Takeaways from an Early Fall Vacation

November 15, 2010

I recently returned from a week’s vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and my mind can easily wonder back to my leisurely time there, even as I resign myself to the usual hustle and bustle that comes with the fall season for most of us. A longtime friend, Terry, had bid on the rental in a silent charity auction and his opening bid was the only one, so he and his wife, Di, then invited three other couples, only barely acquainted to each other, to join them for the week.

When you’re sharing a house with a group of eight rather strong willed people, it is always helpful to have someone organize the group where coordination is needed, and Di, the oldest of nine children, assumed that role for us. Apart from our penchant for toys, including an array of bicycles, tandem cycles, kayaks, and a Vespa scooter, we are all people who enjoy cooking – and eating well – so Di suggested that we would come together for dinner each night with each couple taking turns setting the menu and preparing the evening meal. After some discussion about how to handle food shopping and expenses, the group was left to work out pretty much everything else on its own as the week unfolded.

Once a couples therapist always a couples therapist – and while I had no inclination to practice my craft while away from the office – it still is impossible for me not to take an interest in the variety of relationship styles observed as the week played out. As might be expected from a group ranging in age from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties, two couples had been together for over thirty years, while one person was now well into his third marriage, happy to be moving into the second decade with his current wife. Although there were frequent phone calls and skyping to children as the week went on, none were present on the trip and the youngest of those had just embarked on his college career. So we were a group of couples who had all learned or were beginning to learn to operate in a less child-centered way.

As someone who was not always an early riser, but has grown to appreciate these morning hours over the many years together with my husband, we were invariably the first to arise, with him handling the coffee preparation in his usual exacting way as I kept him company. His breakfast palate is far more interesting than mine, which tends to be limited to some bread and cheese at most.

Being the first to rise, I had an opportunity to observe how each of the couples chose to handle this morning ritual. Our friend and host, Terry, was typically the next to wake up, and while also a coffee drinker, his wife enjoys a cup of tea in the morning, which he prepared and took up to her so she could continue her morning habit of reading in bed for awhile before joining the group. As previously noted, Di is a caretaker through and through, and the only time I found her not assisting someone in the group in some way was during these morning hours. It felt good to see her husband catering to her needs a bit, and to see her allowing this to happen. One of the other couples often chose to go out for breakfast, sometimes dressing up for the occasion, while the consistently last couple to arise often went to a neighborhood spot and brought back a variety of sweet treats to enjoy with their morning coffee each day.

What was interesting to note was how natural these routines had become for each of us, with little discussion or debate as they were carried out. There was a quality of comfort to the way that each couple seemed to enact these morning rituals, which seemed to be a marker of who they had become together over the years. Although there was some accommodation to the fact that we were a group and all of us readily shared our various preparations and purchases, each couple still exhibited a penchant for their own preferred habits. To be sure, couples who are still actively caring for children at home are both often so focused on their children’s needs that they barely notice each other during the busy start of each day. Still, it was a pleasure to see my friends taking advantage of the reduced demands on them, at least while vacationing, to create a richer connection.

Couples therapist often ask their clients to pay attention to how they handle certain critical times of the day: waking up, separating from each other to pursue work or other outside activities, returning home and coming together at the end of the day, and preparing for bedtime. Although people live busy lives and have little opportunity to linger together as we had while on vacation, how these critical moments are handled tends to set a tone that pervades much of their other interactions.

Unfortunately, it is a fairly common occurrence for me to hear couples complain about their partner’s failure to greet them when one or the other returns home after a long day apart. This can easily degenerate into a rather frustrating argument and stalemate about who should be the first to give the hug or say hello. What they often fail to realize is how a little effort in this regard can result in considerable benefits for them, as most of us are more generous with our partners when we are given some special notice in this way. Moreover, couples who are able to make contact with each other at these critical junctures often report that sexual feeling flows more easily between them as well.

Now that I’m back home, I hope to be able to look back on this pleasant morning scene on the Vineyard and to be reminded of the importance of creating these connections, even as my mind quickly moves off to focus on my busy work schedule and the morning traffic report.

Dr. April Westfall is a Senior Staff Therapist and Council for Relationships’ Director of Clinical Services. She can be reached at 215-382-6680 x3122.