Relationships are a lot like chairs. In this post, I explain that sentence, dive into how Sheila & I have benefitted from love and communication over the course of our travels. Hopefully this post will encourage you to think critically about new ways you can support your partner (or nourish that idea for, perhaps, a future partner of yours), both on the road and in general.
A Great Relationship Supports You Like A Chair
It was only in the moments after first sitting in the chair from Gardner, Massachusetts, that I began to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about these sitting tools. Gardner is famed for their chairs, and they celebrated their predominance in the field by raising a massive, 15 ft (4.57m) tall, chair in the middle of town in 1905. The high school rings of graduating seniors feature the chair. 1 But in this day and age, where furniture is either the absolute furthest thing from our minds, or provided in sets that take the guesswork away, noticing our relative comfort while sitting is not something that we typically find ourselves thinking about. In nearly 9 years of working full-time, for example, I only ever sat in one model of office chair, and though I frequently found my posture lacking, and thought my chair was part of the problem, I never went out of the way to fix the issue at its root.
At this point you are probably going: this is all well and interesting, James, but I thought this was a travel blog! Why are we talking about chairs?! You ask a good question, dear Reader! What’s all this about chairs, indeed. You see, relationships are a lot like chairs:
- a good one supports you without it needing to be obvious
- a great one makes you realize the support you were getting before wasn’t enough
Sheila and I face challenges on the road - as individuals, as a couple, and as a couple traveling. We didn’t set off on this backpacking trip through Europe thinking that it would always be smooth sailing. In Sheila’s post, On Creative Living, she talked about how our trip was a little scary:
And so this international trip is a lot of things: wild, exciting, extraordinary, even a little scary.
It can be daunting to have somebody that you care so much about always be present; it can be challenging to share every space together. In a home, you have the option of being in different rooms; on the road, it’s fairly rare (for us, at least) to be sharing a space large enough to feel any separation. It’s even rarer to feel the need for it. Still, our proximity demands honesty.
A common and, hopefully relatable anecdote from our pre-traveling lives: we were both stressed out about money. Had we saved enough for the trip? Would we be able to do all of the things we hoped to before running out of money and returning home with our tails between our legs? In October of 2018, during a night of inner doubt and high stress, I made Sheila promise me that neither of us would allow the prospect of financial woes to impact the rest of our trip planning. This isn’t some fairy-tale that ended on that high note after our mutual resolution - but we did do our best, following that night, to acknowledge when the question of money had again reared its ugly head, and looking the issue in the eyes often helped to tame some of the fear associated with it. I had to get out of my comfort zone to admit that money was stressing me out … and when I did, I found out that it was also something that Sheila was worried about. Meeting in the middle, mentally and emotionally, allowed us to work through a situation that could have otherwise continued to ferment stress and cognitive dissonance.
Get Out of Your Relationship’s Comfort Zone With Travel
Self doubt and inner conflict aren’t part of the talking points for (at least for men) in America. Success is celebrated; flaws are buried. This isn’t conducive or helpful when dealing with flaws, particularly if you perceive yourself as alone in having them or thinking about them. Probably the single most defining feature celebrated in machismo culture is the concept of a successful man as somebody who succeeds without really trying; ironically, the much more common situation as a result is to slowly fail - due to not trying at anything hard enough for fear of failure. 2
We had the benefit, prior to heading to Europe, of going on a little “appetizer trip” to feel out how we would react to traveling with one another - but even prior to that, we had been in the trip planning process for months. Being open with each other about what our concerns were helped a great deal in preparing for the stress of the trip. You might think that every day is a vacation when traveling for an extended time period, but expecting to experience each day without any kind of stress is unrealistic. Because we had set ourselves up to expect stress, I know we have dealt with it better. Knowing that Sheila is there for me has also helped bridged an important mental gap - in being open with her, I’ve enabled myself to better cope with challenging situations by being more honest with myself. Going back to the chair analogy: the more support you give each other, the more balanced you feel. Communicating tiny stressors with each other is a feedback loop that we continually refine throughout the day, and we’re still learning as we go. There’s no room for machismo here - only the persistent need to be honest with one another.
Failure is a part of our experience - sometimes we fail to plan out our food correctly for the day. Sometimes we don’t bring enough water with us. Sometimes we get lost. Not being perfect is a part of our travels, and it’s during those little failures that Sheila and I get to explore what a successful day really means to us. We each have quirks that rear up when we’re tired, hot, cold, hungry, thirsty; we each have the chance to band together during those times to feel better about the situation we’re in and experiencing.
