Before I graduated from college, I read Meg Jay's The Defining Decade. In it, she discusses how to make the most of your 20s because they're some of the most important and informative years of your life.
It's full of good advice, but one area that really stood out to me was the danger of “sliding into” your romantic relationships, particularly when it comes to deciding whether or not to move in together.
Couples often slide into this major life decision out of convenience. Maybe rent is too expensive to live separately and they're already sleeping over each other's places a few nights a week. Maybe Adam's lease is up before Brenda's, so Adam lives with Brenda for a couple months, gets comfortable, and never leaves. Maybe Annie lives in Brooklyn, but gets a new job in the Financial District, which is where Bridget lives. So they decide it's easiest if she just moves in with her. I think you get the picture.
But once a couple lives together, their relationship is pretty much "locked in", meaning it becomes significantly harder, sometimes nearly impossible, to end the relationship. This is especially detrimental if the relationship isn't great from the get-go. While the act of moving in together may be easy to slide into, the implications of doing so are anything but easy.
Statistically, couples that move in together before marriage tend to be less satisfied with their marriages and have higher rates of divorce than those who don't.
To avoid becoming part of this statistic, Meg Jay strongly advises young couples to decide (instead of slide into) this major life decision. She urges couples to align their commitment levels and to stress test their relationship before moving in together. One of the ways she suggests doing this is to travel to a third world country together.
So that's exactly what Nat and I did.
If you’re thinking about making a life decision with your partner like committing to each other (this was our case), moving in together (this was also our case), getting engaged, getting married, whatever, this might be a great quick and dirty test.
For me, it took about two weeks of traveling to know that we'd be apartment hunting for our first home together upon our return to the States.
This trip challenged us and forced us to “deal” with each other in less than ideal circumstances. We were forced to become aware of each other’s values, habits, and preferences. And thus forced to figure out how to compromise when we disagreed on important (and stupid) things. The repetitive process of figuring each other out helped us to understand whether we were compatible or not in a quick and telling manner.
This all-in strategy has a potentially sad downside, but it could also have a positive upside. Either way, the result and takeaways will be invaluable. For us, we wanted to put our relationship to the ultimate test because we didn’t want to waste any more time in limbo. It was 0 or 100: we’d either crack under the pressure or emerge stronger than ever before.
If you even slightly resonate with the above, read on.
Our Approach & Rules
Nat and I started seeing each other in 2015, when he was a senior in college and when I was a sophomore. We were on and off for the subsequent two years, somewhat surviving through a challenging long distance relationship.
We cut the crap and got back together officially in February 2017. With my graduation around the corner in May, we began planning an extensive trip that would take us all around Asia.
The intention of the trip? To stress test our relationship with six weeks of intense travel.
We knew that these six weeks would be extremely important for the next step of our lives. If we thrived, we would move in together in NYC and take our relationship more seriously. If we couldn't do it, one of us would go home early and we'd call it quits for good. As in, sayonara forever and have a nice life.
It seems dramatic, but it was very necessary for us after two years of back and forth.
If this echos your relationship in any way, then you're probably feeling inspired to go on your own adventure. It might be useful to have some tips and tricks as you begin, so here are the major guidelines we tried our best to follow.
Go Places You’re Actually Interested In
It’s not fun to go somewhere purely to test your relationship. Find countries and cities you’re curious about, whether it’s because of the food, culture, experiences, whatever. There’s no point in exploring a city that you don’t care about.
Aim For Places Where Folks Don’t Speak Your Language
We wanted to go places that would force us to work together. An easy way to guarantee this was going to Asia, where neither of us spoke any of the languages.
Our adventures throughout the trip became more interesting when no one spoke our language (English). We had to develop a plan together, no matter the circumstances.
In other words, we needed to combine both our brains to get what we wanted or to go where we wanted. This crossed off the vast majority of other continents for us because Nat knows Spanish and I know French...and we didn’t want to go to Antarctica.
Side note, we noticed that the more rural parts of Asia had the most English speakers. We had a harder time speaking with locals in more urban and bustling cities like Tokyo and Seoul. In those areas, we got down the important basics like ordering yummy food.
