Never, Ever Let Her Go

On a trip overseas. Alone. Especially to Africa.

Oct 5, 2009
Outside Magazine
Kilimanjaro, Kenya

Kilimanjaro, Kenya    Photo: Corbis

I LIKE TO CONSIDER myself a modern man, trusting and communicative, but if my girlfriend ever tells me she plans to vacation abroad, by herself, I'm putting my foot down. Why? Because of my buddy.

Let's call him Shakabra. And let's call his ex-wife Dream Girl, because that's what she was, right up until she came back from Africa and told him she wanted a divorce.

Shakabra and Dream Girl, both around 30, got married two years ago in Colorado and had a relationship we all envied. They didn't just mountain-bike together; they rode on matching single-speeds while singing "Besa­me Mucho." When she said she wanted to become a nurse and kick off her new career by volunteering for a month in Botswana, well, why wouldn't he cheer her on?


Twenty-four hours after she returned, on Christmas Eve, he gave her lingerie. She sighed and told him she no longer found him attractive.

To me, it seemed like an isolated disaster, but the more I spread the story around (sorry, Shakabra), the more travel-and-dump stories I heard.

There were the two sisters who each fell in love with their leaders on a family big-game safari. One broke things off with her girlfriend, the other with her husband; both married the guides. There was the church-trip volunteer from Seattle who had a marriage-ending affair with another church-trip volunteer in Tanzania. There was the construction worker from Australia who came back from Lake Victoria and stayed just long enough to leave his wife and five children.

The same thing can happen anywhere, of course, but there must be something about the Continent Where Man First Walked (and Strayed). During my one trip there—only three days after landing in Kenya, with me looking as spiky-haired and greasy as a hyena-pack reject—a married forty-something in my Park East package tour tried to tempt me past the flap of her bush tent by waving a Tusker beer in one hand and a Virginia Slim in the other.

Back, lioness!

What the heck is going on? Why are fun trips ruining holy unions?

Not surprisingly, none of these folks were eager to share the details of their breakups. But the experts were more forthcoming.

Barbara Banks, a 19-year employee of Wil­derness Travel, said, "We may well have been cited in some divorce cases, though we haven't been called to the stand." Peter Grubb, founder of the international rafting company ROW, confessed that, at least once a year, a client divorces a spouse after a raft trip. Robert Whitman, founder of Five Star Counseling Services, in Denver, confirmed my worst fears. In his 20 years as a professional counselor, he said, he's seen roughly one marriage per month break up soon after a big solo trip.

The problems start early, he said. Two years before the trip, the wife complains that she and her husband don't really talk or do fun things together anymore. The guy, only half hearing, remains as loutish as usual but goes along with her efforts to spice up the marriage. Frustrated, she gives up six months later. Things return to "normal" until, at the end of a quietly frustrating year, she says she wants to go on a big trip without him. The husband agrees, thinking himself supportive. The wife interprets his encouragement as the final abandonment.

Maybe on the trip she summits a tall peak and gains a loftier perspective on life. From this distance, that little man back in the States—whose range of interests spans everything from his kayak to his Play­Station—starts to seem positively puny. Meanwhile, the brawny mountain guide who got her to the top suddenly seems more responsive, caring, and nurturing than he'll ever be.

The takeaway, though, at least in Whitman's example, is that the big trip isn't the problem; it's merely the final, too-late alarm bell. Whether she goes to Japan or Djibouti, the relationship is over before she gets on the plane.

"'I'm gonna take a big trip by myself'—that should hit you like a two-by-four between the eyes," says Whitman.

And when it does, I suggest you drop everything and join her. Or take her by your local guides' squat and show her how these bums actually live. Or, best of all, quickly engineer a trip to some Provençal farmhouse. Imagine the two of you beating the chefs at a game of pétanque, flutes of sparkling rosé in your hands—of course you're gonna rediscover that old, many-splendored thing!

Then give her the gift-wrapped teddy.

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