Don’t you ever get sick of each other?
How did you agree you both wanted to do this?
How do you get alone time?
These are just some of the questions you might think about if you’re considering van-dwelling or traveling full time with your partner. Taking a relationship on the road — in close quarters — makes some people break into a sweat. One guy looked at our van, then at his wife, and said, “I’d go fucking crazy.”
Friends and strangers alike are constantly surprised we spend so much time together. In fact, our relationship is a lot stronger since we started traveling. Why? Let’s take a look through the lens of the top things couples argue about.
Money is the biggest source of marital problems. We talk about money a lot. Early in our marriage, Chris was the one who worried about money more, but now I’m the one who does. I tend to underestimate costs; Chris is more realistic. But talking about money is how we learned we have the same attitude about money: it’s a tool that helps us do what we want, not a goal in itself.
What helps us is treating our financial life together like we’re co-owners of a business. The mission is to travel full time in a financially sustainable way. The products we create are the experiences we want to have, e.g., visit Australia, hike the Oregon stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, learn to make soap, etc. And the overhead expenses are things we don’t particularly care about, but are essential for producing our products, e.g., health insurance, annual credit card fees, cell phone bills.
Like any business, we have a budget that we created together and revise periodically. We look for ways to cut our overhead so we can focus our spending on a better product and more of it. For example, a $50 mani-pedi is an overhead expense better used for a product: two tickets to a comedy show. Definitions of overhead vs. product expenses differ sometimes, so we talk about it. As long as our business is meeting its mission, we let the rest go.
Chores & Housework
Another common source of marital stress is the division of chores. Uggghhh, who wants to do chores? Actually, we do — sort of. It’s more that each of us is better at doing some chores. Chris is really fast at doing the dishes, so he usually does them, but not always. I’m very meticulous about putting things back where they belong, so I usually tidy up the van and make the bed, but not always.
More importantly, we have very few chores. That’s the beauty of van life. We don’t have many dishes to wash. We only do laundry every 10 days and it’s just one load. Vacuuming only takes two minutes because that’s what you get for a few coins. We cook together, and it’s always simple enough to make with a camp stove. When you eliminate the day-to-day stresses, you find there’s less to argue about!
Work & Career Ambitions
Whose career takes priority, and who has to the make the sacrifices? This is the second part of the “our financial life as a business” mentality. We see work as generating the capital (income) required to operate our business (pay for expenses and fun).
This business only stays open with both of us hitting our income targets, so we do what we have to do to support each other. For example, I often have conference calls — sometimes for more than an hour — and need to be in a quiet place. We plan our fun activities around that schedule, and Chris will go do something on his own or plan on doing work at the same time. Chris often has to receive and inspect inventory, so we’ll adjust our plans based on where he needs to receive a shipment, and then we’ll work together to inspect, label and ship everything to a warehouse quickly since we can’t carry hundreds of wallets and razors in the van with us. I’ll consult Chris before I take on a time-consuming project and we decide together whether it’s a good idea or not.
Most importantly, we actively communicate when something is on the horizon. “Hey, I have a video call tomorrow so we need to find a coffee shop with Wi-Fi in the morning.” “I have a shipment showing up in San Diego, so we need to make sure we get there by Friday.” And then we just do it, because it’s what we have to do to do the things we want.
Communication & Problem-Solving
Traveling together is a crash course in communicating clearly and openly — and working as a team. When you’re constantly navigating a new environment, you learn to let things go because you need a partner, not an adversary.
If we are upset with each other about something, it’s just not realistic for us to sit and let it stew because we are together all the time. There isn’t 10 hours of stalling time and “space” while we’re each at the office. Close proximity means we have to deal with problems right away and move on.
My mom once asked, “Don’t you guys ever fight?” Of course we do. And when we do, it’s usually because we’re stewing and not talking about things. We’re not perfect, but we’ve learned from that.
I, Tamara, typically drive because I get motion sickness fairly easily. And because Chris likes to nap. 😉 But we take turns, especially on long-haul days, and we see driving as a team sport. We’re usually going somewhere we’ve never been, so the driver handles unknown surroundings and traffic hazards while the passenger has to think a couple steps ahead while navigating. “Make sure you stay left when you turn because you’ll have to turn left immediately.” When we get somewhere without getting horribly lost, we high five.
Even though this is probably what everyone cares about most, our parents read this blog, guys.
Children & Parenting
Chris and I discussed our feelings on children early on and are fortunate to be on the same page. When one person is eager to have children and the other isn’t, it just doesn’t work. It only breeds resentment whether you have kids or not. If you have children or plan to and want to know how to make it work while traveling, check out the folks at Our Open Road. They started traveling with one kid and had another on the road.
Lack of Excitement
When people complain about lack of excitement, they usually mean a lack of connection. When you’re really connecting with someone, something as bland as researching campsites counts as quality time.
When Chris and I were living and working in San Francisco, we weren’t super happy and even felt dead inside. As a result, we weren’t really present. We were always thinking about work bullshit, lack of time bullshit, housework bullshit or some other bullshit that was so meaningless I can’t even remember what it was. So even when we did have precious time together, we were physically present but not mentally present. That’s why people schedule date nights. It’s the one day a week where you cut the distractions and focus on each other.
When you’re each huddled in a mummy sleeping bag for warmth, you don’t have room to take up the whole bed.
Different Interests & Moods
The truth is that no matter how many of our interests are shared, not everyone likes all the same things. Chris loves golf. I tried it and don’t hate it, but it’s not my favorite thing. I love yoga. Chris tried it and doesn’t hate it, but it’s not his favorite thing.
This is where alone time comes in. Even though we do a lot of stuff together, we don’t do everything together. Right now, as I type, Chris is taking an online class that didn’t sound super interesting to me. I’d rather write this post. We’ve sat next to each other in the van while Chris read a book and I sewed a hem because that’s what we each wanted to do. Chris went and saw Batman vs. Superman alone because I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm. (Although he is still giving me crap about it.)
If you and your partner genuinely like each other and have a common, overarching vision for your life together, you’ll be fine. The rest is all part of the adventure.
Travel Before Marriage – Til the Money Runs Out
“You will probably make more decisions together and compromises in a month of traveling than you will in a year of marriage. This a great time to see how you make decisions together and if one person feels like their needs or wants are getting trumped for the other’s.”
Love/Hate Relationship With Vanlife – Huckberry
“Our van is 21 feet long, meaning most days Jon is no more than 10 feet away. He knows when I’m sleeping, hungry, bored or annoyed. He knows when I need to go and — worse — when I go to the bathroom. There’s literally nowhere to hide and it’s awful and wonderful.”
Masters of Love – The Atlantic
“Gottman wanted to know more about how the masters created that culture of love and intimacy, and how the disasters squashed it. He invited 130 newlywed couples and watched them as they did what couples normally do on vacation: cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat, and hang out. And Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.”