How a Trip with 20-Plus Strangers Revitalized My Marriage

Updated: Aug. 03, 2023

Who could have predicted that touring cave paintings across Spain and France would be just the boost our relationship needed?

When Leo, my husband of 12 years, and I thought about where we wanted to go for our belated 10th-anniversary trip (thanks, Covid!), we didn’t have a lot of requirements, apart from leaving our two elementary-school-age children at home. Between our jobs, the kids’ activities and maintaining our house, we rarely have more than 10 minutes to spend together, and date nights are far and few between. The daily grind had taken a toll on our marriage—we didn’t feel as close as we once had. In fact, we were nitpicking each other, kind of a lot.

Enter our “second honeymoon,” or the vacation we didn’t know would bring back our spark. You see, when we take family vacations, it’s usually to the beach or on a family cruise where we can drop the children off at a kids club so we can spend a couple of hours alone, often relaxing on a lounge chair by some form of water. While those are excellent options when we’re traveling with our brood, we knew we wanted something different for our adults-only trip.

When the opportunity arose to go on the National Geographic Expeditions Human History trip to Spain and France, we jumped at it. Not only did it meet our one requirement of no kids allowed, but we had never traveled to Europe together, and this trip would be with one of the best tour companies around. We quickly signed on to what would be among the best trips of our lives.

The 10-day guided trip centered around paleolithic art and cave paintings. We would be exploring caves that the earliest forms of humans used as their canvases 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. The itinerary started in Madrid before heading north to the coastal region of Spain, then we would traverse the Pyrenees into France, where we would spend the second half of the trip in the Bordeaux region, also visiting cave paintings.

I was uncertain about both the time we would spend traveling (in 10 days, we slept in five hotels) and taking a group tour for what was supposed to be a romantic vacation. In the end, both turned out to be positives.

Speaking a foreign language is attractive

We arrived in Madrid a day early to have time to adjust to the six-hour time difference. As soon as we landed, my husband, who is fluent in Spanish, took charge. He navigated customs, checked us into the hotel, ordered lunch at the restaurant and seamlessly got us around town, all while I was able to sit back and relax, knowing Leo had everything taken care of.

When we were first married, we lived in New York City, where Leo could occasionally break out his second language. But ever since moving to Connecticut seven years ago, he rarely uses it. Hearing him speak Spanish and watching him take control of the situation reminded me of one of his strengths that I hadn’t seen in years. Plus, he sounds pretty darn sexy when he speaks in a foreign tongue.

Humor makes everything better

On our second night in Europe, we met the group we would be touring with. There was a quartet of married doctors who had been friends since med school, a quirky couple with sparkly hair from Vermont, plus about 20 others, and of course the National Geographic tour guide and a Spanish expert on cave paintings.

As with any group of 20-plus strangers, it can be hard to break the ice. Over the course of the trip, Leo became the darling of the group, the one everyone knew by name. At each of the shared lunches and dinners, he would tell his stories that I had heard hundreds of times before and dad jokes that usually made me roll my eyes. But now, in front of a brand-new audience of people who found his stories charming and laughed at all his jokes, I saw him again through renewed eyes. He really is funny and engaging, traits I had forgotten about in the hustle of daily life.

New activities bring shared excitement

Leo And MammothAnne Fritz/
Leo at the entrance to the Rouffignac Cave

Research shows that doing new and challenging activities together as a couple is a bonding experience. It’s safe to say neither of us had spent much time in caves or knew the first thing about Paleolithic art. On this trip, we were seeing new things and learning the equivalent of a three-credit college course in a little over a week.

As we visited caves and museums that featured exact replicas of cave paintings (a number of caves are closed to the public so the artwork can be better preserved), what stood out to me was that the need to express oneself must be innate. Seeing the iconic negative handprints and expressive line drawings that were left behind in caves hundreds of miles apart and drawn centuries apart was a magical reminder of the humanity that connects us all. Sharing that experience—hiking in and out of dimly lit damp caves—with Leo was bonding in a way that a beachside margarita never could be.

Less stress means less tension

Other advantages of the National Geographic guided trip were that everything was planned out for us, down to the last detail. We didn’t have to study guidebooks or ask hotel staff for restaurant recommendations to figure out where we wanted to have dinner that night, as it was all predetermined.

All the transportation was organized for us, saving us the stress of figuring out how to get from point A to point B. Like many couples, we have been known to argue about directions and how fast the other is driving. Since we were on a comfy bus with expert, local drivers, this potential tiff was taken off the table.

Last, because hotels, most meals, tours and transportation were included, we didn’t even have to stress about how much we were spending.

A little perspective goes a long way

Our initial motivation for taking this trip was to have time alone, away from the kids so we could relax and reconnect. What I couldn’t have anticipated was how much time around strangers in a new environment, learning new things, could help me fall in love with my husband all over again.

I no longer stop him when I’ve already heard his story, or roll my eyes at his jokes. Instead, I think of the friends we made on our trip who appreciated being entertained. We’ve committed to trying new things amid the hubbub of our daily life, albeit on a smaller scale, whether it be experimenting with a new dinner recipe or playing a new card game on game night with the kids.

And when my own life gets too hectic, I try to keep things in perspective. I am but one of a billion people who have walked this earth, yet I can still find a way to make an impact that will last for tens of thousands of years. I know that continuing to build a loving family and maintaining a strong bond with my husband is my best chance of doing exactly that.