Can taking a vacation save your marriage?

By Caitlin Kelly

Americans have a great expression — one I never knew growing up in Canada — the “hail Mary pass”, the final-few-seconds of a football game when someone makes the game-winning pass.

I love all the things it encapsulates, and that so-American notion that you can always, somehow, even at the very last desperate minute, save the day from ignominy and disaster.

As if!

Marriage (Photo credit: Lel4nd)

Here’s a funny/sad New York Times story about couples heading off on vacations in the hope they’ll save their relationships or marriages:

The humorist Dan Greenburg insisted on taking his wife, Nora Ephron, on an African photo safari in 1972, even though she said they would probably split. When they returned home, she asked for a divorce.

“But I took you to Africa!” he said.

Yes, she said, it was a wonderful time. But she still wanted a divorce.

Harriet Lerner, a psychologist and author of “Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up,” said she has noticed an increase in patients taking such “save-cations” in the last few years. She links the rise of these trips to belt-tightening in the wake of the Great Recession.

“A divorce can be much worse economically than going away for a few days together,” said Dr. Lerner, who is based in Lawrence, Kan.

This piece really hit a nerve for me, having had two of these, both ending in tears and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.


In January of 1994, my then-husband and I flew to Thailand for a three-week vacation. It was, still one of the best experiences of my life — spectacular scenery, kind people, delicious food, even a terrifying/exciting mo-ped trip to the Cambodian border. R and I always traveled well together and were able to enjoy ourselves anywhere.

But he was clearly heading for the exit — barely two years into our marriage.

English: Mae Hong Son, a capital of the Mae Ho...
English: Mae Hong Son, a capital of the Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand Русский: Город Мэхонгсон, административный центр одноимённой провинции (Таиланд) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As our plane took off from Mae Hong Son, a town so small and rural that a woman stood beside the runway on her bicycle, I started sobbing as if — it was — my heart would break.

“I’ll never be here again,” I snuffled.

What I really knew, deep in my heart, was — not with you.

My first post-divorce boyfriend, a hottie, (with the same first name as the husand, hmmmmm), was everything my marriage had been missing and, on the re-bound, I fell deeply in love.

Mistake! He was deeply ambivalent about anything permanent, and his Jewish parents weren’t thrilled he was dating someone named Kelly.

He dumped me, then came back. We had a glorious summer, and then a romantic, lovely weekend in Martha’s Vineyard in September. Then he dumped me again.


Gentlemen — ladies —!

If you really pretty much already know you’re only going to break someones’s heart into tiny little shards, do not mislead them first with some misguided notion you’re letting them down easy by taking them to a gorgeous spot that only encourages fantasies of a shared future.

Have you ever tried this tactic?

How did it turn out?

31 thoughts on “Can taking a vacation save your marriage?

  1. No, I never have had that experience, Caitlin. I have actually spent very little time away from my husband but the few times I have have been good for me because it reinforces the fact that I am a separate person and have my own life. There is a friend of mine on a 4 week overseas vacation, sans husband and I almost can’t believe she would be gone that long. But people have different needs in a marriage and whatever works for them is nobody’s business.

  2. Jose and I love taking vacation together, but I’ve also gone off on my own — I went for three weeks to London, Malta and Tunisia in June 2003 when I finished my first book and for a month last June to Ontario and then Vermont. We miss one another but are always happy to come home with new stories.

  3. Yes, but it was me who leave in the end. We went to the South of France for our last chance, and there, I realized I couldn’t live with him anymore. But to be honest, I knew, before going on vacation, this would be our last test.

    1. It’s difficult, for me, to be back in a place with bad memories. I returned this year to the Grand Canyon, and loved it, but it was difficult because the last time I was there — alone — the night I returned my husband left for good. This trip overlaid it with happy thoughts.

  4. mhasegawa

    I travelled with an ex because it was a planned trip before I understood how bad things were. It wasn’t a terrible trip, but I think he didn’t enjoy himself as much as I did. We were on and off for the next few years, but in the end it ended.

  5. I hadn’t put it together but when I think about it, yes, I guess I have had one of these. Truthfully though, I thought I’d stick it out for the long haul and the vacation was a means of trying to cope with that decision by forcing some space between us and our respective families. I had made a promise to love and spend my life with someone who truly startled me after the wedding by showing another layer of himself that I had never glimpsed during the five year courtship. When I think back on it, to be honest, we were both under a lot of strain to live up to expectations and be the young adults our parents were demanding us to be. The marriage became another set of pressures and burdens for us both, and had no real chance of survival.

