Traditionally, gap years were a chance to take a break from school and from years of meeting other people’s expectations. Usually taken between high school and university, it was a chance to explore the world, but mostly to get to know yourself. It was a journey of self-discovery.
Today, though, the concept of a gap year is much more fluid and flexible. Even grown-ups are taking gap years mid-career or after retirement, and the reasons for taking a gap year have become much more varied. There are endless reasons to pack a bag, buy a ticket, and head out into the world, leaving everything known and comfortable behind. But when it comes to your significant other, should you leave them behind or take a gap year as a couple?
Whether you’ve been dating for a year or married for 20, there's no better way to get to know someone than traveling together.
Of course, every person, relationship, and situation is different. One reader may gasp at the idea of leaving their loved one behind, and another may be thinking that a gap year should be taken alone. There is no right answer, but the key is to do some real soul-searching and decide what's best for you and your partner. Here are some things to consider when deciding if you should or shouldn't take a gap year as a couple.
Why Take a Gap Year as a Couple
Whether you’ve been dating for a year or married for 20, there's no better way to get to know someone than traveling together. Travel brings out the best in us, but being outside of our comfort zone can sometimes bring out the worst. Here's a quick list of reasons why you should take a gap year together (not all of them have to apply, but worth thinking about at the least):
Reasons to take a gap year as a couple
- You're both equally excited about taking a gap year.
- You travel well together (if you've never traveled together before, take a quick weekend trip somewhere to test this out before your gap year).
- You're both able to afford it.
- You have the same or compatible goals.
- You're both open to getting out of your comfort zone.
- You communicate well -- especially under stress.
- You're able to make compromises well.
- You view travel as a way to get closer and strengthen your relationship.
If you're considering a gap year as a couple, the first step is to make sure you're both on the same page. It’s a major thing to put your life and career on hold to go off and explore the world. For you to both go and both get everything you can from it, it needs to be something you both want.
Once you've decided that you both want to take a gap year and do it together, the next step is to figure out what that gap year might look like. Today’s gap years can really be anything you want them to be. A gap year could be a year or six months, it could be one experience or a string of different adventures, it could be structured or free-form travel. This allows you and your significant other to figure out what is going to be best for you both.
Some important questions to ask each other
- Whose idea is this? If a gap year was your idea, and it took a lot of convincing to get your significant other on board, maybe a gap year as a couple isn't the best idea. If you're both equally gung-ho about it, that's a great sign.
- How do you both like to travel? Do you like to rough it or have champagne in first class? Do you mind overnight trains? Are you budget or mid-range?
- Are the ways that you travel compatible? A gap year isn’t a week-long cruise in the Mediterranean -- it is often a real opportunity to get off the beaten path. This means that you and your significant other need to be able to travel well together, or more importantly, that you share the same interests and priorities.
- What do you hope to get out of your gap year? This is an important one. You need to be open and clear with your goals for this experience or you might find yourselves competing. Also consider that it is often harder to meet new people and integrate into a local community as a couple. Be aware that if making friends with local people is a priority, you’ll need to make an extra effort.
- Are you good at communicating? Gap years can change people, which is really the whole idea. Whether it makes you look at the world differently or just discover a deep love for elephant conservation, most people come back from a gap year changed. You need to be able to communicate well with your significant other so that you are learning and growing and changing in similar ways - or at least you’re sharing the ways in which you are learning.
- Do you share your finances? If so, be good at keeping track of them and again, communicate and have shared priorities. If not, be sure that you both have the resources necessary for the kind of experience you both want. It could put a strain on your relationship if one of you has the funds and desire to do something the other can’t.
- Assume it's all going to go well. But if it doesn’t, make sure that if you go your separate ways, you have all of the the resources and funds you might need.
- Are you OK with alone time? Taking a gap year together is fun and exciting and a way to bring you closer, but any couple will need time to themselves. This means different things for different people, but be sure that you are open with your need for space and that you have realistic expectations.
Taking a gap year as a couple can be an excellent way to bring you closer and experience things in the world that you’ve only dreamed of. It might mean there will be stressful times, times when you want to pull your hair out, times when personality traits that were once adorable are now dreadful, but remember that you are in it together.
Be happy that you have someone who loves you enough to drop everything and see the world with you. Delight in each other’s strengths and ignore weaknesses. Most of all, know that you are building new memories together.
