Thursday, January 21, 2010

climbing and relationships

Ah, relationships. At the tail end of tonight's gym session, while we were vying for one last good pump before it was time to lock up, conversation turned to climbers and relationships. What works, what doesn't, and why the heck it works out that way.

Our scientific observations boiled down to the following:
Girl non-climber + guy climber = most successful
Girl climber + guy climber = moderately successful
Girl climber + guy non-climber = least successful

...with “successful” being operationally defined as you see fit.

Now, since these...equations, if you will, are merely tentative, as all scientific theories ought to be (if I learned nothing else in that goshdarned research methods class last semester, I learned that much), we can merely speculate as to why.

Why does being a climber take such a toll on romantic endeavors? I know relationships aren't easy, climbing or not. I'll admit that I've chosen climbing over relationships in the past when I realized things wouldn't work out. I'm slow to share that passion, because when all is said and done and the relationship is over, climbing is still there. The rocks--plastic or not--are still there. I'm happy when I'm climbing, and I'm happy when I'm with other people that love it.

Sam offered some insight tonight in saying that confidence is attractive. And, as most climbers will agree, climbing builds confidence. Be it your first day or your first lead, there's always room to grow and cultivate that confidence. Is there a threshold at which it's less intriguing and more intimidating to be a confident, climbing-obsessed individual? Do I have it all wrong? Why does it seem to work better when the guy is the climber, or at least moreso than the girl?

It's not just coincidence that I feel at home in this sport, and it's not just happenstance that I have a lot in common with other girls that do. I think there are personality traits that we share, us climbers--guys and girls. I say this very generally, but I do stand by it. I have met some of my dearest friends since becoming a climber. I've never before participated in a sport in which I experience as much of a mental challenge as a physical one, or that provides the kinesthetic processing opportunities that climbing does to me. Climbing by no means solves all my problems, but it occasionally alters how I deal with them and think about them. I've learned about myself and seen my peers do the same. It's exciting.

I don't know that I want the answers to these questions, but the discussions are certainly interesting. What are your criticisms? Theories? Experiences? Thoughts?


  1. I think it makes sense to most things that you do with a lot of passion and that also, in a sense, isolate you a bit from the other person.

    This is especially true with skydiving. There is a saying that goes something like "if you marry/date a skydiver and want to see him/her more often, then you have no other option than to become one" :)

  2. For some reason, all the comes to mind is 'Let's test that theory...' You've never dated a cyclist :P


  3. I've found sharing something that's so beautiful, but so scary at the same time, has been a wonderful thing for me in my relationship. Not sure Dan feels the same way or not :) But I feel so much more comfortable and willing to take risks if someone I have an emotional investment in is belaying me.

    He climbed for a bit before we met, but we've both learned together, and that learning something new together thing can be pretty amazing for a relationship too.

    As with anything that involves personalities and emotions, I think this all really depends! But based on typical gender stereotypes, I'd venture to say the girl climber guy non-climber pair might be difficult when the guy sees he can't initially keep up. But I feel the same way when I can't keep up with a guy! So who knows :) Definitely got me thinking, though!

  4. I think a big part of what makes my relationship successful (both of us climb) is that we both found climbing separately and by the time we started dating, we were both competent climbers separately, so (usually) neither of us feels upset about not being able to keep up with the other.

    I think the biggest challenge is learning the best way to climb with other people, while not totally abandoning climbing with your significant other. This fall, it was really great to be able to climb with a girl partner who was very on-par with my desired route choices (granite cracks!!!) and technical ability, and I think that has been one of the big factors behind it being such a successful fall for my climbing (that and going to the climbing gym regularly). On the other hand, I do still like to climb with my boyfriend, so there's a tricky balance that I don't think I've figured out yet.

  5. I've kind of noticed the same thing from the girl-climber side. Everyone has ego issues, more or less, when climbing with someone "better" than they are, but I think normally the "Ugh, I suck" and "she makes me look bad" stuff is balanced out with "cool, can you put a TR on my project", "hey, he rescued my cam", etc. When men see women climbing "better" than they are, there's a little more ego to deal with since we're culturally conditioned to think that men are supposed to be better than women at physical things (and most men can get over this, because they know it's not helping). The problem is I think for most men this is even worse when the woman is their girlfriend, because, cultural conditioning again, there's all this additional protector/breadwinner/patriarch baggage.

