What I Learned About Marriage by Hiking the Camino with My Husband

With just two backpacks and miles of open terrain, one couple found a lot of clarity.
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With just two backpacks and miles of open terrain, one couple found a lot of clarity.
marriage relationships getting to know your spouse hiking the Camino de Santiago life lessons

Photo Credit: Manchik Photography

When my husband and I got married, I thought I had everything figured out. I would teach while my husband, Conor, finished law school. Upon graduation we would follow his work to a fabulous city. He would be a lawyer, and money wouldn’t be a problem. I could use our expendable income to open my dream restaurant, all my siblings would move to live close to us, and we’d have beautiful and magical babies who wouldn’t cry and would never need their diapers changed . . . you get the idea.

Then my husband dropped out of law school, and my fantasy life came to a screeching halt.

What would the future hold? The uncertainty made me realize, very quickly, that my focus for the future was too singular. It was the first step in a meaningful transformation for my marriage. I had to stop living in my head and start thinking of us—together. It seems obvious—we’re married after all—but I can admit that it required a shift for me.

So my husband of two years and I decided to live for a year without a plan.

We decided to walk the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage across Northern Spain, and then continue traveling around Europe. Together, without the luxuries or distractions of our normal lives, we walked 560 miles from the Pyrenees in France to the west coast of Spain. We knew we would be starting early in the morning, walking with all our belongings strapped to our backs, and that it would take about a month to complete. That was it.

Before we left the States, we were often asked if we were worried about spending so much time together, just the two of us. Some even asked, “Do you think you’ll still like each other?” I would laugh in reply, stating that we wouldn’t have gotten married if I didn’t think we’d like each other after a month of walking.

Little did I realize that their question was off base for two reasons. For one thing, by walking the Camino, our marriage would grow so much stronger, and for another, we would form deep friendships with the other people we would encounter. Spending thirty-six days waking up at dawn, talking to each other early in the morning, navigating unfamiliar places, enjoying Spanish tortilla and cheap wine with fellow pilgrims, and working through unexpected hurdles, we found ourselves as part of a ragtag “Camino family.” Though walking between ten and twenty-five miles each day was physically, mentally, and emotionally trying, and though each pilgrim was drawn to the Camino for vastly different reasons, there was an immediate sense of camaraderie and the desire to nourish the community we were creating. We were all on the journey together.

My husband and I experienced what felt like an entire lifetime during our journey across Spain, and I did finally learn to let go. But perhaps more importantly, walking the Camino de Santiago with my husband was a crash course on what it takes to be married. From our journey, I began to look at life through a different lens: “As in the Camino, so in marriage, so in life.” Here’s what that means to me:

Patience.

When you’re walking for days on end, a mile can feel like a marathon, a companion’s “short break” can drag on for what feels like hours, and at any moment, fatigue and injury can slow a pilgrim down. Patience is the answer to all of these.

One day, it was pouring rain. We still had many kilometers to go, but the deluge was heavy. I was inclined to forge ahead, stubbornly speed-walking through the pelting rain just to get it done. Conor wanted to take refuge under an overhang and wait out the heaviest part of the storm. I begrudgingly agreed to his plan. Listening to the rain fall as we snuggled under the wooden terrace of a small chapel is one of my favorite Camino memories.

Patience helped me see the beauty in slowing down on our journey. In marriage, patience is not just a virtue, it is a downright necessity. Let’s face it, married people are stuck with each other for life . . . that’s a long time! When we got married, Conor and I chose to take each other, gifts and flaws, all of it. I have learned to be patient with Conor on the big stuff, such as figuring out next steps in life. But I’ve also learned to be patient with the little things, such as leaving dirty dishes in the sink, forgetting to write something on the calendar, or taking back roads to our destination.

Sacrifice.

During the Camino, I saw sacrifice embodied day in and day out—friends carrying their companion’s pack, someone sewing the blister on a stranger’s damaged and dirty foot, a man giving up his walking stick for an injured woman, Conor walking an extra two hours because I wasn’t ready to stop for the day.

