Why Fighting on Vacation Happens and How to Prevent It

Summer travel is something we eagerly anticipate, especially after being confined to our homes for the past couple of years. We spend the winter daydreaming about trips, making plans with loved ones, and envisioning the most relaxing and fulfilling experiences. However, despite our best intentions, there often comes a moment when things don’t go as expected.

Whether it’s yelling at our kids for being glued to their screens instead of enjoying the beach house we rented, having a heated argument with our partner in front of strangers at the airport, or experiencing a disastrous night out with friends in CancĂșn, conflicts and tensions can arise. But don’t worry, this is completely normal.

According to Dr. David Austern, a clinical assistant professor at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, even he has had adult tantrums at Disney. Our urge to argue with each other during vacations is a natural response deeply rooted in our DNA. It stems from the amygdala, a part of our brain associated with fear, which perceives not only physical threats but also emotional and psychological ones. When we feel neglected or unimportant to our loved ones, it triggers a panic response that manifests as distress, withdrawal, or even aggression.

Vacations provide the perfect setting for these tensions to arise. Our expectations are sky-high, while our tolerance for frustration is low. We find ourselves in unfamiliar environments with disrupted routines, different time zones, and a constant barrage of demands, especially on group trips. Even minor inconveniences can trigger our fight-or-flight response, making us believe we’re in danger.

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Dr. Austern mentions Clark Griswold from “National Lampoon’s Vacation” as an example. Clark’s plans for a perfect family vacation fall apart when they arrive at Walley World to find it closed for renovations. This triggers a series of events that turn their dream vacation into a nightmare.

But fear not, there are steps we can take to prevent and manage these conflicts.

Before You Go: Share Expectations and Prepare for the Unknown

Communication is key, but it’s not just about logistics and getting to the airport on time. Tamika Lewis, CEO and founder of WOC Therapy Inc. in Los Angeles, suggests having open conversations about everyone’s expectations for the trip. Each person should have the opportunity to express their desires and preferences. For instance, Lewis recalls a trip to Thailand with her children, where they each had their own experiences in mind. Being clear about individual needs helps avoid misunderstandings and conflicts later on.

Dr. Austern further emphasizes the importance of aligning values and setting realistic expectations. He shares his experience of visiting the Berkshires with his wife, where they agreed to skip hiking and focus on antiquing instead. By discussing their desires upfront, they were able to avoid disappointment and enjoy the trip together.

Additionally, it’s essential to gather relevant information before embarking on your vacation. Check if attractions or venues require advance bookings, consider the weather forecast, and be prepared for unexpected circumstances. Remember, not everything will go exactly as planned, and that’s okay. By accepting this fact, you can manage potential disappointments more effectively.

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In the Heat of the Moment: Pause and Reflect

When emotions start to escalate, it’s crucial to take a step back and calm down. Deep breathing, meditation, and other relaxation techniques can help regulate your emotions. If possible, remove yourself temporarily from the situation and communicate your need for a break. This can be as simple as saying, “Let’s pause this conversation; I need some time to calm down.” Also, if your travel companion notices your distress, they can suggest taking a breath and revisiting the discussion later.

Dr. Antoinette Gupta, a psychologist based in Orange County, highlights the importance of empathy and understanding during these tense moments. She explains that withdrawal from a situation doesn’t imply lack of care but rather feeling overwhelmed. By recognizing the underlying emotions and giving each other space, you can eventually come back to the discussion with openness and vulnerability.

Lewis advocates for taking an observational stance rather than criticizing each other during annoyances. Approaching situations without judgment prevents unnecessary arguments and allows you to let go of minor frustrations. She shares an example of being frustrated when her children refused to pass insects at a beautiful waterfall in Chiang Mai. Instead of getting upset, she chose to respect their sensitivity and found that the day remained amazing.

After the Fight: Be Kind to Yourself and Others

It’s essential to remember that everyone fights, and it’s normal to make mistakes. Dr. Gupta emphasizes the importance of self-compassion and kindness towards your loved ones. You can’t prevent occasional primal panic from erupting, but it’s a sign that you care about your family.

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According to Dr. Austern, having occasional adult tantrums is part of our humanity. It’s okay to have moments of frustration or disagreement. In situations where reconciliation seems unlikely, you still have options. Be accountable for your own well-being and set boundaries if necessary. If spending vacations with a particular person consistently leads to conflicts, it may be best to limit your trips with them.

On the Vacation: Remember the Purpose of Your Trip

Perfection is elusive, and it’s not necessarily the reason you’re vacationing together. Instead, focus on fellowship, curiosity, and simply enjoying time in each other’s company. Dr. Austern suggests asking yourself, “Why am I doing this right now?” to shift your attention from evaluating outcomes to experiencing the moment. Remind yourself that being with loved ones and embracing the authenticity of the experience is a tremendous gift.

In conclusion, conflicts and arguments during vacations are common, but they don’t have to ruin your trip. By setting expectations, practicing empathy, taking breaks to calm down, and prioritizing companionship over perfection, you can make your vacation a memorable and enjoyable experience.

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