Have Spouse, Will Travel
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Have Spouse, Will Travel

Weird bathrooms, bumpy plane rides, sex-pectation...Going on vacation with your spouse is a chance to feel a little like newlyweds again.
Stephen Fried

When you first start dating, people always tell you the biggest test of compatibility is going away together. And even long after you're married, that's still true. Since the first time Diane and I went away together (and broke one of the beds at the beach house we stayed in), we decided that an annual test of compatibility would be the perfect anniversary gift to each other. When you travel, you get the chance to become occasional strangers together; forced out of normal rituals, roles, and routines, almost anything can happen.

For example, on last year's trip, Diane had her first run-in with the "shoilet." We decided to take the train all the way from Chicago to L.A. Our first-class cabin on the historic Southwest Chief was supposed to have a bathroom. In reality, it came with a metal closet about as big as an upended coffin that served as both shower and toilet -- or, as we dubbed it, the "shoilet."

Given Diane's claustrophobia and her "stall-o-phobia" (fear of public restrooms), I felt certain right away that this was going to be a nightmare. Instead, every time she went in there she started laughing uproariously. She also talked to me from in there, which she would never do otherwise, expounding on the ingenious features like the sliding plastic window that protected the, um, "shoilet paper."

You think you know somebody ... but when you travel with them, sometimes you realize that even after 20 years together, you still have much to learn.

Yet while we often have such revelatory moments while traveling, Diane is still utterly impossible when I'm trying to plan the next excursion. Getting her to go on a trip is like trying to give a cat a bath. Except, in this case, once the cat finally gets into the bath, she promptly forgets all the screeching and clawing and starts to purr. And she can't understand why I'm still psychically scratched.

For most couples, one person is the designated travel planner while the other's job is to endlessly second-guess and complain. I've seen husbands and wives in both roles. (One friend admitted: "When I travel with the wife, she makes the arrangements; with the mistress, I make them.") And I'm always happy to commiserate with whoever has reservations about handling the reservations.

But at some point the unwilling spouse finally has to let go. Diane usually waits until the plane is heading down the runway. She would probably hold out longer but I'm a whiny, white knuckle flier and I need her support. My fear of flying is not theoretical. The first time I ever traveled with a girlfriend, our plane was hit by lightning and had to make an emergency, slam down landing -- heads between our knees, shoes removed -- at a remote Air Force base. The relationship didn't survive that flight or that trip. Diane, on the other hand, is immensely comforting through really scary situations. When the plane bounces around, she'll rub the inside of my wrist to calm me down.

Once we land, our excursions have a predictable rhythm. Wasted from flying, I turn completely cranky until we've actually succeeded in driving the rental car out of the airport complex and onto the highway. Then I'm fine until we get to the hotel, whereupon we always have one of those little "eye fights" -- you know how couples can argue without saying a word, just through blinking, gaping, scowling, and eye rolling -- because I never want to pay a bellhop to carry our bags. To Diane, traveling is all about bellhops. If she could, she'd have them carry her to the room on a litter.

As soon as a married couple is alone in a hotel room, there's an essential dynamic at play. With all the usual homebound impediments to having sex suddenly gone, what's your pleasure: tourism or the hotel bed, sunbathing or the double Jacuzzi, fancy restaurant or room service. For at least one spouse -- or, if you're lucky, for both -- sex (or lack thereof ) hovers over many vacation decisions. So just like the relationship-movie conceit where you get the awkward first kiss over with before starting the first date, I say make good use of that hotel bed within the first 24 hours at any cost. Then you're both on the same page (and, if she hates Coral World, it's just because she hates Coral World).

As the trip progresses, Diane is better able to surrender to the vacation I "forced her to go on" than I am. I'm envious. She has no problem turning off her cell phone and ignoring e-mail, while I get the D.T.'s (digital tremens) if I'm disconnected for too long. She is also more relaxed about money when we travel. At home she is not a big shopper or splurger -- that's generally my job. On vacation she is more comfortable spending. In fact, she'd order gum from room service if she could. Yet about halfway through a trip I start getting uptight about money and find myself trying to economize in what I hope are small, inconspicuous ways: undertipping or scouring the dinner menu for that fine $11 bottle of Bulgarian chardonnay. Often Diane doesn't even notice. When she does, she'll turn to me and say, "What, you want to start saving money now?" Sometimes the best thing a spouse can do is help you snap back into unreality.

Over the years we've survived the Bermuda Triangle on a teeny cruise ship, wrong-side-of-the-road driving in several foreign countries, a bus tour of a nuclear testing site and, of course, three days on a train with a "shoilet." But it's the tiny moments of travel-induced impetuousness that I treasure most. A series of four shots of Diane from our first trip to the Grand Canyon hangs on my office wall. In the gift shop of the grand hotel next to the canyon, I saw a toy cowboy holster with six-shooters that reminded me of childhood pictures of Diane dressed in her Bat Masterson outfit. So I got them and photographed Diane putting them on and twirling them. Her look of sheer surprise and regressive joy is still infectious.

It is the look that I remind myself is possible every time we sit down and start planning another trip.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2007.