Why we fight on vacation (and how to stop the madness)
Summer travel: It’s something we think longingly about all winter long — even more so after sticking close to home for more than two years. We daydream about possible trips and plan meticulously with loved ones. Wherever we go, we expect to frolic and eat delicious things and have the best, most relaxing, most edifying time ever.
Yet, inevitably, there is a moment in which things do not work out quite as expected.
You scream at your kids, who can’t look away from their screens, that you didn’t spend money on a beach house for this. You and your partner, who somehow manages to lose his phone on the way from airport check-in to the gate, end up hashing out the darkest details of your relationship in front of a bunch of strangers, who look away, having been there themselves. Or maybe you and your friends, after a drunken night in Cancún that turns very, very bad, fly home silently together, not sure if you’ll ever speak again.
First things first: Breathe. This is totally normal.
“I don’t know a single person who this doesn’t happen to at some point,” says Dr. David Austern, clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “I have 100% had adult tantrums at Disney.”
I have 100% had adult tantrums at Disney.
— Dr. David Austern
Yelling at each other on vacation is a panic response coded into our DNA. It’s connected with the amygdala, a part of our brains involved with processing fear, which perceives not just physical threats but emotional and psychological ones, says Dr. Antoinette Gupta, a psychologist based in Orange County. When we don’t feel like we’re getting what we need from loved ones, we sense that we don’t matter to them, that they’re not there for us. That causes physical distress as well as behaviors and emotions intended to help with our self-preservation, from withdrawing to attacking.
In a way, vacation is a prime moment for this because your expectations are high and your frustration tolerance is low, notes Austern. You might be somewhere relaxing and beautiful, but “you’re out of your normal routine. You might be in a different time zone, your circadian rhythms might be off, and that tends to mess with executive functioning. We are pulled in so many directions, especially on a group trip.”
While the logical part of the brain might otherwise quiet the amygdala when it comes to minor frustrations, now, “It takes control and tells your body you’re in danger, and we get amped up … even if it’s just that the phone isn’t connecting to the car.”
“When we talk about emotions on the anger/frustration continuum, usually cognitively there’s a gap between what we think we want to happen and what is happening,” adds Austern, who brings up the Griswolds arriving at Walley World in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” only to find that the park is closed for renovations. His plans destroyed, Clark, the patriarch of the family, snaps, and things veer completely off the rails, going from vacation daydream to vacation nightmare.
No one wants that. Here’s what to do instead.
Before you go: Share expectations and prepare for unknowns
Of course you should communicate. But not just about logistics and getting to the airport on time.
Tamika Lewis, CEO and founder of the Los Angeles–based WOC Therapy Inc., recently vacationed in Thailand with her 11- and 13-year-old children. “Everyone had to do their own research and have their own idea of what they wanted to experience,” she says. For her, that meant going to temples; for her daughter, there was a plan to visit Terminal 21, a shopping center in Bangkok; for her son, a tuk-tuk ride. “Be really clear about what everyone wants to do and feel. Where people get into trouble is when those conversations don’t happen.”
Recently, for instance, Lewis, also a licensed social worker, went on a trip with a group of women in Sedona, Ariz., in which “everyone [had] a different idea of what they wanted to experience” (for some, a wine-infused mom getaway; for others, a time of sober grounding). “The problem was that we had never established the intentions for this trip. We had to sit down and reset expectations. It was a little rocky.”
“Assess what other people’s values are and set expectations,” adds Austern, who recently took a trip to the Berkshires in Massachusetts with his wife — the first time they’d gone away together without their twins. “We did not step foot on a trail,” he says. “We just drove to different towns and went antiquing. For us that was great, but we talked about it upfront: Is that OK, are you hoping to climb some mountain? No? Good.”
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If differences emerge at the planning stage of your trip, you can work on figuring out compromises, decide if there will be parts of the trip where you go off on your own and let others do the same or, if there’s no way to compromise, determine that maybe this isn’t the trip to go on at all.
