Erwin* and I met while I was studying abroad, and we stayed in touch when I moved back to the Philippines. After a few years of sprawling email conversations, and lots of hints about his feelings for me, he told me he wanted to pursue a relationship. Half-joking, I said, “Sure, if you move here.” And then he did.
Traveling with your partner is a quick way to see each other’s ugly side.
Never having lived outside his first-world comforts, he didn’t adjust well to the chaos of Manila. After a couple weeks of restlessness, he suggested we backpack around Southeast Asia for a few months. Being a location-independent worker, I was free to hop on a plane and live out a fantasy few people have the opportunity to fulfill. Little did I know, this seemingly romantic whirlwind would eventually break us up.
As many people warn, traveling with your partner is a quick way to see each other’s ugly side. That’s because there are a lot of stressors involved in taking a trip together. For one, you have to be in close proximity, for an extended period of time, in a place that is unfamiliar—something that is draining and likely to make one or both parties irritable at some point.
Another issue that arises, especially with long-term traveling, is values. When a trip lasts for just a few days, tourists almost always hit up the basics: sights, food, and entertainment. But when you stay somewhere for weeks or months, you start to create small routines (like being in nature, meeting locals, or even volunteering)—and this reveals what’s important to you.
It took a four-month trip for me and Erwin to realize that our values did not align. During that time, we traveled Malaysia by train, explored uninhabited islands in Thailand, and bicycled around Singapore. While I don’t like to admit it, some of it was fun. Part of me even cherishes certain moments—like dancing under the stars, or watching a storm make way for a full and vivid rainbow, or being cared for after injuring myself falling down the side of a mountain. Still, for the most part, it was the trip from hell.
When you stay somewhere for weeks or months, you start to create small routines (like being in nature, meeting locals, or even volunteering)—and this reveals what’s important to you.
A major source of stress for me was that Erwin was not interested in being sober. Sure, I understand the appeal of having a few cocktails on the beach. And I’m no stranger to a wild night. In fact, when Erwin and I met, we were both chugging beers at a college party. However, there was something different about the way he drank on the trip.
Once, in Bangkok, Erwin took the only key to our hotel—the one that plugged into the wall and powered the lights, air-conditioner, et cetera—and left me in the room. I was without electricity all night, and I couldn’t leave the room because I wouldn’t be able to get back in. He didn’t take his phone or tell me where he was going. At daybreak, he lumbered in, slurring his words before collapsing into bed.
A few months later when I confronted him (okay, fine—lashed out at him) about his alcohol intake, he accused me of ruining his holiday. And that was the second major source of stress for me: how, to him, this whole thing—his move and our relationship—was a vacation. Being in Southeast Asia wasn’t about discovering different cultures, meeting new people, or seeing the world from a wider perspective. It wasn’t even about us getting to know each other intimately and sharing unforgettable experiences together. It was just a fun tromp through a big amusement park. And I was one of the attractions.
Maybe I was naïve to believe that this relationship could work out. I think I was just excited that after a string of guys whom I chased, this one would pack all his things and pursue me halfway around the world. At the time, I thought the pursuit was a testament of his commitment to me. Now I understand that not all grand gestures are motivated by love.
Back in his home country, Erwin got bored of his job, so he quit. Instead of getting a new job, he decided to pursue a PhD. A year later, he was bored by academia, so he quit that too. When everyone started asking him what he was going to do with his life now, he said he would start anew in Manila with me. Within three weeks of moving, he found that he was bored here also. Instead of making new friends, learning the language, applying for jobs, looking for apartments, getting to know the city, or anything else required to begin a new life—he planned a getaway. Vacation was exciting. And our relationship gave him the excuse to do it.
Now I understand that not all grand gestures are motivated by love.
When, at the end of the trip, we returned to Manila so that I could begin grad school, I realized that he valued that excitement more than a life with me. On our first Monday back, with no vacations planned, he broke up with me. And then flew to Palawan.
Travel romances are appealing when you see them in movies like Before Sunrise and Eat Pray Love. While some real-life love stories have been born or enriched on the road, there is a shallower kind of romance that, above growth, discovery, and affection, prioritizes escape. I suppose backpacking through Southeast Asia with your longtime crush makes for a cool story. But any relationship built on escape won’t last. Love seeks out people, not stories. Love confronts its issues and musters the courage to fix them. Love endures. Love doesn’t escape. Love doesn’t leave you sweating in a dark hotel room, only to return at sunrise, reeking of whiskey, claiming it was bored.
*Name has been changed
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