In the summer of 2018 my then-boyfriend Adam was my main adventure partner. I realized this was a problem halfway through the first pitch of a climb in Squamish, BC. My heart was pounding as I held my breath and tried again and again to jam my hand into a fist-width overhanging crack. As I swung on the rope out of Adam’s line of sight, I burst into tears, cursing him for choosing a climb that was just too difficult for me. “You get it,” he encouraged me from the first anchor. What seemed like an hour later, I fumbled the last 30 feet, frustrated, panicked and unable to find a smile on my face. “You should have known this would be too hard for me,” I shouted at him as I held on, tears welling up in my eyes. He apologized, not knowing how to react to my volatility. We abandoned our objective and abseiled to the ground.
Adam and I had moved to Bellingham, Washington together a few years before this incident. He had just recovered from hip surgery and we were both excited to add skills such as mountaineering and glacier travel to our repertoire. We all enjoyed the same activities and had similar adventure goals, so other friendships took over while we were together. But when our relationship finally fizzled out, I had to relearn how to be independent, externally and in my personal life.
After Adam, I went out with Alex. Where Adam was compassionate and supportive in the mountains, Alex was more logical. When I started to learn his sports (skiing and mountain biking), Alex took on the role of teacher. He was eager to help, but the mutual stubbornness that brought us together ended up tearing us apart. “Here, do this,” he would say as he took the bike tool out of my hands. I would quickly pick it up and try it myself. “Just point your skis down,” he would say from the bottom of a slope as my legs froze and my skis felt like they were lead. “It’s not that easy,” I shouted back. On the outside, I was stubborn, but inside my head, I internalized his overbearing but well-meaning advice to mean that something was wrong with me. Insecurity is a bitch.
We’ve all experienced an awkward tension on the outside when we hear a couple fight, or maybe we’ve been there ourselves. When I broached this subject with girlfriends, most of them recalled moments of frustration to the point of crying while dating important other people. “I feel like when Paul explains how to do something, I take it as extreme criticism of my abilities,” my friend Sara said via text message. “Whereas with a friend it’s much easier to swallow.” Fellow friend Libby agreed, “There’s just more emotion in doing things with your romantic partner than a platonic friend.”
Blair Hensen, a relationship counselor in Bozeman, Montana, attributes this to stress and how individuals communicate (or don’t communicate) about it. “In our primary or romantic relationships, partners are the people we choose in the world to keep us safest, in a biological sense, not in a conscious sense,” she says. “If there are different levels of comfort with skills and levels of risk in a relationship, it can quite automatically inspire distress in one way or another; if I’m someone who needs to go to someone in a time of stress and my partner needs to get away, now we have opposite needs.
When you’re in a state of heightened stress and haven’t learned how to manage it, you’re “more likely to use the old coping skills you learned as a child and see some immaturity come out. in your answers. Hensen said. Maybe that’s why I was so often the worst with ex-partners in stressful outdoor situations.
On top of that, Alex had already seen me at my lowest — hunched over on the sofa, cramps raging, with a heating pad on my stomach — so with him I didn’t have to pretend to be happy when I was not. I could wallow and pout and get fed up and rip off my helmet and say I didn’t want to ride one. After. whore. hill and he would still love me (maybe).
But my friends chose to go out with me. If I throw a tantrum when the group takes a wrong turn on a hike or slap them when they’re giving advice, chances are they’ll stop responding to my invitations. With friendships, you “might not want to show the person how you really deal with stress,” Hensen explained, and you’ve “added in social pressures, so you can mentally work harder to be positive or keep the group spirit strong”. So when things get tough and I’m not having fun, I fake those feelings and try to keep the momentum going for the good of the group. With this slight change in attitude, I’m much better prepared when things go wrong, as they do in outdoor adventures.
It is also easier to learn from friends. Without the heightened emotions that come with a relationship, we are free to explore skills and gain knowledge in a more neutral environment. The same words that come across as criticism from another sound like advice from a friend. “When I get advice from my partner, I take it because he wants to acknowledge that he knows more about the sport than I do,” my friend Hannah explained. “If my friend tells me to do something differently, I see it as wanting me to be stronger, safer and more competent.” Another friend, Alana, also experienced this: “When I started sport climbing with my friends, I started falling. I felt more comfortable having a conversation and overcoming my fear with them, instead of having to prove myself. In turn, you begin to make this activity your own. The more comfortable you feel with your new hobby, the more positive associations you build and the fear begins to fade. “When we have positive experiences while dating and feel confident while learning something new, we’re most likely going to bring some of that confidence into our relationships,” Hensen says.
Since Alex and I split up over a year ago, my adventure friends have been my best friends, not romantic partners. I found a new love for the sport that I once hated. Recently, while on an ATV ride with friends, everything started to go wrong. I forgot my helmet and had to scramble to borrow one from a friend. I couldn’t shift into the lowest gear and my brakes weren’t working very well. When we got to the top of our climb, I fell behind the crew, walking my bike up the final incline. On the verge of getting high with no more snacks in my bag (usually a recipe for disaster), instead of getting frustrated or beat up, I rolled over with a smile and cracked a joke. For some reason, I didn’t have to pretend; I was just happy to be there.