Kim Barlow-Miles Counselling

Why Now?……falling out on holiday

Last Thursday 12th April, I once again joined Frances Finn on the Morning Show on BBC Radio Nottingham. We were in Easter holiday mood, discussing why people have arguments and upsets with their nearest and dearest (or perhaps bestest of friends) whilst sharing what should be ‘quality time’ together.

Clients tell me that this often happens to them….and it has certainly happened to me!

There appear to be some common reasons:

1. A holiday, especially, away or far, far away is a change from normal routine. Part of being human is to regard change as potential threat, or loss ….even a change for the better means letting go of something known and familiar. And our default setting for threat is the stress response, ie fight or flight/freeze. So even as we let our imagine roam over mind pictures of sun, sea, sand, fun and relaxation, it is possible that we can also be having suppressed anxious stressful thoughts ‘yes but what if…..I miss my flight, the weather is bad, the room/villa is awful, the children play up on the journey etc’ . If you are an habitual worrier, this will be familiar ground, perhaps something that others have criticised you for, saying ‘stop worrying it will be fine…’ Unfortunately this is likely to have the opposite effect, as you may then think you have to take all the responsibility for thinking about the details, putting problems right etc.  We usually have to find items to take with us, and remember to take particular things with us; interestingly, the part of the brain associated with memory is also a part affected by stress, which, of course makes it harder to remember! This can set the scene for tension between people before the journey begins and the holiday starts…….making mistakes more likely and a blame-game to begin.

2. We mostly work hard for our holidays and may count down to them, treating them as a reward and consequently loading them with expectations: ‘at last some down-time/time for each other/it will be great!’. Even if a staycation is planned there may be a plan to ‘have fun days out/ do lots of things we never get time to do’. There can be a sense of ‘must make the most to this…’ Our mind-picture may represent our own unique concept of blissful perfection.  All too often, unfortunately, life gets in the way: someone gets sick, loses/breaks something, the weather turns for the worse, neighbours are a nightmare, money doesn’t stretch the way it should…and the reality does not match the dream. Disappointment ( a combination of frustration and sadness) makes us tetchy/ over-sensitive, rows brew up and rain down on our holiday….  

3. Another source of stress and subsequent aggression, is our 24/7 exposure to the people we love; for most of us this is a change from normal life. Generally, with work and domestic routines we do not actually spend such a concentrated period with our loved ones or friends. This can be really testing of our relationships – just how much can we tolerate/forgive as individuals pursue their own idea of the perfect holiday in a way that does not synchronise with our own?  If it is a staycation, at least this is happening in familiar surroundings where we feel relatively comfortable (although there might be a suppressed – or voiced – sense of it being unfair that ‘everyone else is going away, but not us’). But when we are adjusting to a different environment in addition to being in each other’s company all the time, the smallest, most apparently trivial issue can trigger individual sensitivities…..‘why do you always have to (do/say/be like) that..?’  We might say that this situation is like being put under a microscope. Unsurprisingly, most of of would fail this sort of examination in some way, as no-one is perfect 24/7.

4. Of course, it might well be that we are not starting our holiday with all issues resolved between us; this is often called ‘unfinished business’, and includes things that have been left unsaid, but not ‘un-thought’, or the elephant in the room that never gets discussed; or perhaps problems which one or other person is unwilling/unable to address. These may seem to disappear into the depths of everyday life for most of the time, but they are lurking below the waterline, ready to wreck the peace. What better time for them to surface than when there is an already stressful or disappointing situation and unavoidable exposure to each other. 

5. Holidays also provide a unique opportunity in a busy everyday life to take time out and reflect; this can provoke challenging questions such as ‘is this it?…is this what my life is going to be like now for always?…is this all I am going to have to look forward to?…. etc..’  Whilst it can be helpful to develop our self-awareness, tune in to our inner voice and reflect on ourselves, our choices and decisions, we may sometimes risk over-thinking, and over-analysing.  This pathway can lead to maladaptive rumination and/or obsessive self-criticism rather than towards inner peace and self-acceptance.  Before we then shut out or snap at our nearest and dearest, we might do well to consider the prayer of St Francis …’for the serenity to accept what we cannot change, the courage to change what we can and the wisdom to know the difference’.  And it might be helpful, of course, to take this to therapy.

6. A further source of falling out, is the disinhibition and other consequences of increased levels of alcohol consumption. Again an attitude of ‘got to make the most of this’ especially in ‘all-inclusive’ holiday situations, may prevail. Rows may stem from one person not wanting to drink as much, upset by the amount consumed by other family members -perhaps due to health worries, cost or embarrassment etc. Or it could simply be the ‘in vino veritas’ issue, where people say what they really think to each other…and regret it when it is too late.

7. Sometimes, the falling out may be triggered by one person’s own insecurities – a kind of personal unfinished business. For example, if someone’s self-esteem is wobbly, perhaps due to poor self-image, he/she is likely to be super-aware of attention being paid (apparently or actually) by their partner, to other people at the holiday location. This might lead to sulky withdrawl or overt accusation, responded to possibly, by reassurance, or, potentially by frustration and denial. It typically never gets completely resolved until the person first deals with their own issues, perhaps through therapy, and then can take a more grounded look at whether the relationship works for them.


– identify your own and others’ triggers of stress – then you can offer yourself maximum choice about responding.

– take responsibility for your own emotional stuff/unfinished business – try to say ‘I feel …when you…’ rather than ‘you make me…when you..’  Seek mutual agreement to formally shelve particular ongoing topics

compare and contrast your mind-pictures of this holiday with those of your nearest and dearest – prepare to make adjustments and compromises in advance

moderate your expectations – even a perfect holiday will have some elements which could have been better, and even the worse holiday will have a few pluses

agree and commit to regulate alcohol consumption – you will remember more about the holiday and feel better for it!

– learn to recognise and challenge negative thinking – eg catastrophising, seeing only the negative in the situation and missing the positive, mind-reading, condemning the whole picture on the strength of one small negative detail, emotional reasoning (a thought not a fact), generalising negatively etc/

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