Wish you were here - and not me

Spent a blissful fortnight rowing with your partner, yelling at the kids or arguing with your friends? Join the club. Almost half of us hate our holidays, reports Emma Cook

"Was my holiday relaxing?" Jenny laughs bleakly. "Yeah, as laid- back as spending two weeks with Hitler. After day three I felt more exhausted than when I arrived. My partner and I argued constantly. I wanted to lie around and let the kids play in the pool; he'd be up every morning at eight o'clock, reading his guide books and dragging me off to some tedious, two-star Renaissance church. By the end of the week I was furious that he was dictating everything we did. I'd lie in bed at night in a rage while he lay next to me snoring." For Jenny, two weeks in the sun with her husband and two young children was about as rejuvenating as a tooth extraction, more akin to a spell in a labour camp than a break in an upmarket villa in Umbria.

But Jenny admits that as part of her holiday armoury, she tends to eradicate from her mind the more stressful memories as soon as she hits home turf. Her friends and colleagues only hear the glossy, edited highlights. "I suppose it's difficult to admit that you have put hours of time into planning something and spent hundreds of pounds just to spend two weeks feeling rather irritated and let down - and you know that it's the only freedom you have got for another year."

Holiday amnesia hits many of us as we return to the drudgery of office life. No doubt even Cherie and Tony, who returned from a 25-day break earlier this week, will be sufferers. Like childbirth, we appear to have an in-built instinct to forget the pain soon afterwards - maybe that's the only way many holiday-makers would willingly submit to the experience again.

This summer, psychologist Trevor Jellis helped to compile a holiday survey for Barclaycard. "People will tell you they've had a marvellous time when really it's been terrible," he says. "Holidays are fantasies. They're not real life." According to his research, more than 40 per cent of the 2,000 people interviewed admitted that they positively looked forward to returning home from the holiday and 42 per cent argued with their partners, usually about money. Jellis explains, "On a stress rating scale, going on holiday is placed between minor violations of the law and moving home. It puts a strain on the relationship and brings the worst out in people."

If further evidence is needed that holidays can precipitate emotional flare-ups rather than resolve them, counselling service Relate says that it expects an increase in calls around this time of year. Come September, troubled couples often pick up the telephone and call their local Relate office before unpacking their suitcases.

Relate spokesperson Julia Cole says: "People often feel a holiday will magically heal a relationship with problems. But, of course, they take those same problems away with them." Which may explain why the Solicitors Family Law Association reports a 50 per cent increase in the number of people thinking about a divorce at the end of a summer holiday.

What these unfortunate figures point to is the unhealthy effects of being thrown together with loved ones - and friends - for intense periods of time. Life's daily demands and routines provide buffers that allow a beneficial distance in personal relationships. Remove these and the strain can sometimes prove too much.

Louise, 33 and a publicity director, recently spent two weeks in Venice with her boyfriend, which she now cheerfully admits was "absolutely hellish". Part of the problem, she says, were her impossibly high expectations. "You think it's going to be this wonderfully romantic destination. Somehow, you've got to live up to it and have the most wonderful time. It was the first time my boyfriend and I had really been away together and we spent the whole time rowing. It was almost like the relationship was a laboratory and this was the ultimate test."

Part of the reason they argued was because Louise's partner, like Jenny's, seemed to assume control of the holiday itinerary. "It was this subtle loss of power over your destiny. For some

reason I was allowing myself to be led by this man. Even issues like who keeps hold of the maps and the money become really crucial in who got the upper hand."

Unlike many people, Louise no longer romanticises or yearns for long exotic holidays - she is far too aware that reality can never match up to fantasy. "It is difficult being plonked in a different environment, ripped away from all those reassuring, familiar things that keep your psyche in order. It makes you feel paranoid and insecure." This is partly because holidays are an artificial stretch of time where normal rules and codes of behaviour that apply at home are suddenly overturned. Identities shift, too. As Jellis says: "It can be a nasty shock, especially for the men. Someone who's used to commanding a lot of power and holding down a responsible job is suddenly just 'dad'."

In other cases, this shift in responsibility can mean adolescent regression. Katy, 30 and a designer, was appalled when her boyfriend tripped off to the local disco with a stranger while she stayed in bed with food poisoning. "He didn't even tell me where he was going. He just turned up outside our hotel at five in the morning, drunk as hell and demanding to be let in. We screamed at each other and I ended up throwing a glass of water at him. In terms of our relationship, the writing was on the wall after that."

But this sort of display isn't confined to couples - friends are just as likely to find themselves in confrontation, as Gavin, 27 and a music researcher, discovered when he spent a week with his best mate in Cyprus. "For no reason at all, we ended up screaming at each other about an incident that happened five years before - he thought I'd stood him up at a bus stop and never bothered to turn up because I was seeing my girlfriend. He had been harbouring this resentment ever since. It all got out of hand and we didn't speak to each other for two days." His explanation is simple. "I think two factors are at play on holiday - drink and too much navel gazing. You tend to be in a contemplative mood because there aren't the usual mundanities to talk about," he says.

According to Jellis, the solution could be to abandon the idea of the once-a-year extended holiday. "It may be better having several short, regular breaks," he says, "which would make it easier to get back into work, too." He also recommends that couples discuss exactly what they want from a holiday before they go and accept that they have varying expectations.

This may be why Robert, 39 and a sales director, finally enjoyed a holiday with his wife in Portugal this summer, after years of bitter disputes. "We don't see a lot of each other at home and found being in close proximity 24 hours a day too difficult. So, this time, we agreed to do our own thing and meet up in the evenings. I'd go out every day and play golf, our children joined a playgroup and my wife spent her time sunbathing and reading."

Robert was fortunate to find a compromise. But if all else fails, Jellis, who has drawn up a "holiday compatibility quiz" as part of his survey, offers a final alternative to staying at home: "If you are really not suited to each other, it's probably time to consider going on holiday with somebody else."

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