Relationship drama at the crag, at the gym, at the boulders. If you are in love and you love climbing, you are picking up what I'm putting down. The majority of difficulties for climber couples fall into three dynamics:
1. The Climber-Dating-Climber Dynamic: One person is openly frustrated and struggling. The other is trying to help but seems to be making it worse.
2. The Climber-Dating-Newbie Dynamic: An experienced climber is trying to teach their partner to climb. Chaos ensues.
3. The-Climber-Dating-Climber-But-One-Climber’s-Proj-Is-More-Important Dynamic: There’s an unbalanced division of climbing time.
What are climber couples to do in these situations? Throw in the chalk bag and say good riddance? Not necessarily. Allow me to dive a little deeper into these problems and offer some solutions:
Your partner is trying hard on something that pushes her limits, physically and mentally. She is cursing, grabbing draws, frustrated with herself. Down below, you do everything you can to help. You shout beta options, offer to clean the draws, shout more beta. Nothing helps. It’s getting worse. She might be crying at this point.
You might be embarrassed. Maybe you just want her to be happy, and it’s hard to see her upset. Maybe your partner’s anger or despair feels personal, as if you aren’t doing your job. Maybe your partner literally told you that it's all your fault. Well, guess what? No matter what she says in a high-stress moment, this has nothing to do with you.
Change your thinking. Remember—it’s not your job to make your partner happy all the time. Blame pop songs and romcoms for the confusion. She’s going through what we go through when we try hard.
Ask yourself: When you’re the one on the wall flailing and raging, are you thinking about how your partner isn’t doing enough to make you happy? No. You’re wondering how the heck this move was so easy last week and why you’re so anxious about the clip.
Say neutral things to let her know you’re paying attention and she’s safe. “Take your time,” is a good one, “No hurry down here,” and a simple “You’re looking solid on the moves,” is usually acceptable. If she argues, “NO I AM NOT SOLID ON ANY OF THE #&*^$#%^ MOVES,” just stop talking and cycle back to the earlier statements.
Try an inside joke. My partner and I like to talk in British bouldering slang sometimes, so if he were to say to me in this moment, “Looking right fit on the undercuts, love,” I would involuntarily smile regardless of the circumstances.
You’re dangling on the rope, you have no idea what you are doing. You don’t like this. She really wants you to like this. You like the idea of this. You like the idea of having the kind of fun that other people seem to be having. She keeps saying, “Use your feet, use your feet!” and, “Just reach up!” There’s so much to remember. You’re terrified by the responsibility of belaying. Wait, you're supposed to be thinking about the next move on this rock face. But also, why are the shoes so painful?
You should not be your partner’s only climbing teacher. Your partner’s critiques might come across as hypercritical, mainly because he's seen you naked. You don’t get to try your project the first few times you two go out together. Don’t set a noobie up for stress. Do super easy climbs while he learns. Thank him for the things he got right.
Address comfort. Advise her not to wear climbing shoes while she’s belaying. Bring an extra jacket. Bring extra food. As the teacher, it's up to you to set your partner up for a good day.
If you’re crack climbing, make sure she has street-sized climbing shoes. I am tempted to write that whole sentence again to stress its importance. ALL TEN TOES MUST LAY FLAT IN SHOE. Rent or borrow some massive shoes. I’m so serious.
You need to find another person to climb with occasionally. It’s so hard to break out of relationship roles. You might be a total rock prodigy and never know it because your partner’s expectations are all you have to go on. He said that one was too hard for you, or that it was too hard for him, so you stay away.
Go out climbing with someone else, or in a large group. Spot others, get belayed by others, and belay others. Go to the gym alone, or sign up for a class with a friend. Find a way to do it on your own, because I am telling you—it’s a different world.
If you know full well that climbing isn’t for you, but you still want to support your partner, make that clear. You are happy to pack a nice lunch, hike around the area, and watch interminable World Cup live-streams on the couch, but climbing will not be your thing. Then, show her that you mean it by buying her a FrictionLabs accessory pack.
You are going out together for the day. You've looked at the book, and have some ideas of what you'd like to try. You take turns warming up, but the whole day passes at one person's project.
NOW HANG ON A SEC–
If you are in a relationship with another climber and you don’t think you have this problem, you may indeed have this problem—it just always goes in your favor. Maybe not! But think about it.
Let's say your partner is more advanced than you are. He has projects, and they seem more important to him than your hypothetical projects feel to you. You might struggle to demand that others devote time to your climbing desires.
Advance planning is critical. Decide what day you’re about to have and discuss it with your partner. Don’t simmer in silence waiting for your partner to offer you the day.
To the person who didn’t think they had this problem but is now thinking they might: Your partner might not be able to assert herself on this, so it falls on you to make sure things are equitable until communication has become your habit. Sacrifice a good day for your partner to try her project with your full support. Replace anxious thoughts about your goals with words of support for your partner’s climbing. It will be paid back tenfold.
Use a dog draw. If you tend to quit your proj early due to worry about your belayer’s experience, a dog draw is a game changer. Bring a lucky draw up on your harness, even if you’re top roping. When you need to stay in position for a while, just clip this draw directly from your belay loop to a bolt or another quickdraw. Now your belayer can let the tension out of the rope, blow her nose, put on a jacket, whatever, and you can figure out your beta. Discuss the process with your partner first, so she knows what you’re planning to do and you have your commands organized.
Each of these scenarios stems from a common fear. You love climbing, and you want to build your life around pushing yourself on the rock. A crucial ingredient is support from your partner on your mission. If it turns out that your noobie partner hates climbing, or your partner loses his psych, your passion is suddenly threatened.
As climbers, we think, "If he doesn’t love climbing as much as I do, will I have to choose between him and climbing?" From there, we are faced with the even more terrifying reality of which one we would dump.
Climbing brings out the best in us; our bravest, most graceful, powerful selves. It also brings out our worst. It can fuel vanity, ego, self-doubt, and the capacity to blame the world for our failures. Climbing is also an excellent laboratory for love. We witness each other in these dark and ugly moments; we get into conflicts over things fairly inconsequential (although they don't feel inconsequential at the time) and we still love each other afterward.
We are so lucky to get to take on these challenges together in climbing. If we learn to work through them on the wall, we're better for it across all areas of our lives, especially in our relationships.