Why Take a Gap Year Without Them?
Of course, not every couple should take a gap year together. Even though you work great together at home, traveling might be a whole different game -- and that's OK. Some couples just work like that. But if you're an adventure junkie and your loved one is more of a home-body, you've probably already been in situations where you two wanted to do different things -- and came to a compromise together. This is a similar situation.
Reasons not to take a gap year as a couple
- You've never traveled together before (again, this is an easy fix though!)
- You're not equally excited about a gap year -- if one person is hesitant, that could cause problems later on.
- One person can afford it, but the other can't -- even if you say you're OK with paying for the other person, it could create unwanted feelings or guilt.
- Being out of your comfort zone creates tension between you.
- Your main goal is introspection and self growth.
- Your relationship is healthy and you have trust in the other person while apart.
Basically, taking a gap year alone doesn’t have to be the death knell of a relationship. In fact, there are plenty of ways in which a relationship might be better off, especially if one person is really excited about the idea and the other isn’t. Just make sure you're confident in your relationship, trust each other, and have talked it out before you commit.
As Katharine Butler Hathaway once wrote, “a person needs at intervals to separate from family and companions and go to new places. One must go without familiars in order to be open to influences, to change.”
Still not convinced? Then let's dive into the advantages and disadvantages of leaving your loved one behind.
Advantages of taking a gap year without your significant other
The good news is that you get to do exactly what you want. Your gap year can be the experience that you have always wanted and one that could be life changing. You're in charge and don’t have to make any concessions.
This is especially appealing to those of us who are older and more mature -- we know what we like to do and how we like to spend our time, and there's something extremely appealing about taking time to do exactly what we want. This could be a real advantage if we're taking a gap year to do work related to our career. It means that we’d have the flexibility to do what we need to get the training or experience that we need or want.
It’s also much easier to make friends and be involved in local events as a solo traveler. People are inclined to want to include you, which could open the door for even more unique and exciting experiences. As travel blogger and solo female traveler Kristin Addis writes, a solo gap year makes it easier to get “invited to local events and having a more local experience -- it just seems to happen more to travelers who are open, alone, and are able to focus on the world around them instead of the person who is with them.”
Next, a solo gap year is a chance for a real look at oneself. In the bustle and business of careers, families, and everyday life, it’s easy to lose sight of who we are and where we want to go. A journey alone that brings bouts of silence, gangs of new friends and experiences, and an adventure outside of our comfort zone might be exactly what we need at this stage in our lives.
Disadvantages of taking a gap year without your significant other
Of course, there are disadvantages to traveling or taking a gap year solo. The road can be lonely. Even if you're doing a formal gap year program surrounded with people, there is a loneliness that comes from missing your significant other. There will be a part of you that's always thinking about them and many times you wish you were sharing that sunset or bowl of fried grasshoppers with the one you love.
Traveling alone is a big responsibility. You're in charge of everything, including saving and storing all of your memories. You won’t have someone else who can help you remember the name of that lodge on Lake Malawi with the better-than-average chombo. Even though you’ll make new friends, potentially all over the world, a big part of your heart will still be at home.
Find a gap year solution that works for you -- whether that is a whole year together, apart, or something in between.
Taking a gap year alone can also be more expensive, especially if you are mostly traveling (as opposed to volunteering, working, or staying in one place to study language). As a solo person, you can’t share the costs of meals, rooms, and transportation, and it all adds up.
There are other practical considerations as well, including safety. It’s almost always safer to travel as a group or couple than alone. You'll need to plan well and stay in good communication with people back home.
Either Way, It's a Big Decision
Taking a gap year is a big decision, but once you’ve decided that this is the path for you, it’s important to decide who, if anyone, should come along with you. Many people have enriched their lives and their relationships with a joint-gap year. Others find a solo gap year to be more meaningful.
In today’s world, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Find a gap year solution that works for you -- whether that is a whole year together, apart, or something in between. It might be that you choose three programs and do one together and two apart. A gap year is whatever you make of it.
The most important thing is that you go. As Jawaharal Nehru writes, “we live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with out eyes open.” Be sure that you communicate and give each other the space and love to make this the experience of a lifetime.Photo Credits: Martha Landry, David Greenky, and Courtney Dorazio.