Living as a couple in a van full-time can be really challenging.
The initial burst of excitement soon wears off and you are suddenly faced with living inside 5 square meters with another full sized human being.
On the bright side, it pushes your communication and cooperation to a whole new level. If you can survive living full-time in a van, you know that you can make it through anything.
Florian and I started off our relationship by living in a 2-man tent. I met him by chance when I was visiting some friends for the weekend. He had been hitchhiking and wild camping around Europe for years, and I was just desperate for a way out of my traumatic job in end of life and dementia care.
On the Monday I quit my job.
I gave away most of my things and set off to Scotland with him for 3 long months of wild camping in the wind and the rain.
After 3 months of damp feet and blue fingers, I told him I couldn’t go on like this anymore. The trip was wonderful, and I will treasure memories of watching eagles and dolphins fly above the waves for the rest of my life. But it was exhausting!
The experience made living in a van seem quite easy, to be fair. Just the fact that we can stand up inside our home and don’t have to carry all of our belongings on our back is such a treat.
Nonetheless, it can still be hard to keep romance and harmony alive when you live in such a tiny space. Our little Peugeot Boxer conversion is only 5 meters long, and it serves as our bedroom, full-time office, kitchen, toilet, shower and attic!
But we obviously did something right – Florian and I have just decided to get married!
To celebrate our engagement after quite an unconventional start to our relationship, I’d like to offer some advice and insights for other couples setting out on the road.
If you’re going to be living in your van as a couple full-time, you need to accept that privacy is no longer a thing.
But we already share everything, you might be thinking.
Oh no. Living in a van goes beyond taking a shower together or going for a pee pee when your loved one is brushing their teeth.
You need to be prepared for your partner to smell every fart you do, see you plucking ingrown hairs out of your bikini line and pass the toilet paper as you are changing your moon cup/tampons.
Are you prepared to go for a poo right in front of your partner whilst you’re so close you could reach out and hold hands? Because you can’t always send them outside into the rain or the snow when you’ve gotta go.
You will soon get over any ideas about privacy when you live in a van, which is going to be harder for some people than others.
You may not have any privacy when you live in a van together, but that sure doesn’t mean you get much intimacy either.
Let’s not beat around the bush guys, I’m talking about sex.
For some people, I’m sure the idea of being potentially heard or seen when having sex would be a real thrill. Not for me.
It’s hard to feel connected and intimate when you’re worrying whether the van is perceptibly moving to the people walking down the street. Then trying to be so discreet that you’re basically just lying on top of each other like a pair of pancakes on a plate.
Not inspiring stuff really.
When you do finally get the chance to share a real bed together in a house, 99% of the time you’re staying with a lovely elderly aunt who you don’t want to traumatize either.
Unless you’re parked out in the middle of the rapidly declining wild places, intimacy in a van isn’t easy. It might be better in a big RV or motor home, but the suspension on our Peugeot Boxer isn’t keeping any secrets for us.
Florian and I rarely argue.
To be fair, this is largely his influence. When I occasionally feel overwhelmed and start to lose my temper, Florian does not react. He sits quietly gazing at me like a benevolent monk, and I immediately back down.
Having a fight with Florian would actually just be me having a fight with myself. (Where’s the fun in that?!)
But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get along. When you’re in a small space all the time, you need to learn how to stop reacting to every little thing your loved one says or does that isn’t perfect. We are both getting better at letting things go.
Here’s an example:
If Florian rolls his eyes slightly at something I say, I could make a big deal about it. I could tell him that his facial expression clearly shows that he doesn’t respect me and that I want him to apologize immediately. He could then tell me he didn’t roll his eyes, and we could spend the next hour bickering about whether or not he did.
Or, I could notice the facial expression and choose not to say anything. I could smile at him and carry on doing my work. Suddenly, there is no problem.
Of course, sometimes you need to speak about things and work through them. But, here is a good rule of thumb:
If it’s really worth talking through, it can wait a few hours.
