“How have you not killed each other yet?” is the question I get the most at cocktail parties and social gatherings, followed by “I’d [insert slow torture + spouse’s name] if we lived in a van together.”
My husband and I moved into a 108-square-foot van together back in 2009, after financial hardship forced us to vacate our California apartment. We set out to drive the Pan-American Highway from Canada to South America, both excited and daunted by the prospect of spending so much time together in tiny digs on a tight budget.
And the truth is, my husband and I almost did kill each other our first year out on the road. Our old patterns quickly became obsolete: He could no longer take off on a solo surf trip when tensions were running high in our apartment, and I couldn't go spend hours venting with girlfriends whenever we got into an argument.
Without our go-to solution of “time apart,” we had to come up with better ones in order to make our relationship last.
Since our rough start six years ago, we’ve figured out how to make our close and constant physical proximity translate emotionally. In fact, our marriage is infinitely stronger because we live in a small space and spend 24 hours a day together. Given our unique lifestyle, we just don’t have room for the kind of behavior that often drives lovers apart.These are five critical lessons on love that we've learned living in a van:
1. The course of life is determined by inches and seconds.
This is obviously true for my husband and I, who live in a recreational vehicle — one quick turn and we’re literally off in another direction — but what I’m driving at is a bit more metaphorical. Everything is more intense living in a small space. Minor character flaws quickly become exaggerated, so it’s extra important to be kind and have clear communication. Thoughtful gestures and saying please and thank you make all the difference when sharing tight quarters. But, really, don’t they always?
Relationship problems don’t manifest overnight. It’s more like one second someone takes a 1-inch turn in perspective and becomes less grateful, kind, or compassionate, and zoom, two years later you and your partner are standing miles apart, screaming accusations and obscenities across the great divide, wondering how you got there. So do your relationship a favor — speak kindly and express gratitude daily with thoughtful gestures. The little things go a long way.
2. Contempt and resentment are toxic.
In everyday life, contempt is the dismissive eye-rolling and sarcastic quips that suck the empathy right out of your relationship. It’s no wonder marriage researcher John Gottman lists it as one of his top indicators of a relationship that will fail. In an effort to nix this toxic contempt, my husband and I strive to listen to each other with compassion.
For example, my husband can be a bit bossy, and when confronted with this aspect of his personality in the van, I at first grew contemptuous. I assumed he was bossing me around because he lacked respect for me. When I stopped to really listen, however, I realized I was wrong about his motives, and he was really directing the show in an effort to help and protect me. Basically, as grating as it can sometimes be on my independent nature, he just wants to be my hero, not my boss. Now when he steps on my toes with too much direction, I give him a kiss and say, “Don’t worry honey, I got this.”
Next time your partner starts pushing your buttons, listen with compassion before snapping back. With a better understanding of what's truly being said, you can respond more effectively.
3. Adventure is an aphrodisiac.
For years, my husband had only known me as a high-heeled city girl. When we moved into the van, however, we had the freedom to embark on some wild adventures together, notably a 14-day self-contained raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon — just me and him. Throughout that adventure, the true strength of our relationship appeared before us like a bright constellation in the sky. Although our stars had always been aligned, so to speak, there was too much light pollution before to see the big picture. After the last big rapid on our 225-mile stretch of river, my husband got down on one knee and asked for my hand in marriage — and thus began the true adventure of a lifetime.
Between work, child-rearing, and domestic chores, people often get stuck in a routine and only see a limited side of their partner. When we step into uncharted territory, we share new experiences and see a different set of strengths in our mates, which can be very exciting in a super-sexy way. Hike a mountain, take a road trip, or set out to a foreign country with your partner and feel your senses come alive. Exploring new territory as a team will remind you how much you love your sweetheart.
4. It's important to share a lifestyle vision.
Given that we're always on the move, my husband and I quickly learned to frequently discuss our vision for the near and far future. Together we decide where to go, what to do once we get there, and how long to stay. We detail our needs and goals, and then design our lifestyle for the next few months to meet them. This keeps us working on the same team toward an exciting mutual end. Even if your routine is more static, check in with your partner about where you see your relationship going, both physically and metaphorically — there’s nothing more unifying than sharing a vision and working together to realize it.
5. Emotional connection leads to a better sex life.
People often think that if you spend too much time with your partner, desire fades. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? Although time apart certainly makes you miss your lover, the excitement derived from reunions can be short-lived. If you want long-lasting intimacy, follow the previous tips and be kind, show compassion, seek adventure, and share visions. Cultivate intimacy and you and your partner will be smoldering in desire for years to come.
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