How is it possible to spend three-to-six months walking through the woods and still have a relationship left to come home to? In this article, I chat with a mental health expert and share some tips to help you keep your relationship strong while backpacking.
Let’s go back in time. Six days after I completed my southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I looked up from a plate of chimichangas and asked my fiance how she’d feel if I tackled the Pacific Crest Trail the next summer.
Every committed relationship has its own secret dialect: a subtle combination of spoken words and body language. But I’d just spent the last four-and-a-half months walking through the woods and mostly speaking to the same four or five dudes. And so I missed the obvious clues that I was treading on, shall we say, off-camber ground with the woman I was about to marry. The resulting conversation – fueled by too many watery margaritas – lives on in my memory as the longest consecutive string of regrettable things I’ve said in under an hour.
Naturally enough, my soon-to-be-wife was not enthused at the prospect of her new husband shouldering a pack and vanishing into the California desert mere months after doffing his wedding suit. Less forgivably (but perhaps still understandably) I was chafing at the thought of my lifestyle being curtailed by domestic restrictions. Things got so bad that the mariachi band didn’t even bother approaching our table. They were better at reading my fiance’s body language than I was.
Let me just stop here and say that seven years later we are still enjoying a deeply rewarding marriage. We’ve even come to a gentle compromise regarding my tendency to strike out for the territories. We’ve cobbled it together over the better part of a decade through trial-and-error, wise advice, increasing maturity, and a certain amount of luck.
I set out to write this article to pass along what I’ve learned. But at the end of the day, I’m just a writer who likes to hang out by myself in the mountains, and it struck me that just about every descriptor in that previous sentence disqualifies me from giving relationship advice. So I’ve enlisted the help of an expert, Mary-Catherine Riner, Ph.D., Ed.S, M.S., and all-around relationship expert.
If you’ve already figured out how to keep your relationship strong while engaging in solo long-distance human-powered adventures, the following article might be useful to you for note comparison. If you are just dipping a toe into this world, maybe this article can shorten your learning curve, thereby reducing the frequency of placing your trail-runner clad foot directly into your mouth.
The Emotional Bank Account
Let’s start with the big question. How the heck is it possible to spend three-to-six months walking through the woods and still have a relationship left to come home to?
A big part of it is a concept called “the emotional bank account.”
“Relationships are never 50/50.” says Riner as we settle into our interview. “If you find a relationship that is 50/50 I would be shocked. Some seasons it’s going to be 70/30, some seasons it’s going to be 40/60, and some seasons it’s going to be 90/10. So you’re in it for the long haul. So if you are looking at six months for example, then how do you look at the other half of the calendar and really buffer that? How do we create a strong emotional bank account?”
What she’s getting at is that if you know you are leaving for Springer Mountain in early March, you need to be spending at least September through February going way above and beyond the normal effort you spend on your relationship. And then you need to do the same when you get home. You just took a long, long time doing something that was all about you. So take an equal amount of time and make life about your partner. You have to put in more than you take out, preferably before you take it out.
To a certain extent, this seems obvious (or at least it seems obvious to anyone with more emotional intelligence than I possessed at 26). But there’s a widely known phenomenon common amongst long-distance adventurers. In the weeks before and after finishing a long trek, it’s hard not to think about what’s next. Adventuring life is so radically different from first-world culture, and our bodies are so well-calibrated to moving every day in the outdoors, that ending an adventure can be like withdrawing from a powerfully addictive substance. It’s a complex set of feelings to wrestle with, and it can blind you to the needs of those around you.
And that’s totally understandable. I daresay a committed and emotionally mature partner will find thoughts (and eventually vocalizations) of the next adventure totally acceptable – if their emotional bank account is being replenished. Otherwise, as Riner says, “…fights will happen more frequently, and become more and more resentment based.”
Communication is super important. Not the headline of the year, I know, but how many couples do you know who seem a little oblivious to this concept?
