"We'd been dating for three challenging months, but the possibility that we'd share the trip of a lifetime—and fall madly in love on an island somewhere—was enticing."
By Molly Steele
"Travel with a partner can make or break a relationship," is the age-old adage we've all heard countless times. This summer, I decided to put the dictum to the test with an open-ended vacation through Europe, full of what I hoped would be a strengthening of bonds between me and my beau. We'd been dating for three challenging months, but the possibility that we'd share the trip of a lifetime—and fall madly in love on an island somewhere—was enticing.
However, our modes of living (and especially traveling) couldn’t have posed more of a problem. While I thrive off research and planning, he prefers spontaneity; discovering things by happening upon them. Could I spend the rest of my life with someone who approached things so fundamentally different from me? I needed to find out, and with our relationship on the fritz just days before taking off, the itinerary rested on things working out between us.
Traveling with anyone—be it a friend, family member or romantic partner—has always put me in a vulnerable place. I’m suddenly relying on someone to be a constant in a world of variables, and starting our two-month trip in London, my boyfriend and I arrived to a sort of “I thought you were doing the planning” face-off. But despite who neglected what, it seemed neither of us could agree on how to prioritize the endless list of options available to us.
Eventually we found ourselves on the coast of Northern Spain in San Sebastian. Like a storybook turbulent relationship, we spent our first few days swinging from fighting in public to holding hands, walking along the picture-perfect La Concha beach, which brought us back down to neutral.
It took a few days of R&R at the waterfront Hotel Londres to ground me, leaving our days open to be spontaneous. The hotel staff caught me up on hundreds of years of San Sebastian history,making a list of must-do’s in the area complete with step-by-step transit options so we didn’t have to waste a minute doing the research ourselves. Big weight off my shoulders, and less pressure on my boyfriend to be a planner.
Just steps from our seaside room and with Londres’ mango-colored beach towels in tow, we spent an unmentionable amount of hours crisping up on the shore. But while we caught up on rest—and reduced our conflicts to a minimum—we weren’t exactly embracing our open itinerary by keeping to one square mile. So after our 4.5- star coastal incubation, we rented a car, in search of a casa rural and some mountain time. We found a traditional Basque farmhouse AirBnb in Leorza that we shared with three new friends who were farming there.
Our host, a self-sufficient intellectual who raises donkeys, was an inspiration to both of us. The things I found impressive about him were the things that were lacking in my partner, which sparked a growing resentment and tension that made it hard to be light and present like I had been on the beach. I wanted my partner to be the intellectual farmer, eyes fixed outward on the world, instead of the solitary person I learned he was. I couldn’t smile through my teeth any longer as we watched each other both be lesser versions of ourselves.
Usually, I’m able to be fun and social, especially when traveling and getting to know new people. Under the stress of our conflict, I felt withdrawn while my boyfriend walked on eggshells trying to navigate sharing the space together. Finally, on our drive back to the city, we pulled over amongst farmland for an explosive unleashing of judgement. Hooray for our storybook vacation!
I expected the romance of Europe to bring us closer. I couldn’t have felt further away from romance.
I didn’t feel heard, looked after, or loved. I didn’t see my partner engaging in his surroundings or sharing the same curious and inquisitive nature that drives so many of my experiences while traveling. Was this really the person I wanted to spend my life traversing the world with?
We soldiered on. We rented a boutique guest house at the lovely Ibaia et Arramakwhere we were able to live and talk freely, imaging its inspiring, modern decor as our own home. The owner was ready with a list of the best local haunts to get the full pintxos social dining experience, and anything else we might need during our stay. The apartment came complete with everything we needed to make a home cooked meal— something that has always grounded both me and my boyfriend. The private patio on the river helped.
We used this time to reconnect with each other and detox from our conflicts by learning to cook a popular regional dish, pochas a la riojana. Having the chance to form a home-away-from-home seemed necessary to set the stage for getting back on track with each other. Unfortunately, as I worked overtime to plan our next stops and encourage constructive communication during our fights about these next stops, my energy began to wain. Ideally, my partner would have noticed this and stepped up to take some weight off my shoulders. Admittedly, at this point I was beginning to lose it. We both were. Not having any distance from each other for a shift in perspective or to clear our heads, it was obvious that continuing forward in this way was ruining everything good between us.
We soon became “that couple” avoiding eye contact and dialogue over a dinner table like there was an electric fence between us. Critiquing his every mistake didn’t pan out, and his defense was a great wall towering over me. I envisioned the type of time I wished we were having; often being too stubborn to manifest it, but too afraid to finish the trip on my own.
Thankfully, we arrived with little conflict in the small village of Fayence, France, for the one plan that had held us together on the trip so far: a pre-planned road trip in a 1978, fully-restored and charming VW van rental with 69 Campers. One thing he and I know how to do together is road-trip, and seeing him literally take the wheel felt promising.
In the back of my mind, and surely his, maybe this road trip through the French Alps and Cote d’Azur would bring us together again...and it did for a few days. Being autonomous with our own vehicle helped me regain some sense of control that I’d lost both in my relationship and myself. Our camper rental, called Margot, had a bed, fridge, sink, and privacy. Driving together, listening to our own music, and being out of the city and into the Alps allowed space for thinking and re-calibrating. It didn’t hurt that being on this adventure together in an incredibly eye-catching camper made us feel like something was going right. This was a chance to engage in bonding.
Even still, in what was easily the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, as we paddled a kayak through the alluring Lac de Sainte-Croix, I decided that this trip had not made us, like I had hoped. So with a new dark bronze tan, I took a step out of the cycle and admitted my concerns about the future of our relationship.
What followed was a sort of calm after the storm that quieted us with a silent sadness. The reality of the situation is that we should never have boarded that initial flight together with our relationship already in a rocky place. How could I expect my partner to be there for me in obscure situations in foreign countries, if he couldn’t be there for me back home? Still, I was banking on a beautiful growth between us; a spring into action. But when it came down to it, no hike through a gorge was going to save our sinking ship. No walking, talking, cooking, laughing was enough to hold our relationship together.
It took me traveling to another continent with him, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, to realize that we aren’t strong enough to handle change together. We learned so much about one another, ourselves, and unfortunately, our incompatibility.