustrating airplane ride or crowded highway, if it is to be beneficial, should lead to a place where both partners feel they’re finally able to relax and have a good time. It’s also important, according to the authors, that the holiday be one that enhances how attracted the partners feel toward each other, rather than on alternatives to the partner: “vacations that present opportunities for individuals to fraternise with alternatives to their current significant other could likely decrease relationship commitment”.
We should keep in mind that couples weren’t being studied while on vacation, and that memory bias regarding a past vacation softened the harsher edges of what might not have been the perfectly satisfactory vacation. Indeed, cognitive dissonance would suggest that people retroactively rate an expensive vacation as more satisfactory than it was in order to justify the time and expense. Even so, what’s important isn’t what actually happened on a vacation, but how the vacation fit into the larger scheme of a couple’s life together. That delayed flight might seem funny in retrospect, or you might even forget that it was delayed at all.
Midlife’s many obligations can lead us to become so preoccupied that we forget the special ties that bind us to our partners. Taking a vacation together, even if it’s a small one, can be just the remedy you need to keep those ties strong and vital.