    By the way, this is not at all meant to go all pop psychology and say this is how things should be. On the contrary, I think men should stop acting that way, and women should stop enabling this (which I fully admit I'm guilty of sometimes). Again, most men (at least those who have a chance of keeping their climber girlfriends) get over it, but it takes conscious effort.

    My boyfriend and I are similar enough in climbing ability that there are things he's better at and things that I'm better at. If he's having a bad day or we happen to be somewhere where the routes are more my style, it's hard for me to figure out to what degree I should dial it back to save the weekend. The feminist in me wants to say "You climb what you want, I'll climb what I want, if you don't like it, you can sit and belay", the practical girlfriend says "Ok, I want to keep climbing instead of driving 3 hours back with a grumbly-butt, so I'll get my redpoint next time"

  6. Climbing together amplifies the interpersonal skills, or lack thereof, that both people bring to a relationship, in my experience. Climbing takes EVERYONE to a place where they cannot do something, in public, in front of the person that (if they give a damn) they want to be their best with (sorry for that grammatical lead fall and the dangling preposition).
    When that happens, people feel, at some level, awkward, fearful, adrenalized, vulnerable, and maybe scared.
    Those are all very primitive, "you can't hide 'em" emotions.
    At that point, people with good interpersonal skills and a supportive attitude get closer. People without those skills become more distant.
    Climbing is largely a younger person's sport, when true interpersonal skills may take a backseat to things like, "I'm a DUDE! I must DOMINATE!", or equally as offputting, "I'm a FEMINIST!! I must DOMINATE!".
    Neither approach puts the value of a good long-term relationship with a caring partner first.....with predictable results.

    In a nutshell, the thing you put first, wins, over time.

    If you value climbing more than you value a relationship, climbing will win; relationships will lose. Over time.

    It's easy to do, though. Climbing is simpler than a relationship, and requires less effort. Oh yeah, I said it. ;-)

    Here's to people figuring out how to maintain a relationship so you can both climb another day. Having both is amazing, and possible.


  7. Last point: Somebody once said that "The world would be a better place with a little less Love, and a little more Kindness."

    Relationship = The mutual hotness brings you together, the mutual kindness lets you stay. ;-)


  8. I suspect this is something I'd enjoy talking to you about in length as we both have experiences being "intimidating" to guys though in different ways. Gender and what is expected and how it works is fascinating (if often depressing as well). I'm kind of not sure what I'd want to start with and if I could even fit it all in. But I agree, balancing what you love and a relationship is much more difficult for a woman than a man. There are still expectations for women to drop what they love (ie change themselves) for a man, something that is generally unheard of for men to do for women.

    I wish I knew a right answer to this. Hmmm. There's so much I want to say and not enough space! Maybe I'll catch you online sometime (my minutes are somewhat lacking on my phone at the moment).

    Love ya, miss ya, and hugs.

  9. Renee, in every successful relationship, both people always change for each other. He for her, her for him. Never equally, because it can't be measured in that way, but enough so that they both are happy for the compromises they've made, in exchange for the love they keep.

    Cheers ;-)

    P.S. Sorry for stopping back by to comment again, but this is a very insightful question, and I am very interested in the replies. If you want me to stop, just say so. No hard feelings ;-)

  10. Epic reply, Part 1--

    Ah...yes. That's interesting to consider. Especially since I seem to be the lone single female at my dropzone. Truthfully, though, I like it that way for now. That may eventually change, but it's a good place to be. Hmmm...another blog post on that someday maybe? ;)

    How do you know I haven't? ;)

    You're insightful, honest, and provoking, as usual. It's definitely situation-dependent, and you and Dan are a great example of that! I think it extends on into the friendship part of it--the friends you learn to climb with are dear to you, at least in my experience. And with the guy non-climber, I think it has a lot to do with what he DOES do. I mean, I'm enough of a beginner, any guy with some biceps and chutzpah could catch up pretty quick, so it would matter more to consider how he was to fit in with my general outlook on the sport and life. For instance, a guy non-climber might be active and he might be not, and that makes a difference to me. An active guy *might* “get it” better, or maybe not. Hmm...

    Excellent point! I think that has SO much to do with it, and is definitely why I hesitate to encourage a potential suitor to learn to climb. I by no means discourage it, but if he wants to, it has to be his prerogative, and I'll support that. And the girl climbing partner thing probably makes a huge difference too...there's something different about us and the way we are with each other than how we are with guys. What about “climbing wives/husbands”? What's your take on that?

