If you’ve ever paddled in a tandem canoe with your significant other, you know why it’s called the “divorce boat.” Adventures of any kind in the outdoors can either make or break a relationship, so we sat down with three active couples to learn how they navigate the turbulent waters of married life.
There’s no better analogy for marriage than sailing the open sea. To quote the 1973 classic hit “Rock the Boat” by Hues Corporation, “Our love is like a ship on the ocean. We’ve been sailing with a cargo full of love and devotion.” But sometimes, the sea, like life, can be a capricious thing, and no matter the amount of love and devotion in the hold of that ship, a little adversity can be all it takes to rock the boat.
Early on in their relationship, Harrisonburg, Va., locals Anna and David Landis, were exposed to many a stormy sea. Just a few months after the two started dating, they packed their bags and moved to the Middle East, where they spent nearly a decade living as expats in Israel and Palestine.
“When you’re living abroad for that long, your friends cycle in and out, and it can be really refreshing and helpful to have a partner there with you, but that also makes it harder when you have a conflict,” says Anna Landis, “because then, you’re each other’s only steady companion.”
Still, living thousands of miles and seven time zones away from family didn’t keep the Landis’ from pushing their limits, both individually and as a couple. In 2009, they each hiked the Camino de Santiago separately, and later returned to hike it together in 2011 and the Camino del Norte route in 2012. They’ve since hiked the Annapurna Circuit, toured cross-country by bike, road tripped throughout Europe and Alaska, and self-published two guidebooks on the Jesus Trail and the Camino de Santiago under their publishing company Village to Village Press. Landis has done more than 20,000 miles of bike touring and has developed a number of long-distance hiking trails in the Middle East, including the Jesus Trail and the Jordan Trail.
While they each have fond memories of these adventures together, there was no doubt there were trying times. On that cross-country bike tour, for example, which the couple took just a week after being married and with David’s two sisters and their husbands in tow, Landis remembers feeling self-conscious about her pace.
“We were loaded down and averaging 80 miles a day for seven weeks and I was just exhausted,” she says. “This was my first huge tour, and a lot of the times, I would be straggling in after everyone else. I was always the slowest one. It’s already kinda stressful to do those big long days, but to feel like you’re letting people down, that was tough sometimes.”
Lydia Wing of Saluda, N.C., remembers that feeling of insecurity, which is why she didn’t paddle with her then-boyfriend Chris, an experienced kayaking instructor and Wave Sport sponsored freestyle competitor, when she was first learning to kayak. She paddled with her parents instead.
“The beginner progression can be challenging and frustrating and sometimes you feel embarrassed holding the group back,” she says. “I tended to funnel those frustrations into anger, so I started paddling with my parents a lot because my mom couldn’t break up with me if I got mad at her while we were kayaking.”
Once Lydia felt confident on the water, she and Chris started paddling harder whitewater together, but even then, the two encountered a different set of challenges, namely, how to continue giving Lydia the room to develop herself as a competent paddler.
“Whether it’s in the eddy above the rapid or picking up the pieces at the bottom, being able to sort through what you’re feeling and have your counterpart listen and not just tell you what you want to hear but empower you and validate how you’re feeling, that’s really important,” says Lydia. “We weren’t good at that for a long time and there were times on the river that were stressful and heated.”
“There is no hiding your emotions while kayaking,” says Chris. “All of your insecurities and fears surface, no matter what, and it comes out in different ways. Sometimes I’m too empathetic because I coach and teach so much. I have to be able to turn off that coach and be a husband as well, and that’s my biggest challenge.”
In 2012, Chris and Lydia started H2o Dreams, a kayak instruction school offering everything from beginner roll clinics to international paddling trips. All of a sudden, the couple wasn’t just living and playing together—they were now working together, too. Not long after the two embarked on this entrepreneurial enterprise, Lydia started having doubts.
