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When traveling together is a rocky road to dissension

February 09, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

In the wonderfully funny and touching 1967 movie "Two for the Road," Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, playing accidental travel companions who fall in love, see a couple fresh from the altar.

"They don't look too happy," she says.

"How could they? They just got married," he replies.

As a people-watcher, especially when I'm on the road, I often see couples arguing or sitting together in frosty silence.

"The pattern of fights on vacation is definitely a reality," says Susan Heitler, a Denver clinical psychologist and author of "The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage." "It happens more often than most would wish."

Some couples who are either lucky or blessed with relationship skills never exchange a harsh word on vacation. When Sharon and Stanley Joffe of Tarzana returned last summer from a yachting vacation on the Italian Riviera, they agreed that "the best thing about the trip was that we didn't argue," she says. On an earlier Las Vegas vacation with friends, though, things were different. One couple argued so much that the group took to referring to them as the Bickersons.

Couples who leave the stress of daily life behind can find a trip deeply renewing. Or it can be a nightmare in which bothersome personality traits are magnified and the issues that plague a relationship at home are simply played out in a new context. Jennifer and Robert Morris of Overland Park, Kan., don't argue more on vacation than at home, but the vacation arguments that do crop up (especially on long car trips) seem worse because "we're more confined," Jennifer says. "There's no getting away from it."

To make matters more difficult, travel requires people to face decisions all along the way. This sets the stage for conflict, which can be positively resolved or can lead to fighting, depression, anxiety or addictive behavior, Heitler says.

Travel agent Tama Taylor Holve, the owner of Willett Travel in Studio City, often sees the seeds of dissension between partners as they sit in the office perusing brochures.

Holve maintains that careful planning is the key to avoiding arguments that start because of decisions that need to be made: Make your decisions before leaving home, she says, and your travel agent will carry them out. "It takes the pressure off," she says.

A well-planned week in Paris, Holve says, can satisfy even those who have opposing travel habits.

If he likes to wing it but she intends to greet every day with a sightseeing list, he can have Tuesday and Thursday to wander, she Wednesday and Friday to make sure she doesn't go home without seeing Montmartre and Sacre Coeur.

West L.A. psychotherapist Marion Solomon, the author of "Narcissism and Intimacy: Love and Marriage in an Age of Confusion," thinks couples should plan trips together, if only to avoid a situation in which one person does all the organizing and the other does all the complaining.

Talking about travel is most productive when each person pays attention to what the other wants, Solomon says.

But arguments arise even when people with well-honed communication skills set off on masterfully planned trips.

I e-mailed Joyce Tapper, who travels widely, often internationally, with her husband, Larry, to find out what they argue about when they're away from their Van Nuys home. "How much time do you have?" she messaged back.

The fight list is endless. He wants to get there; she wants to noodle around.

She makes all the decisions; he caves in and plays the martyr.

She talks too much, which embarrasses him.

He wants a room with a better view, but she hates to complain.

She can't read a map; he won't ask for directions.

She wants to have a nice, deep talk about the relationship while driving to Las Vegas, which makes him want to leap out of the moving car.

As innocuous as some of these subjects for dissension may sound, they can underscore behavior patterns that are useful to notice. For instance, disagreements about directions might suggest more fundamental issues between partners about control. Some couples have enough savvy to recognize this and live with it. "They talk it through, have a good laugh and come up with a plan," Heitler says.

Much worse, I suspect, are the bitter ongoing arguments from home that people take on vacation. Some hope they can be resolved; others don't even know the conflicts are in the baggage.

"People expect their vacations are going to be magic," says Mathilda B. Canter, a clinical psychologist in Phoenix. "But if the relationship is in trouble, getting away may not take care of it."

In "Two for the Road," the Hepburn-Finney couple takes a road trip through France. Their marriage is in such trouble that nothing can make them as happy as they were just a few years before on another French vacation. On that earlier trip, their car blew up in front of a chateau, leaving them stuck, cash-strapped but still very much in love.

The movie has a happy Hollywood ending. In real life, people have to work harder for theirs, follow and take directions, listen, negotiate, care.

But it's worth it, especially on the beach in Maui or the slopes in Vail, Colo., when they, too, can look at each other and realize they're still in love.

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