Use Public Transit When Available & Safe
It’s more of a challenge to use the public systems compared to calling an Uber. The former requires teamwork and a more conscious effort on both your ends. Even more if the maps aren’t in a language you speak or read. If public transit is available to use and you feel safe using it, I highly recommend opting in for the challenge.
However, if public transit isn't available or it's late at night, a fun alternative to calling a car is taking a motorcycle ride share. We used Grab and UberScooter. You can request your ride and a driver will come on their motorcycle, give you a helmet, and get you to your destination in a fun and safe way. I'm very scared of motorcycles, but these guys are pros and I never felt that they went too fast or that I was in danger.
As a side note, neither Nat nor I had data or cell service, so in order to stick together, we had one motorcycle lead the other. And under no circumstances would we let our drivers separate. I just told my driver to follow Nat's motorcycle at all times and things worked out.
Don’t Make It (Too) Glamorous
Of course you want to be safe, but that doesn’t mean you have to be at the Ritz eating at 5-star restaurants the whole time.
Part of the challenge for us was seeing each other in less-than-ideal states: sweaty and gross and wearing a shirt that should have been washed 10 days ago.
It was a, “If you don’t love me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” kind of vibe. There may be opportunities for romantic getaways in wine country...but this wasn't that.
Build In Breaks
To balance my previous point, make sure that you’re treating yourself and your partner every now and then. For example, we got massages when we were in Thailand and we treated ourselves to a few fine dining experiences in Korea and Japan.
These times also provided us an opportunity to show the other that we still want to impress the other. It’s important to date and court your partner throughout this challenge.
Important Discussions to Have
When embarking on a loaded trip like this, even if it’s just for a week or so, you’ll run into several points that will likely warrant a conversation.
Even the planning segment of the trip is integral to the overall challenge. Can you agree on a plan of action before you even implement it? Maybe in this stage, you begin to feel that your partner isn’t pulling their weight or isn’t contributing their opinions as much as you’d like. If this is the case, use it as an opportunity to have a discussion. I guarantee you that a similar issue will come up either on the trip itself or at another decision point in the future.
Here are some things you’ll almost definitely encounter during the planning phase and/or while you’re on your adventure. It’s probably good to at least think about them before you jet off.
Where Do You Want to Go?
Thankfully, both Nat and I agreed on Asia as a whole. However, we didn’t perfectly align on where in Asia we wanted to go.
We decided to make separate lists of countries we were interested in and ranked them on a scale of one to three. One meant, "I absolutely need to go here, it's been such a dream of mine." and three meant, "I'm intrigued. If it's on the way and flights aren't expensive, let's add it in."
It's not a super scientific method, but it worked for us. Once we had our preferred countries and their rankings in order, we were able to prioritize and compromise accordingly.
Even this exercise of jotting down what we each wanted and then coming together to compromise was useful. It definitely translates to how we make important decisions together several years later.
For some, this prioritizing and compromising step may be the deterrent for taking the trip in the first place. To prevent this from being a negative experience, try approaching the exercise and conversation already knowing what you want, but also knowing what you’re willing to negotiate.
How Much Money Are You Willing to Spend?
Luckily, Nat and I have always been super transparent with each other around money, so it wasn’t really a point of conflict for us.
However, the money talk can often be uncomfortable for people and become a slippery slope. If you’re more in this camp, try your best to enter the conversation with a clear budget. Don’t let your partner talk you into spending above your means.
For us, we were on the same page about allocating the majority of our money towards experiences rather than accommodations. We ended up staying in hostels in every country for our whole trip. In order to replicate potentially living together in NYC, we opted to stay in private rooms instead of shared dorms. More expensive cities like Seoul were around $70USD per night, while less expensive cities like were around $30USD per night.
We used HostelWorld to find the best hostels that worked with our expectations and budget.
I’d also recommend setting aside an emergency fund for your travels. We both kept $500 - $600USD in cash in our bags for emergency expenses. Once you decide your safety net, mentally treat it as if it’s spent money.
We had several unexpected costs during the trip, from missed flights, last minute bullet trains, and a hospital trip, so having that emergency fund eased stress all around.
