Two months into our trip, I finally figured out why my boyfriend and I were fighting.
Before Jacob and I set out on an extended trip through Europe, I did my research. I read blogs and travel sites about how travel creates stress in unforeseen ways, and the importance of carrying snacks for one another so that nobody ends up “hangry.” I packed protein bars, among other pro-relationship items, in my backpack when we set out from Seattle, confident we could weather most storms that long-term travel threw at us.
In the first few months, everything was smooth sailing, literally. After a week-long cruise in Greece, we spent a few weeks in fascinating Bucharest, followed by a stop in my favorite European city, London. But by the time we settled in for a month on Croatia’s rocky Dalmatian coast, our relationship was equally on the rocks.
Our Airbnb was small, but had enough space for both of us to work – and for Jacob to spend hours on the balcony reading, drinking wine, and watching the waves. Despite the idyllic setting and having every level of Maslow’s needs met, we started to bicker daily. Each night, we went to bed a little more frustrated. Each morning we woke up a little more cynical.
The strange juxtaposition between the extremely relaxing environment and the tension in our relationship made me wonder what had changed so suddenly. Was the length of travel getting to us? Did too much fresh seafood and delicious wine make one lose appreciation for other aspects of life? I tossed and turned each night, mulling over these potential culprits while Jacob slept undisturbed in the next bed.
Wait, what? The next bed? I woke up one morning and proposed my theory to Jacob: Though less than six inches existed in the space between our two beds, the distance in our relationship was growing significantly wider each night we slept apart.
I had never taken seriously the possibility that separate beds might put a wedge between us. I recalled how I’d laughed at the episode of How I Met Your Mother in which textbook-perfect couple Lily and Marshall start out their vacation enamored of the idea that they’ll get a better night’s sleep in separate beds, but soon encounter trouble.
Like Lily and Marshall, I’d always assumed that separate beds meant better sleep. Instead, Jacob and I learned that separate beds—and in some cases even separate mattresses or comforters—meant fewer snuggles, less hand-holding as we fell asleep, and less non-sexual intimacy. In the absence of that nightly dose of subconscious physical comfort, we became more irritable and less patient with one another.
In Europe, we’ve found it’s not uncommon for lodging listed as a “double bed” to mean two beds set up next to one another. Especially in Airbnbs, where we enjoy a bit more local immersion, I’ve found that roughly half of the places we’ve stayed offered separate beds or separate comforters and sheets. Even many hotels—especially budget options or those in smaller towns—offer only separate beds. After our first few nights at any of these places, I’d start to feel the tension rise.
Once I had a hypothesis, Jacob and I began to address it. We thought of ways to connect both during the day and at night to help alleviate the distance created by the bed situation. If you’re on your way to Europe and want to avoid the stress of separate beds, here are some of our tricks:
Pay close attention to bedding in photos. Sometimes it’s not obvious that a room has separate mattresses. Zoom in and pay close attention to the bedding itself: If you see two fitted sheets or two comforters, you can assume you’ll be sleeping on two mattresses.
Tune into how your relationship is doing every day on the road. It’s possible Jacob and I check in on each other too much, but a frequent “How’s your day going?” is standard when traveling. Stress is bound to come up during travel, and even a few inches between mattresses might exacerbate it. The check-in helps us vent so that we can address stress before it goes too far.
Be aware of nonverbal cues. It’s surprising how many spats we endured before I realized something was actually wrong in Croatia. Now, I know within a day or two if Jacob and I need to pay better attention to one another by indulging in a snuggle session or giving a few extra hugs before bed.
Schedule physical closeness. Sex is only one part of physical intimacy, and frankly, it’s not all that affected by separate beds. The rest of the time, Jacob and I made a point to simply be near one another, whether watching American reruns on a tiny, uncomfortable couch in our latest Airbnb or kissing each other good morning and goodnight.
Jacob and I began taking time each morning to enjoy coffee together on the porch of our Dubrovnik apartment. When walking through town, I was sure to hold his hand, even as we climbed the many hills and staircases.
Of all the articles I read while preparing to traverse Europe with Jacob, not one mentioned how separate beds might impact our relationship. But now we know. Each time we arrive in a new Airbnb to find separate beds we hadn’t anticipated, we crack a joke, push the beds together if possible, hug, kiss, and hold hands as we head out for dinner.