By choosing not to react to what you think someone did or said wrong in the moment, you can approach them when you feel less reactive and get better results. Instead of fighting for the sake of it, you are now actively trying to reach a better understanding.
Back to the previous example:
If the perceived eye roll was still bothering me the next day I could say:
‘Florian I think you rolled your eyes at me yesterday and it made me feel small. Do you agree that happened?’
That gives your partner a chance to reply without feeling attacked. Because I didn’t say:
‘Hey you ass, you were rude to me and I’m gonna punish you.’
By expressing how you feel and giving the other person a chance to explain, you get to the good bit of strengthening your relationship without anyone feeling like they have to jump to their own defense.
Disclaimer: We are all just humans doing our best to muddle through this messy thing called life. If you do snap at your partner under the pressure of living in a tiny space, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Just keep doing your best, that’s all you can ask of yourself!
Part of the reason that bickering can be tempting on the road is because you have absolutely no personal space.
Our van conversion has about 5 square meters of living space. We both live in it, and we have to store all of our belongings including a snowboard and long board.
In the summer we can throw the doors open and put some camping chairs outside, which really helps. But for long winter months we are shut up inside. We both work from the van too, so we often have to close ourselves in to be less distracted by the noise of traffic or passersby.
The impulse to get annoyed at your partner in these conditions isn’t really about what they have said or done. It’s more like being a little terrier which is barking at the postman for getting too close to their territory.
Taking yourself for a regular walk alone is really helpful to create physical and emotional space.
You can also create a sense of space by being quiet. If I feel too claustrophobic, we turn off any music and ask to have a 30 minute break from talking. It is so helpful to give your mind a small rest.
I also have some big yellow ear defenders which are as helpful as they are ugly. They allow me to concentrate better on my work, but they also help me to block out the world and reset my mind as well.
Developing shared goals is really helpful for any couple, but I found it even more important when I started living in a vehicle.
The thing is, living in a van can be tough.
Most people living in a vehicle full time are on a pretty tight budget. You can be in some really cool places and not have the money to go and try the local food or take part in some of the activities that you wish you could.
Basic tasks like keeping clean and finding water are so much more difficult than living in a house, and it can be painful to be separated from a sense of community and belonging.
Living in a van is brilliant in many ways, but it is tiring in the long run. If you don’t have shared goals for the future, resentment is going to develop.
For me and Florian, we aim to have a small piece of land in the future where we can take care of a few animals and raise some children. In the meantime, our goals are to slowly travel in an ecologically sustainable way, and develop our careers as a writer and photographer.
We are very clear about how we want the future to look, and we regularly check in about this.
Of course, your goals might be to live in a van forever, and that’s fine!
But it’s important to make sure that you are both hoping to move in the same direction, or the difficulties about living in a van are soon going to seem to big for at least one of you to bear.
Many people live in their vehicles full time because they want a life of adventure where planning isn’t necessary. I totally resonate with this. But you don’t have to have every single detail worked out, you just need to ask yourself what sort of life you hope to have in the future, and whether this lines up with your partner’s goals.
If the goals don’t match, that doesn’t mean you have to throw in the towel.
It just means that open and loving communication is even more important to ensure that both are you are able to develop and thrive in the relationship, and neither of you is having to make themselves smaller in order to let the other spread their wings.
No matter what your circumstances, I find that regularly asking myself the following questions is really helpful:
- Does this relationship help me to grow?
- Does this relationship bring me happiness and fulfilment?
- Does this relationship help THEM to grow?
- Does this relationship bring THEM happiness and fulfilment?
If you can keep working to make the answer to those questions yes, then you are going to have a wonderful life together, even in the most challenging of circumstances!
If this article resonated, you might like to check out The Highly Sensitive Nomad book.
Here are some more blog posts you might like:
- The Future of the Vanlife Movement
- How to Travel Without Any Money
- The Truth About Love from a Highly Sensitive Person.
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