When Tom Wilmes and Ashley Dye started planning a scuba diving trip right after they started dating, they ignored the raised eyebrows and questioning family members.
"Ashley and I took a way-too-early and probably inappropriately romantic trip to St. John in the Virgin Islands after dating just a few months," said Wilmes, an editor at American Cowboy magazine who had been friends with environmental attorney Dye for years before they started dating. "More than a few people asked if we were on our honeymoon."
"It could have been awkwardly disastrous, but instead, we fell in love over mudslides in the moonlight every night on a deserted beach. I told her I loved her for the first time, and now we're married five years with a beautiful son and another on the way in two months!"
Having been on less successful trips with previous girlfriends, Wilmes knew that it mattered that they enjoyed traveling together.
They scuba dived in the morning, played on the beach in the afternoon and had drinks on the deserted beach at night. "We just really meshed," he said. "We're both real low key, and we're not going to get bent out of shape if things don't go exactly to plan. We're compatible in that way."
It's the make or break travel experience.
Whether it's your first trip together or the highly anticipated, much-romanticized honeymoon, travel ramps up the pressure and can tell you what you need to know about another person and how (or if) you'll have fun and solve problems together. One high-stress trip can result in a relationship flameout or the discovery of true love.
"Your first trip will not only reveal your compatibility as a dating couple, but ultimately how you will relate as a married couple," said Allison Pescosolido, co-founder of counseling service Divorce Detox in Santa Monica, California. "Traveling can be seen as a mini-test to see how your relationship works when you are together 24-7 and dealing with unpredictable circumstances."'
Lack of shared interests or willingness to explore each other's interests can surface early, and it matters, said Pescosolido.
When traveling early in the relationship, she suggests a few key questions to ask yourself: Does your partner want to do the same things you do or trade off your choices with his choices? Does she roll with unexpected delays or does she complain when your plans go awry? Does he treat hotel and restaurant staff with respect or does he have temper tantrums? Does he spend more time saving money than having fun?
People who crumble under the pressure of a vacation may exhibit that same behavior at home.
Allow yourself to grow
If that first trip to St. John hadn't gone well, the Wilmeses could have simply parted ways. That wouldn't have been as easy for Pamela Skjolsvik of Bedford, Texas. She had already married the guy.
Skjolsvik met her future husband while bartending in San Francisco, and they started dating and married nearly two years after they met. They had taken short trips around the Bay Area before getting married, but they had never taken long trips.
When her fiance proposed that their honeymoon be a three-week road trip in his cargo van, she said yes to not spoil his vision of her "so soon in our marriage." Truthfully, she dreaded driving in a van without air-conditioning, bathrooms or a hair dryer for her frizzy hair and feared bugs -- and possibly serial killers -- attacking their van.
The turning point came a few days into the trip, when they found a campground at Carlsbad Caverns, a National Park in New Mexico with many bats. "I just realized as I watched the bats, 'this is fun,' " she said. "I wasn't worrying about what I looked like, in the moment. After that, it was a lot more fun. I work myself up so much."
She also got to see her husband in a new light and allowed herself to get even closer to him.
"He was capable of doing things I didn't know anything about, like building a fire," she said. "Here's a guy who knows how to get places and knows how to adapt to his surroundings," she says. "I really did get to know him and appreciate him as a person. It was probably a turning point for me."
That's a significant benefit of traveling together. "Traveling can be a lot of fun because you get to spend a lot more time with your partner," said Dr. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist and co-author of "Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find -- and Keep -- Love."
"Take it as an opportunity to learn how to really be there for one another. That's what a good relationship is all about, the give and take. And it's an opportunity to get closer."
People can change
In retrospect, technical editor Paulette Baker says she should have walked out after her honeymoon. Baker, who grew up hiking in the woods near her home in Connecticut and had developed a passion for photography, thought her future husband shared her interests.
Before she married, Baker had started traveling solo because a former boyfriend preferred going to New York and Newport and staying in elegant hotels. She broke up with him and married her husband in part because she thought he also liked hiking and photography.
"If I've caught bloom season right, it might take me twice as long to complete a trail as the time suggested in guidebooks," said Baker, now living in East Lyme, Connecticut.
Sometimes it takes a while for negative traits to emerge. Her husband's lack of interest in her interests became apparent right before the wedding, she said.
"He informed me that I was to take no more than five rolls of film on our honeymoon so that I wouldn't spend more time with my camera than with him," she said. "To him a hike was something to be accomplished rather than experienced. He would sigh and fidget if I spent too much time, in his opinion, taking pictures."
And sometimes it's about compatibility. Baker didn't mind having different interests or traveling alone. But her husband didn't share her interests, didn't want to trade off exploring their different interests and wasn't comfortable with her pursuing them by herself. The couple divorced after nine years of marriage and were separated for the last three.
Not wanting to try your interests is definitely a red flag, according to Pescosolido.
"This could be a sign of self-centeredness or unwillingness to do things that aren't familiar," she said. "Unless you love routine, this could lead you to ending up with a rigid or boring partner."
Using travel to find oneself
Heather enjoyed camping and exploring the United States with her husband and two dogs when they first got together, more than 22 years ago.
But as they got older, Heather (an English professor who didn't want her last name used to protect her family's privacy) realized that difficult and long flights to Asia were worth it so she could explore the places she wanted to explore. Her husband, from whom she is now separated, preferred shorter trips closer to their home in Denver.
So they traveled apart. "At the end of our marriage, we used solo travel to escape each other and the pain our relationship caused us," Heather wrote from Bali, where she now lives.
"Whichever one of us was away, we were happier than we were together. I think he was happier when I was away and he had the comforts of home all to himself. For me, I preferred to be away from home alone; the comforts of home aren't that important to me."
While happy couples can travel separately, they have to work on their relationship in other ways.
That's not what happened with Heather and her husband.
"We used our time apart to grow as individuals, which definitely did not help us grow as a couple. But it was a necessary progression we had needed to make for a long time."
The no-pressure travel experience
And then there's the travel experience that turns your life upside down.
The night train from Florence to Vienna was packed, and Mariana Lamaison of Argentina and her friend were lucky to find a compartment occupied by just one young American man, Zachary Sears.
"As we began to talk, we realized we had planned the same trip: Vienna, Prague, Berlin," said Lamaison, who had recently graduated from college. So the three young people decided to travel together during that summer of 1997.
"We could tell right away that we were interested in the same things," she said. "We wanted to see classic art and history. The first night we went to a Mozart concert in Vienna, a traditional concert where everyone in the orchestra dressed classically."
They became fast friends. When they parted a week later, Lamaison and Sears missed each other and wrote letters for three years. When they both got e-mail addresses, they quickly realized they wanted more. Lamaison flew to the United States, ostensibly to study English. The couple married in 2001 and now live outside Philadelphia with their three children.
That first trip showed Lamaison (now Sears) who her new friend (and future husband) is today. It wasn't just that they liked the same things. Crossing borders and going through customs, clearing security and changing money, Lamaison saw the man she would later marry: calm, respectful and organized.
"I just liked the way he handled himself," she said. "You can see the values of a person in those situations."