Ideally, you should be communicating your lifestyle and needs to a partner very early in the relationship, so they know that doing quasi-risky things in remote locations is how your brain makes feel-good juice for you. As Riner puts it, “most people who like sensation-seeking don’t just develop it overnight.” Being communicative upfront (and not confrontational) about your lifestyle is a great way to still be adventuring if and when your twenty-year anniversary rolls around.
It’s important to meet your partner’s needs as well (maybe the title of this article should be “It’s Not All About You!”). In order to meet their needs you have to, you know, ask them what their needs are (don’t wait around for them to volunteer the information. Be proactive).
Ask, “while I’m gone, what will make you feel close to me?” These are not easy conversations to have. As Riner says, “Setting those intentions and mutual communication without…being vague or broad is difficult. There’s a lot of grey area…people have to stretch themselves to uncomfortable places to talk about that.”
Riner recommends approaching these conversations within the context of the “love languages” concept. You’ve probably heard of this: it’s the idea that you can roughly group everyone’s relational needs into five categories – words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, or physical touch. Figure out which ones matter most to your partner, then go out of your way to make it happen before, during, and after your adventure.
For words of affirmation and gifts, Riner suggests writing letters, leaving gifts and notes around the house while you are gone, and staying in contact as much as possible during your trip. Yep. Get over your Luddism. Get a satellite communicator and stay in touch with your partner. It’s an investment in your future.
Quality time, acts of service, and physical touch can be a little harder to accomplish while on a trek. That’s why you have to make deposits into your partner’s emotional bank account using these love languages before and after your trip. If possible, try to arrange things so your partner can see you at the halfway mark or at some other point in your adventure. If you can drop a few hundred dollars on a shelter, you can do the same for an airline ticket if getting to see you meets your partner’s needs.
Once you’ve committed to meeting your partner’s needs in a certain way, follow-through is crucial. Setting reasonable, clear expectations is important. Meeting those expectations is doubly-so.
So what about if you find Wild in a used bookstore and decide to hike the PCT fifteen-years into a relationship – and you’ve never once mentioned a desire to backpack? It happens. Riner points out, “Things change – what you like at twenty and what you like at thirty might be different things. There’s an ebb and flow to life.”
The key, Riner says, is embracing the changeable nature of life. It’s harder than it sounds. We all know a couple who called it quits because someone in the relationship “just wasn’t the same anymore.” In these situations, Reiner says, “It’s both people’s responsibility to be honest and vulnerable and authentic and not to hide the parts of themselves that are the most true.”
So if you find yourself trying to break it to your partner that you are considering leaving their soft bed for a questionably comfortable sleeping pad for months at a time, the best policy is to not put it off. Be as open and descriptive of your need as possible, and trust that your partner is willing to do the needed work on their end.
Dealing with Worry and Fear
Speaking of which, let’s talk about something your partner is going to have cope with: worry and fear. Riner told me that there are all kinds of fears that can crop up for your loved one while you are out in the woods: fear of being alone, fear of abandonment, fear of missing out, fear of not being a part of something, fear of not belonging. Some of these fears you can assuage with intentional thought and action (everything we just talked about above, for starters), but some of them are up to your partner to deal with.
Riner says your partner needs to think about it this way: “How do we hold thoughts but not let them dictate our behaviors? There’s risk everywhere but you have to ask yourself what makes you[r partner] come alive. If your partner has to say no to the things that make him come alive, then how strong is the relationship going to be anyway, because if you don’t honor and recognize that part of them, then you are probably going to brew more resentment and depression.”
She goes on to say that your partner’s worry and fear is natural and that it’s okay for them to hold a space for that fear, but they should also be, “holding a bigger space for why [they] fell in love with [you] in the first place. [Your partner should ask themselves], do I really want to change that person or can I lean into this fear and also be excited that this person is pursuing their passion? It doesn’t have to be…a dichotomous thought.”
