Van’s life looks idyllic on social media. But for couples it can be difficult


By Faith Karimi, CNN

It feels like a dream life and freedom on the road: golden sunsets, comfy bunks, and endless photo ops amid stunning views of nature.

A growing cult of nomads take long road trips – sometimes for months on end – in tricked motorhomes, often documenting their trip’s highlights on Instagram with the hashtag #vanlife.

But for couples, especially inexperienced couples, this seemingly carefree lifestyle can come with some unique issues. Sharing cramped quarters isolated from their support networks, couples on the road say they have to grapple with boredom and logistical challenges day in and day out without going crazy.

The death of Gabby Petito, 22, on a trip across the country this summer with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, has drawn new attention to aspects of van life that are not the subject of sunny publications on social networks. Evidence shows the couple had tense moments on the road a few days before her disappearance.

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

Many couples idealize the idea of ​​road trips, but fail to plan key details in advance and find themselves trapped in a toxic situation, says Chicago-area psychologist John Duffy, who has worked with. couples of van life.

“A trip like this can seem like an engrossing and exciting adventure that will bring you together, and it often is. But the days, I’ve heard, can be long and painful. Naturally, you annoy each other, at least every now and then, ”Duffy said.

“And if you haven’t spent a lot of time together, you may find yourself in an uncomfortable and, in the extreme, dangerous level of discomfort and conflict.”

Sharing a small space can be expensive

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

CNN spoke to a handful of couples who have cruised the United States in vans. They say they have followed the development of the Petito affair, fascinated by the story of the young couple who shared their interests and appeared on social networks to have a perfect life.

“I followed the borderline case obsessively. Gabby has had a devastating and heartbreaking misfortune, ”says Sierra Peters-Buckland, 28, a life prisoner who has taken months-long trips with his girlfriend, Annette Hayward. “But, vanlife didn’t kill Gabby, travel didn’t kill Gabby, national parks didn’t kill Gabby.” Someone killed Gabby.

For Peters-Buckland, the allure of van life signaled last year. She quit her job at a sporting goods store in Oceanside, Calif., Packed her bags, and began planning a trip across the country.

In April, she and Hayward bought a white Mercedes Sprinter pickup truck that they dubbed Chance. They decorated it with crisp white sheets and curtains to soften the wooden interior of the van, packed a few personal items, and hid bear spray in various places to protect themselves from intruders. Then they hit the road.

On their last trip, Peters-Buckland and his girlfriend traveled 24,000 miles and visited 42 states and 50 national parks. They saw buffaloes, bears, moose and bighorn sheep. An Instagram photo showed a sunrise over Death Valley National Park; the coffee mug in the foreground says “Enjoy the trip”.

But long days and the many daily tasks on the road can take their toll, says Peters-Buckland. She says their travels have taught them valuable lessons about conflict management.

“Travel, especially budget travel, can be tiring and put additional strain on making decisions every day… expect tough times, expect the unexpected, and have strategies in place if you are you’re in a relationship that can get into heated arguments, “Peters-Buckland said, adding that she and Hayward have learned to resolve their differences quickly.

Of course, some couples have had an abusive relationship from the start, and their problems can’t be blamed on a long van trip.

But even so, too many quarrels on the road is a bad sign, say lifers.

“If arguments happen very regularly, get aggressive, or cause deep sadness, the reality is you shouldn’t be traveling together in a small space. And probably not in a relationship, ”says Peters-Buckland. “We need to stop normalizing toxic behaviors so more people don’t end up like Gabby.”

Lifers must take care of their mental health

Lifers say they meet like-minded people and make friends across the country. But it can be the loneliness of being away from their social circles.

Navod Ahmir has been driving his black 2018 Ford Transit van part-time for a year now. He traveled the east coast and visited a gathering of black nomads in Georgia. His partner comes regularly for the ride.

“I think the importance of community and how being alone on the road for long periods of time can negatively affect your mental health isn’t discussed enough,” says Ahmir, 28, of Rocky Mount. , North Carolina. “It’s a balance between learning to be more social and living with less attachment to people and things.”

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

“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 essential because it is equal parts listening to understand and speaking for yourself. “

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

Ahmir works remotely in finance and plans to make his van life permanent later this year. But he says Petito’s case caused him and his partner to refocus their priorities to keep a healthy relationship on the road.

“We read a lot of books on personal development and strive to apply that knowledge to our daily lives, which permeates our relationship,” he says. “As a result of this case, we will focus on the emphasis on better communication. “

Long trips take a lot of planning

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

Van life for couples involves detailed planning that takes both people into the equation, she says.

“It takes a lot of teamwork and communication. You have to make joint decisions about travel plans, often on the fly, ”she says. “Traveling as a couple is fun, but sharing a smaller space can be difficult if you’re unorganized.”

On their 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 campsites at night.

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

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

Couples should ask themselves key questions first

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

For couples, this should also include speaking with a therapist or life coach, explains Duffy, the psychologist.

“Discuss a series of questions: How long do we plan to be gone? What is the purpose of the trip? How much do we plan to spend? ” he says. “A couple I worked with spent time in session talking at length about who would lead, which led to a discussion about controlling their relationship. These are important discussions to start before the trip.

Couples should also determine how they will handle changes in plans or emergencies, he says. And while travelers on the road can’t prepare for every eventuality, a plan can help resolve issues and manage conflict, Duffy says.

Young couples often have less experience living together and solving problems together. Confine them in a small space for days or weeks at a time and there’s an increased risk of conflict, he says.

A central idea of ​​such trips is to make memories together, but couples should also have a plan to spend time apart to give each other space, says Duffy.

“Some may do it silently in the vehicle, even sitting next to each other,” he says. “Others will have to stop in a city or on the road and allow themselves this space. Without planning in advance a method of conflict management, the van… can quickly become a toxic and unhealthy environment.

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