We’d been together for six (mostly sweet) months and were set to spend a week – our longest ever stretch of time together – island hopping and ancient monument hunting in Croatia. A foolproof recipe for romance I was sure.
Since meeting at a boozy Guy Fawkes celebration on London’s Blackheath (yes, there were literally fireworks), we’d spent all our spare time together. But with an hour-plus train ride separating my home in central London and his on the outskirts, we’d never spent more than 24 uninterrupted hours in each other’s company.
Looking back, perhaps there was something symbolic in us meeting at a celebration of mass destruction. But my brain was haywire with so-called love hormones at the time. Serotonin, apparently, can send us temporarily insane. Plus, he was kind, generous and unfailingly polite. Happy to let me decide how we spent all our time together. But that, I soon discovered, was more curse than blessing.
We both fell in love at first sight with Split. World Heritage-listed Diocletian’s Palace – with its harmonious mix of centuries-old architecture and atmospheric dwellings and restaurants – seemed a perfect setting for a modern-day fairytale. I felt all the emotions you do at the start of a holiday with a newish partner: exaltation, excitement and hope that it would strengthen our bond.
Meeting our Airbnb host, he spoke only to Jamie (not his real name), apparently unaware that men no longer make all the decisions in a relationship. But Jamie, as usual, deferred to me, telling me he’d be happy to do whatever I wanted. All very gallant, I know, and I was grateful. The problem, it soon transpired, was that he seemed to have no opinions on how we should spend our time at all.
The next morning, we caught the ferry to Brac, home to the finger of fine white pebbles that is Croatia’s most photographed beach. If I’d read my guidebook properly I’d have realised it wasn’t possible to reach the beach, on the opposite side of the island to the harbour, by pushbike. Learning as much from the bike rental guy, we had a protracted argument about whether to hire a scooter – neither of us had ridden one before but he was happy to drive me if I was happy to let him – before deciding to wait the two hours for the bus. As we sweated it out at the bus stop, I tried in vain to find out what he wanted to see. “I don’t mind, how about you?” was always the response.
As the bus wound its way through the vineyard and orchard-studded Mediterranean landscape of my dreams, I tried to convince myself that his ultra laid-back attitude was a good thing. I’d have all the benefits of travelling alone – being able to do exactly what you want when you want – with a complaisant companion by my side. But complaisant is not always what you want in a travel, or life, partner.
When we arrived at the beach, we made the most of the few minutes we had there before the last bus back, soothing our bodies and souls bobbing about in the clear, blue Adriatic. When were both in the moment, worrying about neither past nor future, we could be happy. We just couldn’t sustain it.
Back at the village, we enjoyed fresh fish and a carafe of local red wine at a harbourside restaurant, of my choosing of course, before catching the ferry. Imbibing more on ride, I vented my frustration in an ineloquent manner as he sat in silence, head bowed and eyes glistening with tears. Suddenly, I felt very ashamed.
We did have our good times. Both fascinated by history, we enjoyed exploring the warren of tiny streets within the palace’s bougainvillea and graffiti-strewn walls. Were both captivated by how the colossal Roman fortress had survived the centuries so intact. But I was ever fearful I was making Jamie do things he didn’t enjoy. His face gave little away, but I often caught him shooting me furtive glances (as he did me). We were forever second guessing one another it seemed.
Sheltering from the rain in a bar one evening, Jamie revealed that he suffered from social anxiety so struggled to relax around others. It’s not that he didn’t care what we did; it’s just that he found it hard to express himself. It was his inherently good heart, I saw, that prevented him from saying anything he feared might cause offence.
My heart bled for him and I could relate, but I couldn’t quell the tension. His anxiety became mine too.
As hard as I tried to put him at his ease, Jamie struggled to tell me how he felt about what we did and saw. Rather than discuss the day’s adventures over dinner as I’d hoped, we’d return to topics of conversation we’d been over innumerable times before. Perhaps he just wasn’t really into travel. But, if so, he couldn’t really be into me.
Looking out from a hilltop fortress in Hvar the next day at the red-roofed town and sparkling sea below, I knew neither of us could feel the kind of unfettered joy such an experience should inspire. Travelling with someone should enrich the experience, but the growing tension between us was clouding it. The photos I would inevitably post online of our time in the picture-perfect town – its sun-drenched marble streets leading to a bay of emerald green islands – would not tell our true story. We’d look like the happy couple we so clearly weren’t.
One morning, I woke to find him rushing around the room shouting “come on let’s go” in a clearly forced attempt at enthusiasm. It was so unlike him, I was scared. Fortunately we were only trapped together for only one more night.
Back in London, we hugged each other goodbye, knowing in our hearts that our romantic relationship was over. But perhaps it’s not as unhappy an ending as it may sound. I sincerely hope he’s found someone he can enjoy stress-free holidays with. As for me, I’m now a bigger fan of solo travel. And ever hopeful I’ll be able to tell a tale of holiday romance one day.
Lessons learned: Tips for a harmonious romantic break
* Discuss how you want to spend your holiday well before you leave. If you have different interests, compromise will be necessary.
* Spending some alone time is not necessarily a bad thing. If one of you desperately wants to do something, but the other can’t think of anything worse, there’s no harm in you both doing your own thing for a bit. You’ll have all the more to talk about when you’re reunited.
* Be mindful of your partner’s emotions. If they are unhappy or uncomfortable about doing something, don’t try to force them. Long talks over long lunches, dinners or just on the beach can reap huge relationship rewards. As usual, communication is key.