It's Valentine's Day, and I'm a blogger. Writing about relationships is unavoidable.
But it's also 2018, so it's difficult. Presidential staffers are resigning amidst allegations of domestic abuse, Presidents are defending the abusers, and #metoo continues to have plenty of fuel for the fire. In the outdoor community, one of the most widely circulated articles in the last week was on the impact of toxic bro culture on women on the Pacific Crest Trail, and a few weeks back Outside released an extended and heartbreaking piece on sexual abuse and harassment in the Outdoor industry.
My mantra this year is "Make yourself useful", and in this kind of social context, one has to question how useful the cheesy guy you see in the upper right hand corner of this blog can possibly be. Serious social movements are happening. Another straight white dude giving relationship advice is neither what the world wants, nor what it needs.
My initial impulse was to cop out as a response: to make a few frivolous "relationship lesson" jokes about stinking up the tent and sharing your Compeed, link back to the week's podcast, and call it a day. But that just seems beneath what we're trying to do here.
And it's also true that there has to be something useful to draw out of my relationship with Angel across the last 20 years for the present context. In a furious cultural conversation about how to fix what's problematic in male/female relationships, there has to be some value in considering the ones that work. That subject is particularly timely for us anyway, because this week's podcast was all about that - relationships that work - and it includes several of the more moving stories we’ve recorded.
A few points from the experience of mutual respect.
In a context where relationships are so visibly problematic for so many people, and for so many reasons, the overall story of my marriage to Angel has been that it's worked for us both. Things in our marriage aren't perfect, of course (as Andre 3000 said, lean a little bit closer, and roses always smell like boo-boo-oo, or whatever), but I think Angel and I both agree that our partnership has been the most important factor that has allowed us to develop the life we want. As a whole, our relationship has been predominantly generative for both of us, rather than destructive.
In an effort to come up with something useful, for the last few days I've been racking my brain and reading a bunch of articles to try to drill down to the essential reason why our relationship has been different than so many. Why we've lasted 20 years through various life stages and transitions, and still plug along happily and productively. I was genuinely not sure where I'd end up, but I've been operating under the assumption that, through that process, I'd come up with something that is helpful to someone.
And while I've come across a million bits of relationship advice you should probably read up on, the principle that has resonated the most with my experience is that our relationship works because we have established a mutual sense of respect. Respect is a broadly definable word, and I'm not talking about admiration exactly (though that's a part of it), or fear or awe. Rather, having mutual respect in our case means something akin to being with someone that we want to be like. Or more precisely, it means confidence that we'll each become more of the person we want to be by virtue of the other being around all of the time.
When I think about our situation, and why our relationship is so personally valuable to me (beyond the usual companionship and yada yada), my mind goes quickly to the qualities that Angel has in spades, which I wish I had more of. Her innate confidence in her ability to figure things out, her instinctive adventurousness, her ability to be relentlessly productive while keeping a good sense of humor. Her ability to get good at seemingly everything she does through practice and work. None of those things come naturally to me, but they've always been core to her personality, and I'd like to think that across our 20 years together some of that has rubbed off. That sense is a central part of what our relationship means to me.
Basing our relationship on this type of mutual respect has made for a durable bond because money, status, looks and health may fade (although we still got it), and life situations may change dramatically (as they have multiple times in our relationship), but a person’s essential character generally doesn’t.
And it also has created a cycle for us that we talk about in the book we're working on, which I call the “cool begets cool” principle. Sometimes it takes work. Sometimes it happens without even noticing. But across time, when two people get together with an interest in learning from the best qualities of the other, they both end up being cooler in the long run than they would've been otherwise individually. It's the "iron sharpens iron" principle, or "two heads are better than one," or "the whole is more than the sum of its parts," or probably lots of other cliche analogies. The basic point is that I'm not the first to notice this: two well paired people who trust each other working and learning together are going to go far.
While there’s nothing essential about outdoor adventure to this relationship dynamic, our lives in that regard make for concrete and measurable illustrations of the cool begets cool cycle in action for us. It has manifested physically across the last 8 years from deciding to run our first sprint triathlon when we were 30, to our first marathon, to 30+ ultras, to running the Camino de Santiago, to a 100 mile race, to hiking the PCT, to paddling the lower Hudson, and now to this business. It wasn't just that it was nice to have company through all of those - we directly helped each other through the decision making, planning and execution process in every case, and our relationship played a central role in successfully making all of those adventures happen.
Mining out that principle - that relationships based on mutual respect generate good things for everyone involved - has at the very least been something I've found interesting and useful. For one, it explains the power couple dynamic, which came through in this week's podcast featuring Erden Eruc and his wife Nancy Board. Erden alludes frequently to the role Nancy played in getting him through a 5 year, solo circumnavigation of the globe, and Nancy speaks about Erden’s role in helping her shift from an adventure adverse flatlander into an accomplished mountaineer who’s climbed Denali and mastered rock climbing later in life than most.
And it points towards the way that, while unhealthy relationships ruin peoples lives, healthy relationships can drive amazing adventures. Chris and Marty Fagan, the first married American couple to ski unguided and unsupported to the South Pole come to mind, as do the subjects of our recent AdventShorts podcast, Karla Martinez and Antonio Rodriguez, Mexican polymaths with law and biology training who run a guiding business and have built an off-grid living setup in Jalcomulco, Mexico, among other things. Mutual respect in a relationship leads to positive things for everyone involved.
Why are you telling me this?
So we've established here that:
1) Destructive bro culture, old boys clubs, and sexual abuse are all real things in the outdoor community, people are talking about them, and they’re things that are conjured for a lot of people in our community by the term “romantic relationship”.
2) I'm maybe not the best voice to speak to solutions to those issues.
3) My own relationship has been going pretty well, for reasons that also apply to a couple of other people we've come across lately through the business.
So why am I telling you all of this? Honestly, it's complicated, but here's the story.
These days I spend a lot of time drifting with a vague sense of dread about the world as a baseline emotional experience, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one. Usually that's exacerbated by the news cycle, but the work I do as a pediatric psych nurse frequently also lends itself to complicated negative emotions due to dealing with issues like neglect, abuse, our broken systems, and the general unfairness of the genetic lottery. So, the other day, I was walking home in just such a stew, and I decided to listen to this week's set of podcast stories. And when I did, the stories about the generative aspects of love felt particularly poignant and hopeful - not despite the harsh problematic reality of the present, as because of it. And I switched over from pessimism to just a bit of hope, and appreciation for my own situation.
So, here we are.
I don't want to set my own relationship up as a model, because that rarely goes well, but I do want to point out that there are concrete reasons to believe that mutually respectful relationships are good for everyone involved. I've lived it myself, and observed it in other people's lives. So, maybe that provides some motivation for change for people who aren't approaching their relationships that way? Or maybe it provides permission to leave for people who are in relationships where their partner doesn't respect them?
And I don't want to distract from the extent or seriousness of the problems that need to be addressed, and I don't want this to come off as a "not all men" type of redirection. But I do want to tag the places where I've personally found a bit of hope in the midst of the malaise.
So, as with so many other things, being a human being in 2018 on Valentine’s Day is complicated. It means existing in a larger context, full of challenges and emotional complexity. It’s problematic and exhausting. But the point then, after all of that, is that it’s not hopeless. Or at least, that's my experience.
The point is also that you should really check out both this week's podcast and the AdventShorts episode with Karla and Antonio (also available en espanol!). Both are hopeful, emotional, and real.
And if you like what we're doing here, and want to become a part of it, consider supporting us at Boldly Went on Patreon.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.