    Your last little bit there DEFINITELY got me thinking. I think that has SO much to do with a successful relationship, climbing or not. And not to say we get it right all the time, but that sacrificial, relationship-is-more-important-than-THAT-climb is a good way to think about it. The rocks will always be there, and a good relationship is worth more than a send-at-all-costs. Certainly a balance there...

  11. Epic reply, Part 2--

    Oooh. Interesting point. I think you may be onto something there. I find myself touting the “you choose your circumstances” bit a lot, and I think you're right. If it IS primarily a younger person-sport, then there's some maturing that needs to happen to find that balance. Climbers and non-climbers, we all have our hangups, and if climbing happens to help express what we may not be mature enough to express or desire to express otherwise, then it follows that climbing would win.
    I certainly have nothing figured out, but I am immensely glad that I “have” climbing. For what it's worth, the lessons I learn and the people I meet do (hopefully) help me along to figuring out what kind of impact I want to have and how to practice more peace and kindness. I pray that is a mutual product of any relationship I might be part of, romantic or not.

    Indeed. I would venture to suppose that I'm perhaps a little less overtly girls-can-do-it-too than I used to be, because I've seen modeled to me what a strong female can be like without being overbearing and intimidating. I will *always* like to “keep up with the guys”--this may be somewhat because I grew up close to my brother, and may be circumstantial to some degree, but it is what it is. There ARE expectations involved, I think, for the respective genders and they may or may not hold water, but that's not for me to decipher. I think women are uniquely gifted in ways men are not (in climbing and otherwise) and men are skilled in ways women aren't. It's all in how you look at it, and the compromise thing SHOULD go both ways, so long as it comes to a place where both parties have some balance. Circumstances would have to be extenuating for me to give up my passions for any length of time, but I would never rule it out. I wouldn't all of the sudden stop climbing or jumping without it being a very difficult decision. But...people ARE more important.

    Comment away! I appreciate the insight...I almost didn't post this entry, but I'm kind of glad I did. Some really interesting discussion that most certainly gets me thinking. Thanks!

  12. Climbing is your heart and soul. It's great that you have something like that in your life that will persist even when relationships don't. But if you agree with the climbing+relationships theory up there, as a girl climber, are you saying you don't think you'll be able to have anything beyond a "moderately successful" relationship?

  13. Hmmm.

    @Anon: I admit the part of me that has been disappointed far too much has a hard time believing it.

    @Katie: I suspect being respected and treated like an equal is such a big deal for me because I was often treated as stupid by boys and some girlfriends because I was a so called "dumb blonde".

  14. John:
    These are only observations, not proven facts. They apply not just to climbing, and I think the discussion surrounding the blog is perhaps more enlightening than any point I made in the blog itself. I don't know what will happen in my life, and I'm excited to see what does. I hope that I mature and I know that things will work out as they're supposed to.

    Yep, but that's not the way it has to be now. We have SO much to do with how we're treated, at least in my experience in this culture and these friends that I have and all that. :)

  15. Sorry I missed this when it first went up, I'm posting as an example of a female climber who taught her guy to climb. We married last year.

    Katie, I know you already know the story (posted in extremely short format on my blog) but I think that confidence does have something to do with the initial attraction but shared interests had a large part to do with it as well. Though he had never climbed he was a mountain biker and backpacker and we met at a fencing tournament so we obviously had that in common as well.

    Perhaps it was ok in that situation because he was a more accomplished fencer than I so it did not bother him that I was a better climber (at the time).

    I wouldn't be hesitant to encourage a guy I was with to climb.

    At any rate, my two cents, don't worry about the guys, do what you love to do and one will fall into place when you least expect it.

  16. There's nothing like some light housecleaning to get the brain thinking in overdrive.

    I know they're only observations and theories. And so, let me chime in with a theory of my own. I think the same way climber girl + non-climber guy can be one of the worst pairings, it can also be one of the best, depending on the people. When you have a strong passion for something, I think it can work in your favor not to directly share that passion with your significant other, as long as he understands that it's your passion and you love doing it. He should have passions of his own. Each of you engage in these activities, have a lot of fun, learn a lot, experience the joy that comes with doing them, and there is no conflict between the two of you. You can share these experiences with each other and hopefully connect on a higher level, because you're not sharing in one activity, you're sharing in something higher.