How do you want to spend your time?
Is one person a major nerd when it comes to seeing every museum and significant sight? Is one person a huge foodie who would love nothing more than to eat and drink their way through the city? Make sure you’re both clear on this so no one is disappointed, especially if your priorities don’t align. Again, compromise.
Hopefully there are a few things you do agree on, though. For us, one of those things was cooking. We tried to take a cooking class in each country we visited and had so much learning and talking to the instructors about their lives.
About half-way through the trip, I began getting a little bored of the temples, but Nat was still into them. The trip was wearing on me and I wanted to carve out more time to relax and wander around the neighborhood. We ended up compromising. We did our sightseeing in the morning, took a break for lunch, and then I had the opportunity to hang out while he explored, or I’d pick the next activity to be something I was pumped about.
How do you and your partner react to stress?
We missed two flights in total.
For one of them, we got lucky and there was a bullet train that we were able to catch in the next hour. Obviously, this cost even more money. But, going back to my earlier point about money, we had already budgeted for accidents just like this. We were annoyed, but ultimately shook it off and moved on.
However, we were less lucky for the second missed flight. There weren’t any good flight options, we were tired, and just all around fed up with our bad luck and poor planning.
Negative and blaming thoughts started creeping into my mind.
“If only Nat hadn’t needed to stop for coffee, we wouldn’t have to waste even more money on this missed flight.”
“If I didn’t sleep so late, we wouldn’t be in this crappy situation. Why am I so selfish?”
Obviously, such thoughts are neither healthy nor productive. I tried my best to re-center myself, took a deep breath, and literally forced myself to smile and laugh.
After a few minutes of this “me time”, I looked at Nat, “Can we just sit on the floor so I can cry a little?”. And we did just that. It sounds silly, but this was one of the defining moments of the trip for me because it perfectly exemplified how we complement each other in times of stress. We still laugh about this moment now.
These situations can go in a very negative direction very quickly, which is why they serve as great opportunities to gain small wins with your partner.
On the other hand, if you’re unable to get through such inconveniences without hating the other person, then you’ll also learn something about your dynamic.
Remember that being highly neurotic is toxic. How can you keep yourself and your partner in check?
Sometimes all you need is a good cry on the airport floor.
What Happens if Someone Gets Sick/Ill?
I had a terrible eczema flare up at the beginning of the trip. I then went into the ocean in Phuket (dumb move) and it was game over. We arrived in Singapore a couple days later (thank goodness) and by that point, my skin was so damaged that I could barely look to the side without my skin cracking on my neck.
Nat basically tricked me into going to Raffles Hospital.
It turned out my eczema had gotten very badly infected (even the doctor was alarmed). I needed an insane amount of oral and topical antibiotics.
It was pretty scary honestly, but I felt very lucky to have a partner who knew how to get me the treatment I needed, even when I didn’t think I needed it. Not to mention that he let me cry it out on his shoulder during one of the nights when I was in a lot of pain.
It was obviously a bad experience I wouldn’t like to repeat, but it showed me that he was ready to step up and make sure that I was okay, physically and emotionally. And it’s a good thing he did because I’m not sure how the rest of the trip would have gone.
During this specific experience, Nat became my rock and caretaker. For obvious reasons, this was another significant series of events that showed both of us that we were a good team and that we were ready to commit. I think this was a prominent moment for my parents, too. They were helpless back in the States, but they found comfort knowing I was in the best hands.
What If Something Happens That You’re Not Prepared For?
While I like to think this article gets you 90% of the way there, you must be prepared to improvise. It’s impossible to anticipate everything that may go wrong. That’s life.
These situations are some of the best challenges for your relationship because they demand your fullest attention, your best attitude, and your sharpest problem-solving skills.
Instead of framing the unexpected mishaps as unexpected mishaps, interpret them as ways for you and your partner to overcome something, together. These moments have the potential to lead you to great wins as a couple, thus making your foundation sturdy. Of course, you can crumble. But that’s within your and your partner’s control. Make it a win and emerge stronger than you were before.
Feeling inspired to challenge your relationship? Let me know if I can help with any of your planning!