Walley World might, in fact, be closed! Call ahead if you can (especially, says Austern, in COVID times); buy advance tickets to anything that might sell out; check on what the weather might be. And “if you can tell yourself, ‘This vacation does not hinge on one experience going exactly the way I’m hoping it will,’ that will probably manage some possible disappointment that could come later,” he adds.
If you can tell yourself, “This vacation does not hinge on one experience going exactly the way I’m hoping it will,” that will probably manage some possible disappointment.
— Dr. David Austern
“I knew we were coming during the rainy season,” Lewis says of her trip to Thailand. “But I did a great deal of research, planning activities and anticipating roadblocks, like the weather.”
To alleviate stress, Lewis also prearranged airport pickup and booked a few prepackaged experiences, like that tuk-tuk tour. Perhaps the most important plan of all was “preparing workwise, tying up loose ends and giving myself permission to be with my kids and unplug,” she says. “When you are away with the people you love, you want to be able to mentally be there and enjoy the time.”
In the heat of the moment: Pause and reflect
When agitation starts to rise, in addition to using relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation, it’s useful to remove yourself briefly from the situation so you can calm down and regulate. This can be tricky if you’re in a car or small hotel room, recognizes Austern, but you can always say, “Let’s pause this, I need to calm myself down,” or, if your traveling companion notices you’re getting upset, they might intervene with something like, “Do you want to take a breath and we’ll come back?”
“When a person withdraws, it’s not because they don’t care, it’s because they’re overwhelmed,” says Gupta, who urges empathy with regard to your partner, whether they take a fighting or freezing stance. “All of these things are built up over time, and then something happens at the airport, one person loses their boarding pass or you’re late.” Suddenly, we jump to our perceptions of “I don’t matter to you” or “I’m trying my best.”
In those moments of reaction, recognize what you’re doing, step back and take a break. When you and your partner agree you’re both ready, go back and talk about it, openly and with vulnerability.
Lewis adds that it’s helpful to take the position of observer rather than critic, especially when annoyances begin cropping up. If you can stay out of the judgment zone, you can avoid unnecessary nitpicking that leads to fights.
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“We went to this beautiful waterfall in Chiang Mai,” she says, “And there were insects, really big insects. My kids would not walk past; they are such Valley kids! I was so frustrated. But I had to be mindful of their sensitivity and let it go. And you know, the day was still amazing!”
After the fight: Don’t beat yourself up
“You’re not going to prevent your primal panic from exploding, but the reason you have all this is you care about your family,” says Gupta. So be kind to yourself and your loved ones. Everybody fights; everybody makes mistakes.
“In the world that I want to live in, it’s OK to have an adult tantrum occasionally,” says Austern. “It’s just humanity that is going to pop up from time to time.”
Unfortunately, not every fight is going to end with everyone hugging and making up, even if you do step back and try to reconnect afterward. But you still have options. “If you’re feeling a certain way toward certain people, know that you can validate that: I do feel this way, this is true,” says Gupta.
Even if the other party isn’t interested in changing, you can be accountable and take care of yourself. One way to do that is setting boundaries, like limiting vacations with that person.
On the vacation: Remember why you’re there
Perfection isn’t possible, and it’s probably not why you’re vacationing together, notes Lewis. So take it off the table, and instead pursue fellowship, curiosity or just spending time together, however that pans out.
“Focus on ‘Why am I doing this thing right now?’ rather than ‘How did it go?’” suggests Austern. “What made people decide it was meaningful to go to a lake house with that group? What sort of relationship/leisure values do you want to connect with? It says something about what matters to you; try to remember that.”
When in doubt, remember that spending time with people you care about and relishing the authentic, messy glory of the experience is a gift.
“It could be that a vacation doesn’t lead to happiness or relaxation at all, but it’s still incredibly meaningful to put yourself in that environment with those people,” says Austern. “The more we can emphasize that, the better.”
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