Couples, beware!: The post-vacation period is upon us, and it’s the most dangerous time for relationships. Here’s why

Living together so closely over the summer brings chronic and unresolved conflicts to the fore. Active listening, empathy and personal validation are key skills for a happy union

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the set of 'The Sandpiper' in 1965. The couple got married and divorced twice.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the set of 'The Sandpiper' in 1965. The couple got married and divorced twice.Getty

Vacations are the most anticipated time of the year. They offer an escape from the drudgery of everyday life and provide a few brief moments of paradise. But they can also be a death trap for unhappy couples who use work, parent-teacher conferences, socializing and Netflix to numb their daily existence. When those activities temporarily recede into the background, all that’s left is an empty space that amplifies conflicts, deepens disputes and brings up old resentments.

Vacations are a litmus test for relationships: happy couples come back much stronger, while unhappy ones return home with battle scars. “In fact, there’s an old joke that says: ‘Did you have a good vacation, or were you with your family?’” says Raúl González Castellanos, a sexologist, educational psychologist and couples therapist at A la Par’s counseling and therapy department in Madrid. “It’s a difficult time. Problems that partners were keeping under their hats come to the fore; sometimes, they’re exacerbated by the presence of in-laws, which is always a delicate matter.”

People have considerably less tolerance for problems when they’re on vacation, where the expectation is that everything will be perfect. But, as Francisca Molero, a gynecologist and sexologist as well as the director of the Ibero-American Institute of Sexology and the president of the Spanish Federation of Sexology Societies, points out, “some new vacation trends are also conducive to fights or conflicts, for example, the RV trend: they’re very cramped, especially if you have children. Or take the case of a couple who came in for therapy. They were in their 40s, had two small children and split their chores 50/50, although they scheduled their free time separately, so each had their own space. He would go away for a week with his friends and she accepted it, although the idea made her a little angry. Generally, these things don’t work out because they’re only focused on their children and chores, not on their life as a couple.”

If a vacation has been a constant battle, couples can either go back home and wait for their routines and work to cover up the conflicts, or they can deal with those issues. “In reality, a very small percentage of people go to couples therapy, because there’s still a lot of reluctance,” says Miren Larrazabal, a clinical psychologist and sexologist as well as the president of the International Society of Sexology Specialists (SÍSEX). “Many couples come [to therapy] to receive last rites for their relationship, to confirm that their relationship has died and to split up with the blessing of a professional. Of course, therapists don’t advise or decide that; their job is to bring clarity to a situation, and the couple makes the decision. There are also those who admit that they don’t believe in therapy, but they’ve come because their partner has given them an ultimatum... Generally, these are men who’ve been dragged to therapy by women. And then there are those who really believe in us and think we can help them,” Larrazabal points out.

Therapy never fails. “It always works, whether because it has helped the partners recognize that they must end the relationship, and [therefore] it contributes to a less dramatic breakup, or because it assists the couple in finding better ways to relate to each other,” Francisca Molero says.

Generally, people come to therapy with complaints and problems that they’ve already identified and want to solve: a lack of sex, infidelities, loss of trust, etcetera. “Sometimes, those issues are not the ones we therapists would identify as the most pressing [concerns], but the couple decides what to prioritize; we plan everything out and agree on it with the two of them,” Molero explains.

Communication is essential, but it isn’t always easy when a relationship has deteriorated. “I always talk about the importance of oral sex in a relationship,” says Raul Gonzalez, “by which I mean the ability to verbalize our desires, complaints and concerns, as well as knowing how to listen to the other person’s. If communication is not the problem, then everything else is just difficulties.” In fact, as Larrazabal points out, “experiencing conflicts doesn’t make a couple who gets along well different from an unhappy one; having the skills to resolve them is the decisive factor. When we talk about skills, it’s important to note that they can always be learned. In therapy, we teach both cognitive and behavioral coping strategies, as well as communication and negotiation skills.”

In couples therapy, the most difficult thing to understand is that if you want to change the other person, you have to change yourself first
Esther Perel, Belgian psychotherapist

At this point, society, education and life have taught us how to blame another person; notice other people’s defects, while remaining blind to our own; and feel disappointed because our partner isn’t adept at the art of mindreading and fails to anticipate our desires. Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist and writer who specializes in couples therapy, has a YouTube video that’s well worth watching. In it, she recommends taking a different approach: “In couples therapy, the most difficult thing to understand is that if you want to change the other person, you have to change yourself first.” She suggests beginning by asking oneself: “Am I the partner I would like to be? Who have I been in my relationships so far? How have I presented myself?” She advises doing this instead of getting angry that the other person doesn’t measure up.

Francisca Molero agrees with this approach. She says that she always instructs her patients to keep a record of their partner’s positive behaviors and how they respond to the same. “Those daily gestures aren’t always appreciated, especially when there’s conflict. I think it’s important to work on eroticizing ‘good treatment’…to start realizing that warmth, care, affection, empathy and understanding are very sexy things… An Australian study published in the Journal of Sex Research shows that women experience higher levels of sexual desire when their partners share the housework.”

In addition to lacking the tools for managing problems, many couples make the mistake of setting their expectations for their partners too high. “We look for someone who does everything well: someone who’s a good lover, friend, partner and parent; somebody who’s attractive, who has a sense of humor, who’s the perfect travel companion. We look for eternal passionate love, and when that ends, we experience it as a major drama,” says Raúl González. Esther Perel’s video explains how couples have improved over the course of human history. What began as merely a union for the purposes of survival became a contract, and then an emotional relationship. We have made the concept of the ideal couple increasingly more sophisticated. “Today’s good relationships are the best ever, but there are very few of them,” says Perel.

So, what do unhappy couples complain about? What are their most common problems? According to Miren Larrazabal, the three most frequent issues in therapy are: “my partner doesn’t listen to me,” “s/he doesn’t understand me,” and “s/he doesn’t value me.” “Based on these complaints, active listening, empathy and personal validation are the key skills for a happy and lasting relationship,” she adds.

We also repeatedly hear the idea that you must enter a relationship having already done your homework, that is, you aren’t very needy, and you aren’t looking to the other person for salvation. That’s all true, but, as Perel argues: “I’m tired of that, of fixing yourself first and then starting a relationship, because it’s an interactive thing.” We grow as others help us to mature and recognize ourselves, and a good partner is a great tool for that. In contrast, staying in a relationship that has already run its course can lead a person “to a dull situation, in the best of cases, or even worse, to depression, anxiety or losing the will to live. That’s a very high price to pay, and it isn’t worth it,” Raúl González says.

Rita Abundancia is a journalist, sexologist and the creator of the website RitaReport.net.

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS