Forget jetting off to Cancun together. Try building a well.
Two years into our marriage, my husband, Dave, and I went on a cruise. While we had fun, our trip was marred by a major meltdown about parasailing. The details are too ugly to get into, but let’s just put it this way—two grown adults squabbling over parasailing isn’t pretty and led to one of our worst fights as a couple. New Trend: Newlyweds Put The Volunteer In Honeymoon
When we started planning our next trip, Dave and I wanted to do things differently and step outside of the first-world selfishness that caused so many problems on our first trip. So, we signed up to volunteer with an organization called Aqua Viva, whose mission is to builds wells in villages where water is scarce. Partnering with the local community, Aqua Viva trains volunteers to dig wells and teach hygiene in the schools. The volunteers are led by locals who work hard to ensure that the groups adhere to local morays. Fun And Free: Volunteer Date
So, last June, Dave and I spent one week in a small village in rural El Salvador with a group of people from our town. I worked with the hygiene team and Dave spent his days on the well. Every night we came home, muddy and exhausted. In order to spend time together we had to get up at 5am to meet for a small walk before we loaded up for the bumpy ride back into the village.
We were too tired to fight, but I don’t think we would have. While playing muddy games of soccer and teasing the girls about their crushes on the men from our team, I observed Dave from afar. At home, I often tease him for his fondness for watching re-runs of “Hogan’s Heroes” in his underwear and needle him about doing the dishes, but in El Salvador I saw Dave in a new light. He impressed the group leaders by being one of the hardest workers on the team. And even when the drilling hit a snag and forced the men to work until one in the morning, he remained calm and patient. While other members of our team talked longingly of hamburgers, Dave gratefully cleaned his plate of new foods like fried plantains and food I knew he hated—black beans.
And my husband also saw me do things he’d never seen me do before, play softball, speak a new language and dress a spider bite. And whereas our cruise left me feeling peevish about our relationship, going to El Salvador and working with my husband made me feel so lucky to be married to him.
While studies show that volunteerism leads to mental health benefits, can going on a service trip help your relationship? According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, “A study of older married adults found that those individuals who reported providing instrumental support to friends, relatives, and neighbors had lower rates of mortality five years later than those who had not reported providing support. In addition, providing support was found to have a stronger relationship with longevity…”
Eris Huemer, a licensed marriage and family expert, notes, "Couples who serve together are more likely to stay together. They have the mentality of, 'Ask not what you can do for yourself, ask what you can do for others.' In return they become more bonded and committed to one another. Doing a ‘Do Good’ vacation gives the couple everlasting memories, which are priceless."
Marriage puts a couple under a microscope. The daily reality of “until death do us part” means that all your secret pettiness and petulance now has a witness. And while this closeness brings a level of comfort, it often becomes difficult to see your spouse as more than just a sum of dinners, unfolded laundry and stinky burps. Taking a trip outside our natural habitats, forced my husband and I to look at each other as more than just a sum of our worst habits.
On our cruise, my husband and I fought because we were still stuck in our selfish patterns, but going to El Salvador forced us out of our entitled state of mind both in our behavior as citizens of the world and within our marriage.
Elisabeth Joy Lamotte, LICSW, psychotherapist and author of Overcoming Your Parents' Divorce, believes that a volunteer vacation can help a couple reconnect. “When couples take the time to volunteer together, whether on vacation or as a part of their routine, it builds intimacy and a shared sense of perspective and purpose. A vacation that focuses on giving back is a great bonding opportunity, especially for couples who have inherently different hobbies and interests. A week of building houses in a town that was hit by a hurricane will likely do a lot more to enhance a relationship than lounging on the beach, and is all the more meaningful in such challenging economic times.”
I don’t want to make it sound like Dave and I are now perfect individuals, we aren’t. We still fight over petty things and wallow in our first-world misery. But since going on the trip we’ve worked hard to make service an active part of our life together, for example, we’ve begun volunteering with faith-based organizations in our community and making a concerted effort to give 10% of our income to charity. We do this because it helps us think outside of our selfishness and in turn makes us a better couple.
Volunteer Trip Opportunities: