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Allison Pescosolido, M.A. and Andra Brosh, Ph.D Headshot

Having a Sane Vacation When There is Trouble in Paradise

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When a marriage is on the verge of divorce, there is an early stage in the process where change is imminent, but normalcy needs to be maintained for the children. Children depend on structure, ritual and consistency, so parents must keep the family ball rolling even in the face of the despair and confusion they may be experiencing.

Sitting through family dinners with gritted teeth, putting on a happy face for friends and family, and biting their tongues in front of the kids are just a few of the ways couples keep up the marital façade. Parents go to these lengths partly because normalcy is a distraction from the uncertainty that comes with separation, and partly because routine is often the only glue holding a fragile situation together. This is not an easy life to live, and it becomes even more challenging when these tactics have to be maintained through a family vacation.

If a vacation has been planned prior to the split, canceling may be an option. However, the commitment to going often far outweighs the discomfort that comes with vacationing within the confines of an expired marriage. In addition, the financial cost of canceling can be perceived as being much higher than the emotional cost of going. If you are one of the many couples facing an untimely family vacation, don't worry. There are many ways to make the best of an imperfect vacation situation.

Here are some tips to have a good family vacation when there is trouble in paradise:

Plan ahead

While spontaneous vacations are fun and adventurous, they can even create conflict amongst couples who are discord-free. Knowing how things will unfold and planning things out in advance will help you avoid any unpredictable pitfalls. Decide ahead of time who will be in charge of what. For example, if the trip is to a city where you will be exploring, pick days where each parent will be the tour guide. Fighting over directions or getting lost can easily push hot buttons that create unnecessary conflict. Planning the days out with schedules and specific spots to visit or eat will eliminate standing on a street corner in a state of indecision and agitation. Get on the same page before the trip even starts.

Leave issues behind
If you are someone who holds a grudge, this would be a good time to let things go for a bit. Bringing marital baggage on the trip will weigh everyone down. There are inevitably going to be things that bug each of you throughout your vacation. Remember that you can convey how you feel with a look as much as your voice, so be mindful of rolling eyes, or glaring stares. Setting an intention before you leave for your trip about how you will maintain a sense of peace for the family would be a good idea. Double beds in the room can do wonders.

Set expectations
Many families have very unrealistic expectations of family vacations in general. This leaves everyone vulnerable to disappointment when things don't go the way everyone imagined. When a marriage is rocky or even over, expectations need to be even more realistic. For example, expecting to spend tons of quality time as a family might not be possible this time around. It's also unrealistic to expect all of your problems to disappear the minute you arrive at your destination. Let things unfold and find an organic rhythm. Be open to accepting whatever the vacation looks like or turns out to be. Overly high expectations are a sure fire way to feel chronically disappointed.

Use the kids as a buffer
Most couples do this anyway, but your kids can really ease a tense dynamic. We are not implying that your child be used as a pawn, but children can be a good distraction from having to be intimate or spending too much time one on one. Don't be afraid to tag team with each parent taking one kid, or taking turns getting some alone time while one parent fills in. Children are pretty perceptive so if you are having trouble being pleasant or even civil with your partner around, it might be best to spend time with the kids on your own.

Keep the conversation light
Bringing up heavy issues, or trying to talk things through while on vacation can be complicated. There is nowhere to go if someone wants to walk out and raised voices are not usually welcome in hotels or public places. It's better not to risk a blow up, so conversations should remain topical and fairly superficial. If issues come up, and they will, write them down. You can even journal about your feelings. It's not about pretending nothing bothers you, the idea is to tuck it away temporarily. It doesn't have to be unrealistic or inauthentic. You can commit to simply being aware of your actions, behaviors and moods so you aren't unconsciously punishing each other without realizing it. If things don't shift for the better on the trip, you will have plenty of opportunity to revisit any unresolved issues when you return. Think of your vacation as a big time out.

Take space for yourself
Taking time to oneself is important on any vacation. Couples, especially divorcing ones, often feel that they need to be together 24-7 on vacation "for the kids", but you each deserve to have some rejuvenation time on your own. Everyone needs some self-nurturing and personal space, particularly when going through a challenging time. Doing this will make many things on the trip more tolerable, and will increase your patience for the inevitable stress that comes with family traveling.

Contemplate and self-reflect
Traveling inevitably shifts perspectives and changes perceptions. Getting out of your daily routine and environment provides a great opportunity to see things more clearly. Use your travel experience as a springboard for enlightenment. This might even be a time to start brainstorming about your future, but keep it light and positive. Avoid focusing or ruminating on "all that you have to do" when you get back.

What are your own tips for traveling when there is trouble in paradise?