My own sacrifices were much smaller. I preferred to beat the crowds and get an early start each day, about an hour before sunrise. Once I wake up, I’m awake for the day. Conor, on the other hand, needs extra sleep. I would make it my goal to stay in bed quietly journaling or getting ready for the day so Conor could get more sleep.

I say it’s a small sacrifice, but it really took all the love I had to stay in a room with twenty-five strangers crinkling their Ziploc baggies while my husband slept soundly in the adjoining bunk bed. This small routine taught me that putting my spouse’s happiness before my own is one of the best ways to love. Instead of thinking about how I feel reluctant, unhappy, or cranky, I try to think about how my decisions and actions can bring joy to Conor. Sacrificial love happens every day. This could be as simple as cleaning the kitchen after dinner so that your spouse can relax after a hard day, or it can be something bigger, such as working a job you’re not in love with so that your spouse can follow his dreams.

Humility.

Sacrificial love is not easy to give, but I find it even more difficult to receive. The Camino taught me the necessity of humility in a partnership.

Personally, I had to learn humility on the Camino early on. I had severe stomach pains, but I stubbornly tried to push through. After snapping at my husband for the third time, I had to admit that I was hurting. We slowed our pace, he helped adjust my pack, and I was able to take breaks as I needed them.

In marriage, it is just as necessary to accept my own weakness in order to rely on the strengths of my husband. If I don’t show him I need him, and if I don’t let him in, there can be no partnership, no marriage. Being humble does not necessarily translate to needy. As someone who struggles with pride, this can be a difficult daily practice. I know I need to seek advice, get help, or even just ask for a hug from my husband, especially when I am feeling weak or confused. Not only do I feel better, but I am also giving my husband the chance to love me through his sacrifice.

Trust.

“As in the Camino, so in marriage, so in life.” I struggle with this one, a lot. On the Camino, we had a map to guide us. We also literally had arrows showing us the way. Bright yellow arrows. But guess who questioned the neon yellow arrows? I did. All I had to do was trust the way, trust the other pilgrims, and trust that Conor and I had read the map correctly. Despite it all, I doubted.

Walking into Burgos, fourteen days into our thirty-six day journey, we accidentally came in through the industrial district. There were no other pilgrims in sight, car dealerships and factories were everywhere we turned, and we were getting some unwanted attention in our walking gear. After fruitlessly attempting to find our location on the map, I said, “OK, we need an arrow. Give us a direction, please!” Soon after my plea, a biker stopped and asked if we were walking the Camino, pointed us in the right direction, and sent us on our way.

In marriage, we have to trust the advice of those who have gone before us and trust our experiences, but most importantly, trust each other. I guess I feel a little silly saying trust your spouse because, of course, to have a healthy marriage, there must be trust. But, I’m not just talking about fidelity. From believing him when he says you look good in that new dress, to trusting his advice about a fight you had with your sister, to seeking his guidance about an email to a colleague, you need to trust your spouse’s opinion as your partner.

Fun.

Some of my favorite Camino memories are from the evenings, when the walking day was over. We would cook dinner with friends, drink in a local bar, or even create a picnic on top of a ruinous castle. During the Camino we had our “work” to complete each day, but we also just took time for fun.

One morning we started without coffee, which is never a good start for me. I was sluggish and a tiny bit cranky, but my husband and our friend Kiara took pains to lighten things up. By the end of the day, we were running down a mountain, packs strapped to our backs, singing Motown, and shouting “buen Camino,” spreading smiles as we passed fellow pilgrims.

Joy and laughter are essential to the Camino, as in marriage. In the humdrum of life, it is easy to get caught up in work, family issues, paying bills, and completing chores. It is important to take a step back and make time for fun and for each other. This could be as simple as taking time for a date each week, going on walks in the evenings after work, leaving silly and sappy notes for each other, or hosting a game night with friends.

With our reliance on each other, a “we” mindset, and a renewed openness to the unknown, my husband and I completed walking the Camino de Santiago. I hoped that the Camino would be a transformative experience, but I never dreamed of how it would transform our marriage. After Spain, Conor and I have traveled to Belgium, France, Ireland, England, Scotland, Italy, and Greece. Ready for anything—whether in marriage, adventure, or everyday life—I’m excited to see where we end up next!