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Ten o’ clock on a warm Spring evening in Florence, and my husband and I should have been strolling hand-in-hand through the streets, a few chiantis down and ready for a little Pensione-based romance.
Instead, I stamped three feet behind him, arguing in a vicious whisper as loved-up young couples wandered past. This was our make-or-break holiday, a chance to see if we could recapture our rapture and rekindle the abandoned tingle, after months - actually, years - of rows.
Over two decades of marriage, we had gone from passionate-but-feisty to perpetually grumpy, and once our three children had all left home, we stood surveying the wreckage, wondering if we even liked each other anymore. Sadly, it turned out we didn’t. In Florence, he turned my attempts at deeper conversation into dismissive jokes, and I rejected his overtures in bed, unable to connect. We left a day earlier than planned, and agreed on the plane home that it was over.
For us, a ‘save-cation’ turned into the opposite: a final chance to shine a spotlight on the relationship, without the distraction of children, chores or work, and, over several expensive and grimly silent dinners, we swiftly discovered there was nothing left worth saving. For others, however, a few days to focus purely on one another can be exactly what’s needed to rescue a wobbly marriage.
This week, Samantha Cameron recalled how just such a break righted her marriage to David, after he had resigned as prime minister. They weren’t “getting on very well,” she admitted, which was “really weird”, but a short holiday put them “straight back on track” again.
“We're not very good at going away with each other but we did go to New York for three days,” she said, “…going round art galleries and restaurants that had nothing to do with children.”
Taking the focus off family life and career issues worked for the Camerons, but for most of us, is a ‘save-cation’ really the panacea for a troubled relationship?
Or might it simply serve to highlight the problems? Particularly after the difficult lockdown period, with many people made redundant, furloughed, under increased pressure from trying to home-school and work, and generally finding that being cooped-up together has intensified existing relationship problem. Is pinning everything on a holiday really the answer?
“It depends on what the issues are,” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke, author of The Phone Addiction Workbook. “Some of the couples I work with have found that lockdown improved their relationship, because conflict was founded on simply not having enough downtime together,” she explains. “The limited time they did have was crammed with preparation for the next day and divvying up the childcare. But once they had more freedom together, they found they could have a laugh and enjoy time that wasn't all about management.”
Annie Bowdon*, 46, from Sheffield, recently took a week-long break to Skye, with Paul, her husband of 15 years.
“We got through lockdown, but it took a toll,” she says. “Paul was furloughed and I was working from home, so he did the schooling of our sons, 9 and 11, and we’d all have dinner together. But we spent so much time with the kids, and I was constantly on Zoom meetings, or shopping for my parents. We were both exhausted by the end of the day.”
Small irritations turned to bickering, she admits: “We felt trapped, and had a bit of a sense of humour failure. Things we’d once have laughed off became more difficult.”
By early August, their sex life was non-existent, Annie adds. “I was starting to wonder if we could ever rescue the closeness we once had.”
A hastily-planned road trip to Skye, answered her question. “The boys stayed with their grandparents, and we spent a couple of days driving. Being on the road let us talk without distractions, and we explored some difficult stuff – by the time we got there, we’d reconnected, and had an amazing few days together. It was like old times, pre-kids, and we came back happier than we’ve been in years.”
Often, the success of a ‘save-cation’ depends on what form it takes. My Italian trip was disastrous, partly because we were surrounded by symbols of glorious romance everywhere we went - as well as the stress of airports, delayed flights and overspending.
Annie’s road trip idea, by contrast, meant plenty of downtime to chat without the pressure. According to research from Zipcar UK, road trip holidays are “more emotionally significant,” with 76 per cent of people claiming to have their most meaningful conversations in cars, and a journey of just over 70 minutes apparently providing the ideal conditions for unburdening.
“Driving is a helpful distraction, particularly for people who don’t often share how they feel,” says Sarah Rozenthuler, chartered psychologist and author of How to Have Meaningful Conversations: “As the driver has another task to perform, their ability to repress their feelings lessens. The informal setting also helps us to speak more freely.’’
On the other hand, enforced time with someone you’ve fundamentally gone off can be a peculiarly hellish experience.
“Sometimes a break away can be a hugely pressured time for couples,” agrees relationship counsellor Mig Bennett.
“After a summer holiday, many couples start counselling because after spending time together without the normal routine or distractions, they realise that the relationship is in trouble.”
It can be even worse if they already know.
“My husband Jim and I were struggling – he’d had a brief affair a few months earlier, and though we were trying again, it was tough,” says Claire Sharpe*, 50, from south London. “We booked a holiday to Paris, where we’d been on our honeymoon. It was a disaster. Going round the places where we’d been happy and full of hope made me realise just how little we now had between us.
“It came to a head when we had dinner in a gorgeous bistro overlooking the Seine,” she says. “The whole environment was perfect, but we ended up arguing viciously about money and he walked out, leaving me to pay the bill. I thought, ‘if we can’t even be nice to each other surrounded by flowers and champagne, we’re doomed’. When we got back, we separated for good.”
If you are thinking hopefully of a save-cation, take the pressure off - and build in some down time, advises psychologist Lee Chambers.
“On holiday, you are heavily interdependent on each other and a lack of compromise opens up the field for conflict,” he points out. “Constant contact with each other can magnify the tensions, and with the anchors of everyday life removed, it can become increasingly stressful.”
He advises going somewhere new, devoid of happy romantic memories “and while there, take little periods of time alone to reflect.”
To that, I’d add that’s it best to avoid going anywhere renowned for lovers - if everywhere you look people are happier than you, it’s even harder to break the cycle.
After my own save-cation failed, I’m now happily with someone else. Our holidays generally involve us both doing our own thing, before meeting at a café for a glass of wine and a catch-up at the end of the day.
“If the relationship is basically sound but stretched, it can be a wonderful opportunity to recharge the batteries,” says Mig Bennet. But if you’re already dreading the enforced time with your other half, don’t imagine a few days of sun and sangria will fix things. Forget the holiday - and go to therapy instead.”
*Some names have been changed
Read more: How to have a midlife marriage reset