Dealing With Issues On The Road
I’ve had an itchy scalp and dandruff for years - since before I was in high school, in fact. I’ve also known plenty of people similarly affected; some better, some worse off than me. Seeing people dealing with this led me down a false path: if others were struggling with the same thing as me, my options for self care must be limited. After all, if I wasn’t the only one with snowflakes drifting off my head all the time, it couldn’t be unusual or have any accessible paths towards wellness … could it? I also got a pretty heinous ear infection right before we left on our appetizer trip. Coping with both of these issues during a time of great change proved to be more challenging than I expected. Quite by accident, Sheila & I have also been educating ourselves on stress-induced maladies, and the mind’s role in exacerbating or alleviating symptoms. This is the subject, for example, of the Netflix documentary, Heal, which investigates how our mental approach to illness dictates how our body responds. It’s overwhelmingly a story of hope. A movie like this is helpful, too, because health and wellness are predominantly women-centric, at the moment, and encouraging men to initiate and participate in conversations not just on their own health but also the health and cycles of their partner is something I wholeheartedly endorse!
Only by men being more open to taking part in wellness communication can we change the prevailing sentiment that radical transparency is deeply unsexy (or, worse, unbecoming of a man). Indeed, being conversant with your physical issues opens the floor for your partner to be just as comfortable speaking about their flaws with you - that’s pretty neat.
So I’ve had the chance, as we’ve moved about, to grapple with two important things - how I feel about the issues I’ve been experiencing, and how I treat them. Interestingly, the process dovetailed nicely between my ear and my head - I am a huge proponent of mind over matter, and prefer homeopathic remedies to anything with chemicals. In the case of my ear infection, Sheila’s sister, Erin, helped me select a natural cream on the day of our departure which might have helped treat my issue. Two weeks later in Slovenia, my ear’s condition had not improved. We made the call to begin more modern methods of treatment - starting with Head & Shoulders, and ending with a hydrocortisone cream that we picked up in a pharmacy in Zurich. Sometimes you just need to go with modern medicine - no shame in that!
On the other hand, my dry scalp ended up being completely treatable with natural products - and here I’d like to give a shout out to Lush’s Superbalm. This stuff is legit. While the treatment is ongoing, my scalp feels restored to the state it was in before my skin first dried up in middle school. I’ve gone from accidentally itching and scratching the dry parts of my scalp to enjoying the feeling of it being healthily hydrated. I’m really glad that we did not have to bow to any kind of chemically medicated product here!
Things I’ve Learned About Love On The Road
- I can plan out complex software features and execute on them - but I can’t remember which towel was given to me by our host the day before. Sheila helps me with that.
- I can hike without water for hours, saving this precious liquid for her when she needs it - but I can’t remember which side of my backpack our water bottle is on. Sheila helps me with that.
- I can remember wonderful and amazing La Blogotheque take-away show on Youtube, but I can’t remember which wine glass is mine. Sheila helps me with that.
- I can cook a mean curry but I can’t plate a dish to save my life. Sheila helps me with that.
- I can realize - with shock - that the vacuum in our Airbnb is the same vacuum my dad used when I was growing up, but I can’t put on my wooden bow tie by myself. Sheila helps me with that.
In The End
“In the end” is a phrase we’ve heard quite a bit on the road, and it’s become a consistent part of our traveling vocabulary. I’ve always been fascinated by regional and international nuances in speech.
This post began as a concept that I wanted to explore - and may continue to explore depending on how it’s received - before we had even left for Europe. I first mentioned it to Sheila while we were hiking in the hills around Špela’s apartment in Ljubljana, back in May! Since then it’s seen a lot of work and even more in the way of thinking about what I wanted to say. We each have workshopped and developed several concepts for the blog that we hope to continue to flesh out in the future, in discrete and searchable segments, like our Meet the Host posts. In particular, the subject of machismo and its role (if any) in a relationship is a subject that I hope people will be open to hearing more about.
I would encourage both male and female followers to leave a comment with your thoughts on this post! If you have trouble logging into Disqus (as some readers on mobile have reported), I would recommend creating an account with them and then selecting that option from the Login section dropdown. It doesn’t seem to remember who I am on subsequent visits to our site, but that login option has worked for me 100% of the time.
Well, at least Sheila’s grandmother’s high school ring does↩ back to post!
I found myself nodding along while listening to the Not Another Wellness podcast discussing how self-acceptedness first requires confronting our image of ourselves and how we tailor that to meet the expectations of others.↩ back to post!