Life in a van seems idyllic on social media. But for couples, it can be challenging.

By Faith Karimi | CNN

It looks like a dream life and freedom on the road: golden sunsets, cozy bunks and endless photographs amidst breathtaking views of nature.

TO growing cult of nomads They are taking long road trips, sometimes for months, in decked out camper vans, often documenting the highlights of their trips on Instagram with the hashtag #vanlife.

But for couples, especially those who are inexperienced, this seemingly carefree lifestyle can bring with it unique problems. Sharing cramped rooms isolated from their support networks, couples on the road say they must fight boredom and logistical challenges day after day without going crazy with each other.

The death of 22-year-old Gabby Petito while on a cross-country trip this summer with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, has drawn new attention to aspects of van life that don’t appear in sunny postings from the United States. social networks. The evidence shows the couple had some tense moments on the road in the days leading up to his disappearance.

Petito’s remains were found Sunday in Wyoming. No one has been charged with his death. Authorities are looking for laundry, 23, who has been missing since returning alone earlier this month to her parents’ home in Florida.

Many couples romanticize the idea of ​​road trips but don’t plan the key details ahead of time and end up trapped in a toxic situation, he says. Chicago Area Psychologist John Duffy, who has worked with Van Life couples.

“A trip like this can seem like a heady and exciting adventure that will bring you closer together, and it often is. But the days, I have heard, can be long and arduous. Naturally, they get on each other’s nerves, at least some of the time, ”Duffy said.

“And if they haven’t spent a lot of time together, they may find themselves on an awkward, and, in the extreme, dangerous level of awkwardness and conflict.”

Sharing a small space can take a toll

The #vanlife lifestyle has gained popularity in recent years, fueled by social media posts, DIY truck conversion videos on YouTube, and a desire to escape the crowds during the pandemic.

CNN spoke to a handful of couples who have roamed the United States in vans. They say they have been following the evolution of the Petito case, fascinated by the story of the young couple who shared their interests and appeared on social media to have a perfect life.

“I followed the borderline case obsessively. Gabby had devastating and heartbreaking bad luck, “she says. Sierra Peters-BucklandA 28-year-old van for life who has made trips of several months with his girlfriend, Annette Hayward. “But life in the van didn’t kill Gabby, travel didn’t kill Gabby, national parks didn’t kill Gabby. One person killed Gabby. “

For Peters-Buckland, the allure of van life caught her eye last year. He quit his job at a sporting goods store in Oceanside, California, packed his bags, and began planning a cross-country trip.

Sierra Peters-Buckland and his girlfriend have so far traveled to 42 states and 50 national parks. (CNN)

In April, she and Hayward bought a white Mercedes Sprinter truck that they nicknamed Chance. They dressed him in white linen and curtains to soften the truck’s wooden interior, packed some belongings, and stored bear spray in various places to ward off intruders. Then they hit the road.

On their last trip, Peters-Buckland and his girlfriend covered 24,000 miles and visited 42 states and 50 national parks. They saw buffalo, bears, elk, and bighorn sheep. An Instagram photo was shown a sunrise over Death Valley National Park; the cup of coffee in the foreground reads, “Enjoy the ride.”

But long days and numerous daily tasks on the road can take their toll, says Peters-Buckland. She says their travels taught them valuable lessons on how to handle conflict.

“Travel, especially budget travel, can be exhausting and cause added stress with having to make decisions every day … expect tough times, expect the unexpected, and have strategies in place if you are in a relationship that can get into heated arguments. “Peters,” says Buckland, adding that she and Hayward learned to resolve their disputes quickly.

Of course, some couples are in abusive relationships from the start, and their problems cannot be attributed to a long trip in a van.

But still, too many fights on the road is a bad sign, van fans say.

“If the arguments happen very regularly, become aggressive or cause deep sadness, the reality is that they should not travel together in a small space. And probably not in a relationship, ”says Peters-Buckland. “We need to stop normalizing toxic behavior so more people don’t end up like Gabby.”