    Now, however, after 15 years with my “real” husband, I can say that we have yet to take a vacation. We’ve done some weekend trips with the kids but we’ve never gone on holiday alone together. You’re post has left me wondering about that… in a good way!

    1. I hear you on that first marriage…And how sad and scary it is when someone changes that much.

      Jose and I took our first vacation together (too much, too soon for me) barely three months into knowing one another. We went to NM, where he is from, for 10 days. We almost broke up…but after we relaxed, we had a great time. We learned a lot about one another, quickly!

      1. I posted this morning on an event in home ownership that says a lot about my marriage now: nothing says ‘I love you’ more to my husband than joining him on an adventure of snaking drains. 🙂

      2. Indeed!

        Jose and I are spending a few hours today packing everything in newspaper and boxes as we prep for full kitchen/pantry reno. He loves doing projects together.

  6. as you mentioned, vacations remove all of the distractions // what remains is often either a bland/stale layer of relationship after all of the dressings are removed –or– something even more delicious when simplified. i experienced the latter recently (hallelujah!) when my boyfriend & i went on vacation together for the first time. all of the stress of work, etc. was gone, & we were left to connect on a deeper level. i’ve also experienced the ugly side of this as well. it’s interesting how vacations can reveal more about each other’s character, or at least, the character we are in that relationship.

    1. It’s a little scary, though, no? You just don’t know what to expect of the other person…will they be a whiner? Resilient? Determined to see and do everything by noon?

      Jose was freaked when we got to Taos and I suddenly bought and started wearing a tie-dye tank top, NOT at all my NY persona. But there’s a hippie in me that longs to get out. He was fine with it after that initial surprise.

  7. Ugh, yes! The ex and our last ditch attempt at plastering over the cracks. His cousin’s wedding surrounded by his entire extended family cracking unsubtle jokes about who would be next, closely followed by the couples’ camping trip from Hades at a folk music festival. This was essentially an extended double date in adjoining tents. We had his parents’ old bright orange Force 10 (in which despite the central pole, he delighted in telling everyone, he had allegedly been conceived some twenty six years earlier). As if this wasn’t bad enough for general levels of awkwardness, for once the British summertime was hot and sunny. Refusing to wear sensible clothing for the weather, he got heatstroke and kept throwing up. I think his best friend must have thought I’d poisoned him. Things went from bad to worse when his friend’s pseudo-hippy girlfriend attempted to shave her legs in the back of their car (his friend’s pride and joy) parked in a gridlocked field and bled all over the seats. She needed stitches to stop the bleeding. The other couple had a row about acceptable levels of personal comfort while camping during the limp to the medi-tent, then he hid her razor, which sparked another minor spat and a lot of sulking. Any attempts to engage our other neighbours in any kind of conversation were worse than futile, as while they must all have thought us insane by that point, their monosyllabic replies to my small talk resulted in a lot of jealous storming off and yet more vomit. Towards the end of the trip, the four of us had forsaken further pretence and were simply avoiding each other, going on long walks in opposite directions and dreading the return journey on a packed train. I still have a pair of very dangly handmade earrings I bought at that festival. They have a runic inscription that is supposed to bring the wearer both luck, happiness and common sense. Whenever I look at them they remind me – never, ever do anything similar again!

    1. Oh. Dear. God.

      This is really funny — but what hell to live!!!!!

      Reminds me of a canoe trip (twice this happened) with a guy I was dating…who ran (ran?! wtf?) the portages carrying the canoe but forgot to bring an axe or other necessary tools. He made fun of me when I worried (realistically) about hears…Gah. It was a LONG silent 4-hour drive home, then a break-up.

  8. Not sure what it says about us, but Kaz and I always got along best while on vacation, whether the East Coast (D.C.), Joshua Tree, San Francisco. When it was just us, without the pressures and push-pull of domestic life, surrounded by friends and family, out of everything that is (and isn’t) L.A., we were just so relaxed and easy-going. We had some of our best conversations in those long car rides. Going back to those places alone was a big deal the first year without him. I think going on vacation with someone you love is the best ever. You certainly do learn a lot about the other.

    My sister and her husband got married on their vacation to Greece. 🙂

    1. I LOVE long road trips with Jose. We actually look forward to our visits to Canada and the 8-10 hour drive from NY to Ontario. We really have a chance to catch up, to listen to music, to talk about a lot of things, not just the daily administration of life — bills, groceries, etc.
      One of his travel habits is the “toes up” — a mid or late-afternoon nap or a chance to recharge before heading out for the evening.

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