In the summer of 2018, Adam, my boyfriend at the time, was my main adventure partner. I realized this was an issue halfway up the first pitch of a climb in Squamish, British Columbia. My heart was racing as I held my breath and tried over and over again to jam my hand in an overhanging, fist-wide crack. As I dangled on the rope out of Adam’s line of sight, I burst into tears, cursing him for choosing a climb that was just too hard for me. “You got this,” he encouraged me from the first anchor. What seemed like an hour later, I fumbled my way up the last 30 feet, frustrated, panicked, and unable to put a smile back on my face. “You should’ve known this would be too hard for me,” I yelled at him as I clipped in, tears welling up at the bottom of my eyes. He apologized, unsure how to react to my volatility. We abandoned our goal and rappeled to the ground.
Adam and I had moved to Bellingham, Washington, together a few years prior to this incident. He was freshly recovered from hip surgery and we were both stoked to add skills like alpine climbing and glacier travel to our repertoire. We loved all the same activities and had similar adventure goals, so other friendships took the back seat while we were together. But when our relationship eventually faded, I was left to relearn how to be independent—in the outdoors and in my personal life.
After Adam, I dated Alex. Where Adam was compassionate and supportive in the mountains, Alex was more logic-driven. 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 hard-headedness that brought us together eventually started to wedge us apart. “Here, just do it like this,” he would say, taking the bike tool out of my hands. I’d swiftly grab it back and try it myself. “Just point your skis downhill,” he would say from the bottom of a run as my legs froze and my skis felt like they were made of lead. “It’s not that easy,” I’d yell back. On the outside, I was stubborn, but in my head, I was internalizing his overbearing-yet-well-intentioned advice to mean there was something wrong with me. Insecurity is a bitch.
We’ve all experienced awkward tension outdoors when we overhear a couple fighting—or maybe we’ve been there ourselves. When I brought this topic up to girlfriends, most of them recalled moments of frustration to the point of tears while out with significant others. “I feel like when Paul is explaining how to do something, I take it as an extreme critique of my ability,” my friend Sara mentioned over text. “Whereas with a friend, it’s a lot easier to swallow.” Libby, another friend, agreed, “There are just more emotions wrapped up in doing things with your romantic partner than a platonic friend.”
Blair Hensen, a relationship counselor in Bozeman, Montana, chalks this up to stress—and the way individuals communicate (or fail to communicate) about it. “In our primary or romantic relationships, partners are the people that we’re choosing in the world to keep us the safest, in a biological sense, not a conscious sense,” she says. “If there are varying comfortabilities with skill and risk levels in a relationship, it can pretty much automatically inspire distress in some way; if I’m someone who needs to go towards someone in the moment of stress and my partner needs to move away, now we have opposite needs.”
When you’re in a heightened state of stress and haven’t learned how to manage it, you’re “more likely to use old coping skills that you learned when you were a kid and see some immaturity coming out in your responses,” Hensen says. That may be why I was so often my worst self with past partners in stressful outdoor situations.
On top of that, Alex had already seen me at my low—hunched over on the couch, cramps raging, with a heating pad across my stomach—so with him, I didn’t have to act happy when I wasn’t. I could wallow and pout and get fed up and rip off my helmet and snap that I didn’t want to go up one. more. goddamn. hill and he would still love me (maybe).
But my friends choose to hang out with me. If I throw a tantrum when the group makes a wrong turn on a hike or snap at them when they offer advice, there’s a good chance they’ll stop responding to my invites. With friendships, you “may not want to show the person how you really deal with stress,” explained Hensen, and you have “added social pressures, so you may mentally work harder to be positive or keep the group mindset strong.” So, when things get tough and I’m not having fun, I tamper those feelings and try to keep the stoke for the sake of the group. With that slight attitude shift, I’m much better prepared when things go wrong—as they ultimately will in outdoor adventures.
It’s also easier to learn from friends. Without the heightened emotions that come with a relationship, we’re free to explore skills and gain knowledge in a more neutral environment. The same words that come off as critique from a significant other sound like advice from a friend. “When I get advice from my partner, I take it as he wants to acknowledge he knows more about the sport than I do,” explained my friend Hannah. “If my friend tells me to do something differently, I see it as them wanting me to be stronger, safer, and more knowledgable.” Another friend, Alana, experienced this, too: “When I started sport climbing with my friends, I actually started taking falls. I felt more comfortable having a conversation and working through my fear with them, instead of having to prove myself.” In turn, you begin to take ownership of that activity. The more comfortable you get with your new hobby, the more you build positive associations—and the fear starts to subside. “When we have positive experiences going out and feeling confident while learning something new, we’re going to carry some of that confidence into our relationships, most likely,” Hensen says.
Ever since Alex and I split over a year ago, my go-to adventure pals have been my best friends, not romantic partners. I’ve found a new love for sports I once hated. Recently, on a mountain bike ride with friends, everything started to go wrong. I forgot my helmet and had to scramble to borrow a friend’s. I couldn’t shift into my lowest gear, and my brakes weren’t working very well. When we arrived at the top of our climb, I lagged behind the crew, walking my bike up the last incline. On the verge of bonking with no more snacks in my pack (usually a recipe for disaster), instead of getting frustrated or beat down, I rolled up with a smile and cracked a joke. For some reason, I didn’t have to fake it; I just was happy to be out there.