Dear Neil: Can you help me figure out why my girlfriend and I seem to fight a lot when we’re on holiday? We schedule time off, plan the holiday together, talk about it and look forward to it. But when we’re actually on the trip, she gets seriously touchy, reactive, jealous, critical, judgmental, impatient with me, angry—and demeaning. Trip after trip has been ruined because of this, and I wind up coming back home hurt, angry and puzzled. I think we both love each other, and for the life of me, I cannot figure out why this happens.
Don’t Want Another Holiday
Dear Don’t Want Another Holiday: On a typical vacation, you’re together a lot. 24-7, or something approaching that. Now let’s say that you are secretly intimidated by so much closeness and togetherness, afraid of feeling exposed, fearful you might grow too dependant on me, of me having too much influence or power over you or that I might hurt or reject you.
So how are you going to keep yourself safe? One way of doing so is for you to push me away—or distance yourself from me. And one of the easiest ways to do that is by getting angry at me, picking a fight or provoking me to get angry with you.
Being critical and angry typically functions as a very effective way of forcing someone to keep their distance. That’s why it is such a perfect cover for someone fearful of getting too close. If I am afraid of emotional closeness, and if I find something to be angry with you about, I get to feel great intensity toward you—because strong anger is exciting and intense—but I’m protected from the vulnerable, out of control feelings associated with love, dependency and vulnerability. I have substituted that angry intensity for love and closeness, because it feels safer and more in my control.
It’s likely that anger is your girlfriend’s habitual way of withdrawing and keeping people at a distance. Habits are behaviors that are hard to break—as everyone knows. Anger, judgment, criticism and harshness is likely what she has come to think of as “normal.”
Here’s what you can do. Openly address with your girlfriend her apparent desire to create more space and distance on a trip, and look at what safeguards you can build into your holidays together for her. Would some built-in time to herself every day help?
How about occasionally spending a day apart from each other?
Also, be willing to talk with her about what each of you need, want and expect on a holiday together. Perhaps the two of you can create and agreed upon way to handle it when there are conflicts, misunderstandings or when one of you gets your feathers ruffled. Something like a time-out from each other might work. You could also learn respectful communication and conflict resolution skills ahead of time, and promise each other that you’ll civilly and religiously use such skills from now on whether you’re on holiday or not. And watch your intake of alcohol on a trip. Since alcohol lowers inhibitions, it may be contributing to your problem.
If you are involved with a woman who just won’t let you get very close to her before she feels the need to push you away, nothing you do will change this dynamic—other than perhaps confronting the issue head on.