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Why #vanlife could make (or break) your relationship

Living in a van together has become a relationship right of passage for many adventure couples. Photo: Courtesy Van Ventures
Living in a van together has become a relationship right of passage for many adventure couples. Photo: Courtesy of Van Ventures

Relationships are never easy, but there’s nothing quite as taxing as taking all the ups and downs and weird smells of your relationship, and cramming them into a van.

I’m talking from experience, here. A few years ago, my now-husband and I rebuilt a Sprinter van into a mobile home and set out for a four-month road trip together. The catch? We’d never actually lived together before.

For hundreds of couples like us, moving into a mobile home together has become something of a relationship right of passage. And while the van life may not be all that dissimilar from living together in, say, a tiny apartment, it does come with a set of unique challenges. Vans break down. Driving can be exhausting. There’s an oppressive lack of personal space. Travel can, at times, be overwhelmingly unpleasant.

But there are the upsides, too — namely, sharing an unforgettable adventure that can solidify your relationship in a way other couples may never experience. We chatted with some of our favorite couples on the road to find out what they’ve learned about their relationships by taking them on tour.

Kelly Shea and Brendan Banks

Kelly Shea and Brendan Banks took their love — and business plan — on the road for six months. Photo: Courtesy Vancrafted Studios
Kelly Shea and Brendan Banks took their love — and business plan — on the road for six months. Photo: Courtesy of Vancrafted Studios

When Shea and Banks decided they wanted to live together in a van, they devoted themselves to making it work. They broke the leases on their apartments, lived with Banks’ parents to save money, and outfitted a 1984 VW Westfalia camper that would eventually take them across the country.

On top of an already high-stress endeavor, they simultaneously launched a joint business venture: Vancrafted Studios. It’s a video production and photography agency they planned to operate out of their van.

“It was the craziest, hardest, most intense, most fun, most exhilarating and smartest thing we’ve ever done,” says Shea. “There are few circumstances that will bolster your relationship quite like overcoming the infinite number of things that go horribly wrong on a daily basis as you travel unknown terrain in a 30-year-old vehicle.”

To manage both their personal and business relationships, Shea and Banks had to learn to be patient — both with each other and their van.

“I can’t stress enough how important it is to voice your own personal needs,” Shea says. “Air your grievances as soon as you possibly can. You don’t want to be looking out over the Grand Canyon holding onto some passive aggressive feelings.”

Katie Boué

Ultimately, Katie's year-long road trip helped her and her former boyfriend realize their relationship wasn't the right fit. Photo: Courtesy Katie Boué
Ultimately, Katie’s year-long road trip helped her and her former boyfriend realize their relationship wasn’t the right fit. Photo: Courtesy of Katie Boué

“Instagram feeds tend to glamorize living in a van with your significant other,” says Katie Boué, who spent a year traveling the country in a Sprinter van with her former boyfriend. “But for every beautifully composed image of cuddly feet poking out from open van doors, there’s a miserable few hours of driving around in the dark looking for somewhere to pull over for the night.”

For every romantic moment on the road, there’s an equally frustrating one, says Boué. And it’s that eternal see-saw of emotions that can help a couple determine the strength of their relationship.

“If you’re ‘meant to be,’ you should be able to laugh together after epic disaster moments, navigate torn map pages, share a cold can of beans when your stove stops working and still want to give your partner a smooch after seven straight days of not showering,” she says.

After a year together in the van, Boué and her former partner realized they had different life ambitions and decided to end their relationship.

“We both learned so much and shared so many experiences that have permanently shaped us and our futures,” she says. “I’m currently traveling full-time for work and living out of a Subaru and Airbnbs. [My former partner] is building out his own new Astro van. The design definitely seems to incorporate improvements in a lot of the areas we failed at the first time.”

James Campbell and Rachel Goldfarb

Three years and going strong (but not without an argument or two). That's the reality of van life. Photo: Courtesy of Idle Theory Bus
Three years and going strong (but not without an argument or two). That’s the reality of van life. Photo: Courtesy of Idle Theory Bus

Campbell and Goldfarb of Idle Theory Bus have been on the road together for nearly three years, often pit-stopping in one place and working seasonal jobs to save money for gas and food. And while their relationship is stronger than ever (“We’ll be driving through a small town and look at each other and just know what the other person's thinking,” says Goldfarb), they are the first to admit that getting along takes some forethought.

“We’ve had low moments. James once pulled over on the side of a freeway and told me to get out. I’ve locked him out of the bus in the middle of an argument. I don’t care who you are, sharing 80-square-feet with another human is downright challenging!” says Goldfarb. “Every moment, good and bad, is exacerbated by the lack of privacy.”

To remedy this, Campbell says the couple has designated “personal spaces” in the bus — drawers in which they can each store whatever they want. They also make it a point to spend time in different areas of the bus — James relaxing in the pop top while Rachel reads below. “Do whatever you need to have a few minutes apart,” laughs Goldfarb.

Janna Irons and Johnny Stifter

Janna and Johnny resolve small disagreements before they become big problems. Photo: Courtesy of Van Ventures
Janna and Johnny resolve small disagreements before they become big problems. Photo: Courtesy of Van Ventures

Janna Irons and Johnny Stifter have always been close in proximity — they actually met working in the same office space. But when they moved into a Sprinter van together eight months ago, they’d find out exactly what “close” could mean.

“We’re together 24/7,” says Stifter. “Most notably, working alongside each other, whether it’s in the van or at a coffee shop. It’s been challenging taking on the other persons’ minute-by-minute emotions, which have caused some heated moments during stressful times.”

But, as Stifter explains it, “the cliché” always wins out: love prevails (clearly, as the couple recently got engaged on the road). The duo navigates stressful moments — and pet peeves — by addressing them head-on.

“We’ve made a conscious effort to zero in our flaws and do what we need to mitigate them,” he says. “For me, it’s exercising or getting up and taking a break from the computer. We constantly remind the other how much we love and appreciate them. And really, being with your favorite person all the time seems like the best way to experience each and every moment of life.”

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