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The Healthy Traveler

Separate Vacations for Couples

January 09, 1994|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Linda Graham loves making quilts and learning new tips from others interested in the craft. Her husband, Scott Graham, has a passion for ski slopes and classic cars. Last April they went their separate ways--she to Paducah, Ky., for a 10-day quilt-making convention and he to a car rally in Cambria.

No, their 18-year marriage is not on the skids. Vacationing alone satisfies their personal needs, the Grahams have discovered, without threatening the state of their union. In fact, they say, it improves married life. "If I schlepped him to a quilt show, he would be moaning and groaning," she said. Likewise, she'd prefer sitting out a trip to even the most posh ski resort.

In addition to their separate treks, the Grahams also take vacations together--mostly within California, stealing away for long weekends to San Francisco, San Diego and Santa Barbara.

While separate vacations aren't for everyone, the number of couples who routinely vacation separately is small but growing, experts estimate. Yet even in the '90s, there is a social stigma. "People hear about separate vacations and think, 'Oh, the marriage must be on the rocks,' " said Constance Ahrons, a Santa Monica family therapist and USC professor of sociology.

To decide if separate is the way to go, couples should consider the pluses and minuses, therapists say. "What is important is the way the decision is reached by the couple and how comfortable they are," said Mathilda B. Canter, a Phoenix clinical psychologist.

One obvious plus, Ahrons said, is that partners can pursue their different interests.

But separate vacations can also help people define themselves as other than someone's wife or husband. "Marriage doesn't mean you spend 100% of your time together," said Peter A. Wish, a clinical psychologist in Framingham, Mass. "Everybody harbors a desire (at some time or another) to go away by themselves."

One East Coast woman with three children startled her husband by announcing plans to go on a hiking adventure trip, Wish recalled. The husband initially balked, but warmed to the idea after he felt comfortable that he could take adequate care of the kids and the house until she returned.

While such unilateral vacations work for some, therapists suggest couples might want to consider traveling simultaneously--if separately--to minimize resentment that one partner is playing while the other is working.

Vacationing alone can also provide partners with a crucial respite from the fine art of compromise. "A committed relationship involves a lot of compromise," said Ahrons. Often, vacation destinations are a trade-off: he goes to Hawaii this year, if she goes fishing the next. "Continual compromise doesn't work for very long," Ahrons said. "If someone keeps denying their needs, resentment can build."

"In a relationship, you can't be self-centered," Canter said. "But on a separate vacation, you can think about only yourself. You can't do that on a joint trip."

When she counsels divorcing couples, Ahrons often hears: "Finally, I get to take the vacation I want!" Yet some couples realize potential problems connected with continual compromise before it's too late. Ahrons recalls a couple who spent a week touring London museums and seeing theater, spurred by the wife's love of the arts. The husband had wanted a sports vacation, but accompanied his wife and ended up miserable. For the next vacation, the woman took an arts-oriented trip in the company of a woman friend while her husband went golfing. Both came back rested and happier.

When each partner goes a different way, "each brings back new stories and new experiences to share," Canter said. "You also have a chance to miss the person," she added, and that can certainly put differences in perspective.

One couple Canter knew combined the best of both worlds. Each picked a site to visit on their own and then met in an exotic place--Paris was a favorite--and traveled home together.

Of course, go-it-alone trips can pose drawbacks. "They can raise more problems than they solve," Canter admitted, especially if there is a lack of trust. Couples who strike out on their own are also missing out on the "couple time" that is valuable to building and maintaining intimacy.

Two separate trips can also put stress on the budget. "Money always enters into the decision," Ahrons said, especially if one partner takes an extravagant vacation and leaves insufficient funds for the other.

There is also the potential for worry--not just about infidelity but about accidents and health problems. To dispel such fears, couples should set up ground rules. "Talk about how often or if you will contact each other," Canter suggested. Not everyone feels the need. "We don't have ground rules," said Linda Graham. "We don't ask permission. But we do check in, asking each other, 'Have I been gone too much?' "

Certain separate vacations are more socially acceptable than others, therapists say. A woman going to a spa, a man going fishing, either visiting family members--none of these provokes much reaction. But if a partner goes off alone on a non-guided tour or on a bike trip with men and women, that's more daring--and often perceived as more threatening by the partner. "If a man goes away by himself, the natural tendency is to think the goal is to fool around," Wish said.

"Those who tend to go away (separately) either have a pretty secure marriage or not a very good marriage at all," Wish said.

But when it works, it works well. "Scott likes it that I have other interests," said Linda Graham, the West Los Angeles quilt maker. "When we spend time together, we are much happier because we have already done our own thing."

The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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