Maintaining Training, Maintaining Love
Recently I trained for and completed a marathon as part of my larger backpacking training cycle. I was astonished to realize the sheer time-suck training for such an undertaking involves. Luckily I’d just completed research on this article, and was able to apply an actionable tip that Riner gave me to avoid draining my wife’s emotional bank account right before I left for an extended time in the woods.
Riner’s suggestion is this: that every person in the relationship needs eight hours a week just for themselves. This time can come spread out or in one or two large blocks, but the point is neither person in the relationship needs to ask permission or forgiveness for how the time is used.
At the same time, the relationship also needs eight hours of guaranteed, locked-in time per-week. If possible, sit down and schedule your week, or your month, out. This isn’t always realistic, of course, but the more you make your relationship a priority, the easier it is for each person to take the (much needed) time for themselves. I used my eight hours for extra training time, and my wife used hers to read. Both of us came away from our dedicated time more able to build into each other during our relationship time, and the net result is each of our emotional bank accounts was full before I walked into the mountains.
Of course, one way to approach this whole issue is to simply adventure together. This outcome is quite common, either because your mutual interests are what attracted you to your partner in the first place, or because it’s in the nature of relationships to grow to love the things your partner loves. But be careful not to think that a long or intense adventure will save a failing relationship. While intense adventures can build powerful relationships, they also put existing relationships under stress. Your relationship needs to be firing on all cylinders before you take it into the mountains.
Riner also cautions against loss of identity in these situations. “…if you do everything together, all the time, same situation, same person, you may kind of lose your sense of self through it. Or you may sacrifice in some ways, your values, or your roles around it,” she says.
Just because both people in the relationship like backpacking doesn’t mean you have to backpack together. You may have different goals, different speeds, and different styles. You may, in other words, want entirely different things out of the sport. So it’s best to make no assumptions. Be open to changing emotional circumstances, and re-assess each person’s needs before every adventure.
Going the Distance
The best adventure my wife and I ever undertook was our coast-to-coast trek across Scotland. We hiked fifteen-to-twenty miles a day, stayed in bed-and-breakfasts every night, and started each morning with a full Scottish breakfast. It’s the only adventure that I returned home heavier than I left.
It was a beautiful and powerful moment in our relationship because it combined something I love (walking in the mountains) with something she loves (European travel) and created something new for each of us. My type-A reservations about trekking from BnB to BnB vanished the first time I ended a trekking day with a cold beer, a plate of fish and chips, and a soft bed. For my wife, it was just enough of a new experience for her to feel accomplished and connected to one corner of what I love to do, and she got a shower every night. Hard to beat.
My takeaway from our Scotland trip is that the best way to make my wife feel included in my adventuring life is not to force her to enjoy the things that I enjoy, but to figure out a way to combine our mutual interests into things that are fun for both of us. And so I do a lot more car camping than I used to. And she sleeps on the ground more often than she ever did. And we are having a blast.
We wouldn’t be if we (and, in particular, me) had shied away from the hard conversations that led us towards new understanding. I shudder to imagine our relationship if I’d ended our backpacking related spat with a dismissive “you knew who I was when you agreed to marry me, and now you have to deal with it.”
No relationship is perfect and no one is going to stay the same,” Riner says as we wrap up our conversation. To me, our chat felt less like an interview and more like a free marriage counseling session, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
“Life is always changing, life is always evolving. So if you lean in to ‘this may be uncertain and I can handle hard things, I can do hard things, I can be uncomfortable’, then you are setting yourself up for a lot more success.”
Her final point resonates powerfully with me. What is adventuring if not learning to be uncomfortable for the sake of an emotional, physical, or spiritual payoff? If we can learn to be uncomfortable in the woods, then we can learn to be uncomfortable in our relationships – honest, communicative, vulnerable, and, as a result of our discomfort, happy – and with relationships that can weather any mountain gale.
DISCLOSURE (Updated November 7, 2019)
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