Truckers for Life Must Take Care of Their Mental Health

Homeless people say they meet like-minded people and make friends across the country. But it can be lonely to be away from your social circles.

Quote Ahmir He’s been driving his black 2018 Ford Transit pickup off-road part-time for a year. He has been up and down the east coast and attended a gathering of black nomads in Georgia. Your partner comes regularly for the walk.

“I think the importance of community and how much mental health can affect being alone on the road for long periods of time is not discussed enough,” says Ahmir, 28, of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. “It’s a balancing act between learning to be more social and living less attached to people and things.”

With a support system hundreds of miles away and nowhere to run after a disagreement, couples are forced to be creative in resolving conflicts, he says. Ahmir and his partner are careful to take breaks from each other when necessary.

28-year-old Navod Ahmir drives his 2018 Ford Transit truck on frequent long road trips. Your partner comes regularly for the walk. (CNN)

“For example, if I’m taking a nap, my partner can relax in the cabin, work on a nearby park bench, or explore the area until I wake up,” he says. “Communication is key, as it is about equal parts listening to understanding and speaking for oneself.”

Like stationary couples, van life couples need to practice patience and find what works best for their lifestyle, he says.

Ahmir works remotely in finance and plans to make the life of his truck permanent later this year. But he says Petito’s case has made him and his partner reorient their priorities to maintain a healthy relationship while traveling.

“We read a lot of personal development books and we strive to apply that knowledge to our daily lives, which seeps into our relationship,” he says. “Because of this case, we will highlight our focus on better communication.”

Long trips take a lot of planning

Chicago resident Katherine Kulpa, 31, has taken several road trips with her boyfriend in a rented ProMaster cargo van.

Life in a couple’s van involves detailed planning that includes both people in the equation, he says.

“It requires a lot of teamwork and communication. You have to make joint decisions about travel plans, often on the fly, ”he says. “Traveling as a couple is fun, but sharing a smaller space can be a challenge if you’re not organized.”

Katherine Kulpa has taken some road trips with her boyfriend in a rented van. “There are definitely parts of van trips that are difficult,” he says. (CNN)

On his most recent trips, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina last fall and to the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois this summer, safety was also a concern. They traveled with their dogs, Kasper and Daisy, and stayed in the camps for the night.

They also shared their travel itinerary in advance with family and friends.

“Social media makes most trips seem more glamorous than they are. There are definitely parts of van trips that are difficult, ”he says. “If you don’t have a shower or toilet inside, that can be a challenge and usually means you have to find a campground or a public toilet. The truck can get dirty easily, so you need to stay organized. “

Couples must first ask themselves key questions

Hitting the road for weeks or months at a time requires significant logistical and financial planning.

For couples, that should also include talking to a therapist or life coach, says Duffy, the psychologist.

Speak through a series of questions: How long do we plan to be away? What is the purpose of the trip? How much do we plan to spend? “He says.” A couple I worked with spent some time in the session talking at length about who would drive, which led to a discussion about control in their relationship. These are important discussions to participate in before the trip. “

Gabby Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Many of them for life have followed Petito’s disappearance and death with interest. (CNN)

Couples also need to find out how they will handle changes in plans or emergencies, he says. And while road travelers can’t prepare for all contingencies, a plan can help with problem solving and conflict management, Duffy says.

Young couples often have less experience living together and solving problems together. Entrust them to a small space for days or weeks at a time and there will be more potential for conflict, he says.

A central idea of ​​these trips is to create memories together, but couples should also have a plan to spend time apart to give themselves space, says Duffy.

“Some can do it quietly inside the vehicle, even sitting next to each other,” he says. “Others will have to stop in a city or on the highway, and give each other that space. Without planning a conflict management method in advance, the van … can quickly become a toxic and unhealthy environment. “

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