I don’t believe anyone can truly know the inner workings of a couple from the outside. But I’m confident that if you happened upon me and my husband, Will, on a typical day, in our ordinary-but-hectic lives, you’d assume we hated each other.
You would have almost been sure of our disdain for one another if you had heard us last Thursday around 8.15 am when were were arguing about whose turn it was to clean up the abomination outside our door (a fox had ravaged one of our bin bags, again).
I’ll admit it: I’m not always the best version of myself in moments of tension, chaos and intense time-pressure. This is unfortunate as it sums up much of our parenting lives with four children, who are aged between six and 13.
Sometimes my personality could benefit from a filter to tone down the sarcasm and impatience in my everyday dealings with my spouse. But, after two decades of friendship and 13 years of marriage, I continue to love my husband fiercely. And that is not only because he’s a pro at unsexy admin stuff that zaps my emotional energy, such as passport renewals and loading up the car on family holidays.
Yet when we cross paths day-to-day, it can sometimes feel like we’re two disgruntled employees desperately in need of a break. Even the oft-touted remedy for busy couples needing time together, “the night-out dinner date”, no longer does the trick quite like it used to.
Our children aren’t babies anymore; some of them stay up later than we do. We require more than a couple of hours to decompress and talk through our issues.
Happily, we’ve found a solution. Grown-up, just-the-two-of-us, holidays. I tell people these getaways aren’t holidays, they’re therapy, as essential to our relationship now as fast food and reality television consumed while snuggling on the sofa had been to our early dating life in the Noughties.
“These trips help us remember why we like each other,” I say. Friends might giggle, or smile knowingly. But I’m not joking, or exaggerating – and, it would seem, science backs me up.
One snapshot study, in 2019, looked at data from 112 couples across the US and found that those who had more “shared experiences” during their vacations, from trying new things to communicating effectively, reported higher levels of “couple flexibility and cohesion following their vacations, regardless of the number of vacations.”
The turning point for us was December 2020, when we celebrated our 10-year-anniversary.
Although we couldn’t travel overseas due to the pandemic, we booked into a London hotel for two nights and realised we didn’t have to go very far, or spend a fortune, to reap the benefits of a couples’ getaway.
It seemed that overnight, everything improved: our communication, how tactile we were with one another, how relaxed we felt. It was fun again.
These days, we try to do two or three breaks without the children each year. A weekend in the English countryside and perhaps a city break in Rome or Barcelona. Over the past couple of years, I’ve tagged along for a couple of days ahead of one of my husband’s work trips to New York, which is my hometown.
This isn’t to say we don’t have a wonderful time when we travel with our children. I love their energy and laughter, the joyful chaos and mess that surrounds us wherever we go (even though car sickness bags are a family holiday staple).
But Will and I can’t recreate the connection we have with one another on holiday alone when we’re with the children, and I don’t think we’re supposed to. We’re too busy focusing on them, planning activities they’ll enjoy, eating places where they’ll feel welcomed and spending six-plus hours a day near swimming pools and water slides.
When Will and I travel, our mindset changes. I think being outside and moving a lot plays a huge role in that. We walk everywhere, whether we’re hiking countryside trails or traipsing through various Brooklyn neighbourhoods on foot.
All those endorphins, the fresh air, our muscles firing, well, it puts us in the right mood for endless conversation, from commenting on the superficial (“look at those gorgeous brownstones”) to delving into trickier topics (such as why I still don’t have a proper pension). We don’t fight, though. We talk things through.
We also remember that we’re easygoing and spontaneous – or at least, we used to be – and we’ll book into things on the fly. We try out adult activities we’d never venture towards with the children in tow, such as our unexpected evening at the Museum of Sex in New York last month, where we giggled our way through sex-themed carnival games in the museum’s Super Funland and got remarried via a novelty vending machine.
Another thing we love to do when we travel together that is not so easy with kids in tow? Sorry, not sex parties… but, in what may be a middle-aged stereotype, we are now a couple that works out together.
Another highlight of our last New York City trip involved early-morning workout sessions in the hotel gym. Some might call us boring, but I think there is something beautiful about reaching a new, health-focused life stage with someone you primarily used to get drunk with.
I wonder if our relationship requires these holidays even more urgently than some other relationships do: my mother died when I was 23 and I didn’t have a father or other family members in my life, so things moved quickly for us after I moved to London to see if we might “work out” as a couple.
Within a year-and-a-half, we were engaged, owned a bulldog and I was pregnant. We couldn’t afford to travel and sort childcare in our 20s with a baby in tow, so we didn’t.
We joke that one of the reasons we’ve lasted so long is because we’ve never been on a honeymoon. Our adventures now feel a bit like mini-moons. Every single time, I’ll have a panic a week before we’re due to set off and decide I can’t possibly leave my children, but once we’re in the car driving away, I start to feel giddy with excitement at spending time with my spouse. I feel like we get to discover each other all over again on these holidays.
For years, I internalised the parenting mantras that told me motherhood should be all-consuming and self-sacrificing. It has taken a long time to give myself permission to take time off, to listen to my needs as well as those of my children. I now understand that I’m not at my best when stressed and overwhelmed; going away is better for me and that ultimately helps the kids.
I’m glad that the cultural conversation has shifted in recent years, with psychologists touting the benefits of mothers going away without the kids for their mental health (and there’s evidence it’s good for the children, too.)
Meanwhile, the hashtag #momcation has 15M views on TikTok. I still haven’t done one of those, or gone on a holiday with my female friends. A goal for 2024, perhaps?