    You're right; it doesn't apply just to climbing. Each individual in a relationship needs his or her own "apart" time for growth and reflection. What better way to spend it than doing the thing you love the most? Whether that's climbing, cycling, running, or not-so-active things like art, writing, or music, it makes little difference. The important thing is to share having a passion.

  17. Wow, this window has been open on my browser all day waiting for me to read it! I'm glad I remembered! What a conversation!

    I'm currently in a climber/climber relationship. While I knew I loved it before we met, it's really been this past two years since meeting him that climbing has become an obsession. In that time he's been my teacher and partner, and equal. I might be making these comments through rose colored glasses, but having that shared passion has been a great part of our relationship. Our common interest and taste for adventure is one of my favorite things about him.

    I agree with the person who talked about ego and public failure. It's true, those feelings are unpleasant, but they serve to show you what you have on the inside. Do you get angry? Lash out? Or do you cope, take the hit and grow from it? This goes beyond success in relationships to success in life. I've been climbing with my bf and other ppl and had a moment where my true nature got the best of me, luckily I was able to stop in time and recover. Next time I'll know better and be ready. :) My bf on the other hand is sweet and steady, he takes his share of falls but his response is always good. I've always said, life is 1% what happens to you, and 99% how you react to it.

    I also like the quote - "What you put first, wins." Also very true. So then you have to think, is putting climbing first being selfish? Yeah the rocks will always be there, but at what cost?

    Thanks for the convo guys!

  18. Eileen:
    I love that you both climb, and I think you're an example of the maturity thing, m'dear. From what I can tell, you seem to be a pretty down-to-earth grrl with a big heart and a solid level of maturity, and I think that no matter whether you were a climber or a ballerina you'd still be that way, and that's awesome.
    And I agree...frankly, for me it comes down to right now I want climbing and all that comes with it more than I want a relationship, even when I don't want to admit it. That's hard for me to say, but I think it's true.

    You're completely right. I think that there are certain personality traits that predispose a person to being obsessive about climbing that may not make them ideal mates, though. I'm not saying I personify those traits, but that there's something about climbing and climbers that goes beyond the specific passion itself. The same may be true for other things.

    Right? I never would have expected this many thoughtful responses. And to think, I very nearly nixed the whole post...I guess there's something to be said for talking about things we're not always apt to discuss in such open forums. It's definitely left me with things to think about.
    For someone like me, who thinks best kinesthetically, the lessons and connections that are provided in the context of climbing are invaluable.
    Sometimes we WILL be selfish, I think, because overcoming that isn't natural. It takes work. Some more than others, but it takes some practice I think.

  19. In general, since we're generalizing, I'd say the non-climbing guys in your experiment need a bit more analyzing. Do they have their own hobbies/social groups? A successful relationship offers both closeness and space, otherwise someone gets all clingy, which is most unattractive. If the dudes don't have their own life together, they will initially be attracted to a confident woman (hella attractive in my book) but then feel rejected and even jealous when she goes out climbing with her guy friends. If the non-climbing dude lacks self confidence he'll have a hard time coping with the fact that a girl usually climbs with a bunch of guys in a sport which creates special bonds (trusting your life to someone is not the same as knowing they are an excellent wide receiver). If trust hasn't been firmly established, in some level, the relationship to start with, dude will likely feel threatened when girl shows that trust with other guys the dude doesn't connect with (cus he doesn't climb). So I'd blame it all on the dudes. :) Or the girls' inability to pick quality ones. :P

  20. Anonymous: it's not about dominating. (or maybe it is and that's the problem). I just wish that if I'm having a good day it's not a _problem_.

  21. Peter:
    I think you're onto something least inasmuch as the above theories are so very general, and make no suppositions about the interests and activities of the non-climber guy. Trust is integral to a successful relationship, climbing or not--I completely agree with you.
    I have a great deal of respect for someone--guy or girl--who realizes he or she is not ready for the trust and sacrifice of a relationship and decides to do some waiting and maturing and figuring things out. That, to me, is attractive, and it shows when a guy has a good sense of who he is, climber or not.

  22. Okay, I'm back again ;-) I wanted to share this story with you: A climbing couple, married, is setting out to climb each of the Fifty Classic Climbs in North America. In this first vid (of them climbing The Diamond at Long's Peak), they talk a bit about their relationship as a climbing couple. I am struck by the honesty of each of their respective comments acknowledging (rather than denying) the fear that is inherent in climbing, the fact that they are sometimes afraid together, both for each other and themselves, and the experience of moving through it. Cool couple:

    Cheers ;-)