It’s safe to say that you could use a vacation in the not-so-distant future. Perhaps a beach-side escape filled with sandcastles, sunscreen, baskets of boardwalk french fries, and small hands covered in melted ice cream. Or maybe a road trip where you cruise from the St. Louis Arch to South Dakota’s Badlands, enjoying plenty of time at hotel pools along the way.
Sounds like bliss, right? But before you get to the fun part, you have to plan the vacation with your partner. That entails decisions, competing expectations, and constraints you probably didn’t see coming. If you’re not careful, planning a family getaway can become another source of the stress you’re trying to escape.
Family vacations involve a lot of choices. On top of deciding where to go and when, you’ll need to set a budget, figure out how to get there, and choose activities. It’s also important to figure out your parenting roles on the trip — like managing those inevitable breakdowns after a long day. It’s not unrealistic that you’ll experience some tension with your partner.
Now, even if navigating tense moments isn’t your favorite thing, remember: A bit of stress now is a whole lot better than a blowout on a trip that’s supposed to be fun and relaxing or bringing back bitterness and resentment because not everyone got what they wanted on the trip.
“If you don’t plan ahead, you could spend your vacation having preventable arguments, but they’ll probably escalate because you’ve using PTO and paying to enjoy your time,” says Samantha Kingma, a marriage and family therapist at Rest and Renew Therapy. “It may not be relationship destroying, but it could make your day at the beach a lot less enjoyable.”
To circumvent any issues that might arise during the vacation planning stage, you can do yourself a big favor by avoiding these common trouble areas. They can take any unnecessary stress out of the equation —and, just as importantly, protect your relationship from potential conflict.
1. Failing to identify your expectations
Every plan you make comes with expectations, which reflect you and your partner’s various values, beliefs, opinions, and goals. For example, if you value relaxation on vacations, you’ll envision a different trip than someone who cares more about art and architecture.
Because your vacation plans are usually connected to something a lot deeper, it’s easy to get bitter when things don’t go as you envisioned. The key, according to Sarah Rattray, a couples psychologist and CEO of the Couples Communication Institute, is taking time to identify your expectations before talking them through with your partner. What is your ideal vacation? Where will it be? How long will it be? What activities do you want to enjoy? What’s the price range? That way, you can take both parties’ values into account in the planning process and make sure neither person feels slighted or disappointed by the outcome of the trip.
2. Failing to check your expectations
While expectations do play a big role in decision-making, that’s not to say all expectations are realistic or fair. For example, it’s probably not realistic to expect your toddler will be able to spend all day at Disneyland without a nap and a breakdown or to think your preschooler won’t get bored lounging around at a hotel all day.
The takeaway: Before you bring your expectations to the table, make sure they’re realistic. You can still make these choices if they’re valuable to you, Kingma says, but make sure you’re prepared to take responsibility for the possible outcomes. (If, say, Disneyland with your two-year-old is a non-negotiable for you, then it’s only fair you quarterback the tantrums.)
3. Planning too much at once
A family meeting is a great way to make sure you and your partner are on the same page about expectations and to start planning the details of your trip. But attempting to accomplish too much in one sitting only increases the odds of a conflict. Rattray suggests saving yourself from tension and breaking up the planning into a few sessions (especially if you reach a stuck point in your discussion).
“You’ll be most successful focusing on one piece of the vacation at a time rather than trying to tackle the whole picture,” she says. And even if things get heated, remember Kingma’s suggestion: Working out your conflict ahead of time reduces the chance of stress on your much-needed vacation.
4. Not deciding who does what
One partner feeling like they’re doing more than the other is a surefire path to resentment. Just as you and your partner likely have unique skills in parenting and tasks around the home, you each bring different skills to the table in planning a vacation. Likewise, certain aspects of planning might take a bigger toll on you than your partner and vice versa.
After you lay out your expectations for the trip and decide what’s most important to you, Kingma suggests delegating what you and your partner will do. For example, if detail-oriented tasks like choosing a hotel and booking a rental car aren’t your strong suit, leave those jobs up to your partner. And if your partner’s not a fan of scoping out restaurants or activities, you can take that on. Decide ahead of time what decisions need to go past each other before making anything final. Either way, your vacation will feel a lot more enjoyable if you split the mental labor both ways.
5. Involving kids in the process too soon
If your kids are old enough to contribute ideas to the trip, you can certainly ask them about their expectations. But before you do that, make sure you and your partner are on the same page about goals and expectations. “Bringing in the kids too soon can complicate an already messy decision-making process,” says Kingma.
And if you do decide to ask your kids what they’d like to do on a vacation, keep in mind they might say they want to go to outer space or Antarctica. It may help to provide choices that reflect your and your partner’s values. For example, if you’ve already decided to go on a beach vacation, ask your kid to help choose the beach toys you pack, and if you’re going out to eat, offer two restaurants to choose from.
6. Being too rigid
Throughout the process, compromise will be crucial. Do your best to meet your partner in the middle when it comes to expectations and planning duties. And just as you would in any other domain of your life, try to err on the side of generosity.
“For example, if your partner lets you know they value relaxing on a vacation, even if you don’t, let them know it makes sense to you and be sure to find ways to help your partner have that time,” says Rattray.
A vacation is a big investment of both time and money, and it’s totally understandable you’d want your big trip to reflect your values — but having things your way isn’t worth the potential conflict, or feeling like your partner resents you on a trip that’s supposed to be relaxing and fun for everyone.
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