The first vacation my now ex-boyfriend and I ever went on was to sunny beautiful Destin, Florida. We’d been dating less than a year, so this was a big step for us. Our first vacation together.
We booked a second-story condo that looked out at the ocean, and in the months before the trip, I kept returning to the images of the balcony and imagining sipping my morning coffee while looking out at that view. It looked glorious.
But I had a problem.
It was the summer before I started graduate school, and money was tight. I was currently working at a school that paid hourly. I hadn’t planned for the fact that when summer came, if I wasn’t in front of students, I also wasn’t getting paid. I did have several tutoring clients, but what was I going to be tutoring them for come June?
By the first week in May, just a few weeks before we were set to drive down to gorgeous Florida, I was in panic mode. How am I going to pay my rent next month and everything on this trip?
I knew I needed to not go, but I was conflicted. Not only did I really really want to drink coffee on that balcony, but I also didn’t want to lose the chance to go on this great first trip with my boyfriend.
I talked to my boyfriend about how we planned to split the cost of the trip, and he suggested 50/50. I didn’t offer a counter or explain to him at all my money situation. Instead, I grew quiet and withdrew.
I had no idea how I was going to pay for my portion of this trip, but when checking over one of my credit card bills, I realized they had upped my limit by $2000. If I could keep my side of trip expenses to under $1000, I could use that credit card to cover the trip and several other things I needed to cover. It seemed doable.
I resolved to do all I could to cut costs while we there. We’ll eat in for every meal, and the beach is free, so why do anything else??
That might have worked if I’d been the only person going on this trip, but I wasn’t.
My boyfriend, unbeknownst to me, had been saving for this trip since before we’d even booked it. He wanted to have a really enjoyable vacation where we got to do whatever we wanted. He wanted nice meals and to get out and do fun things, so no, he didn’t want to spend a bunch of time in the condo and only hang out sunbathing.
The trip started going downhill as soon as we got into the car to drive down. I’d forgotten to calculate my portion of the cost of gas there and back. My portion of our condo had already sucked up most of my $1000 budget, so now I had no idea how I’d even be able to eat while factoring in another $200 or so for gas.
Tense and anxious, I decided to play some calming music as I took the first leg of the drive down.
“What is this?” my boyfriend asked.
“Uhhh, my music?”
“It’s so depressing.”
I scowled. “Well, I am driving, so this is what we’re going to listen to while I’m driving.”
That little argument set the scene for the rest of the drive down.
By the time we arrived in Florida, I was calling my friends complaining about the jerk I’d driven down with and we went to bed not speaking to one another.
Our trip didn’t get much better for five days. Five whole days!
He used my toothpaste one night, and I, thinking of all the money I was already spending, snapped, “Use your own toothpaste!”
He pushed me to go to a nice restaurant where the cheapest menu item was a $12 appetizer.
“Is that all you’re getting?” he asked.
“Yup. I just loveeee shrimp quesadillas,” I said, looking down at my two squares of tortilla and tiny side of salsa and across at his filet and baked potato.
“Do you want me to pay for this?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
When he later paid the whole tab without telling me, instead of thanking him, I was pissy. Why couldn’t he have told me that before we ordered so maybe I wouldn’t be starving now? I thought.
Our trip was doomed, as you can imagine. I was tense and hyper-focused on money, something I hadn’t communicated to my partner, and he was wanting to have a nice time and upset that I wasn’t being excited or grateful.
I called my friends constantly. I didn’t understand why we kept fighting. This is our first vacation! It’s supposed to be perfect! Why is he being such an ass to me?!? But the key to solving a problem is often defining the problem correctly in the first place.
The problem was actually because of me: I hadn’t communicated my stress and fear around money.
Since my partner had no idea what was going on with me, he thought I was being an ungrateful party-pooper, and he kept snapping at me. Because I was constantly worried about money, I thought he wasn’t being empathic and I kept lashing out at him.
The key to solving a problem is often defining the problem correctly in the first place.
This reminds me of an anecdote I read in Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track. Here is my own excerpt:
A multistoried office building in NYC has just one elevator. The tenants begin complaining to the manager about their excessively long wait times, especially during peak times. Several tenants even threaten to break their leases if something is not done to fix this.
The manager authorized a study to be conducted to assess what could be the best course of action. He learned that it would be extremely expensive to upgrade the current elevator or install a second one.
He had no idea what else could be done to stop his tenants from leaving, so he called a meeting of his staff. One of the staff members focused not on the proposed solutions (upgrade the current elevator or install a second one), but instead on the why. Why were the tenants complaining about the long wait times?
Because they were bored.
The real problem, he realized, was that the tenants were bored during their long wait times.
The solution the staff member suggested was to install mirrors outside the elevators. The tenants could then look at themselves or each other, and thus be occupied during their wait time.
The manager installed mirrors on every floor for a relatively low cost, and the complaints stopped.
The lesson of this anecdote is simple: if we can discover the real problem, we can often discover an easy solution.
The same is true for our relationships.
The real issue for my trip? I had limited financial resources and was fearful whether I’d be able to afford the trip and my other upcoming bills.
The easy solution? Communicating that, so my boyfriend and I could have chosen not to go on the trip at all or made different plans around our money arrangement. Either option would have definitely led to a much more enjoyable week than the one we had!
There’s always a real problem behind our fights, and if we can get down to them, most of the time, we can resolve them.