“A lot of people will laugh when I say this but I really experienced a quarter-life crisis,” Lydia says. “I freaked out because I went to college and then I met this guy and this job working with him totally fell into my lap. I started to wonder what I would do if it weren’t for Chris, like who would I be and what would I be doing?”
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The All-or-Nothing Marriage
What Lydia experienced is something an increasing number of modern day couples are having to confront, and that is the question of whether or not your significant other should help you achieve self-actualization. Last year, Northwestern University social psychologist Eli Finkle published a book called The All-or-Nothing Marriage. In it, Finkle compares the history of marriage to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Up until 1850, a successful marriage was defined by the meeting of basic needs such as “food production, shelter and protection from violence,” writes Finkle in a 2014 New York Times op-ed. From 1850 until 1965, “marriage increasingly centered around intimate needs such as to love, to be loved and to experience a fulfilling sex life.”
But from 1965 until today, Americans, who more or less had those fundamental needs met, looked to marriage for self-discovery, the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. That, according to Finkle, is leading to either record-high levels of marital quality, or marriages that fall drastically short of a partner’s expectations.
Lydia, recognizing that Chris couldn’t possibly answer those questions for her, made a leap. She started working for a non-profit, and although she didn’t work there long, it returned that sense of sovereignty over her life that had been missing.
“I recognized pretty early on that John couldn’t be my everything, which is probably why I’ve survived being a weekend bike widow for so long,” says Rebecca. “Before, because I was so profoundly unhappy in my career choices, I was resentful of this great joy that John had. But if you stop thinking about the things that take your partner away from you and start thinking about the space that that gives you to find your passions, you’ll come much closer together.”
Rebecca Herod of Morgantown, W.Va., had a harder time making that dive. She and her husband John had, by all appearances, a successful life. She was the Director of Marketing and Communications at West Virginia University. John had his own lucrative contracting business. The two owned a house and doted on their two dogs. Despite the unquestionable love they had for each other, John had another love, too—mountain biking. The sport was part of John’s very essence, an activity he’d been doing since he was just a child. He’d been a competitive downhill racer for years, traveling almost every weekend during the season, but even now as co-founder of the West Virginia Enduro Series, he was out of town a lot.
“Early on in the relationship he was out having a good time [mountain biking] and I was working all of the time and not having fun,” says Rebecca. “That wasn’t his problem though. That was my problem. His happiness didn’t need to get smaller. Mine needed to get bigger.”
When the stress of her work started to negatively impact her physical and mental well-being, Rebecca turned to yoga. At first, yoga was purely a personal pursuit, but she felt such fulfillment from her practice that she decided to quit her job and begin teaching yoga.
“I left a very lucrative position at the university to be a yoga teacher which, contrary to popular belief, is not a money-making venture,” she says. “I was worried when I did that because we had a certain lifestyle and that was going to change. I was afraid that would put strain on our marriage and our finances.”
As a self-employed entrepreneur and downhill mountain biker, John was no stranger to risk. He understood Rebecca’s fear of the unknown and her simultaneous need to confront that uncertainty head-on. Much like mountain biking served as an outlet for stress relief and purpose in his life, he recognized that yoga played a similar role in Rebecca’s.
“Although we don’t do those two things together, it works for us,” he says. “Everyone needs mind-cleansing activities. You can’t always rely on your partner to make your world perfect.”
Shifting the Paradigm
Whether you’re in a relationship like John and Rebecca, who maintain separate passions, or like Chris and Lydia, who live, work, and play together, time spent outdoors shouldn’t cause stress on the relationship. If it does, the first thing you should do is set a regular date night.
According to a 2012 study released by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, date nights can improve the overall quality and stability of relationships and marriages. Spouses who spent deliberate “time alone, talking, or sharing an activity” at least once a week “were approximately 3.5 times more likely to report being ‘very happy’ in their marriages, compared to those who enjoyed less quality time with their spouse.”
Life for Anna and David has changed dramatically in recent years. For starters, the couple now has two kids under the age of three, which make scheduling date nights seemingly impossible. And while David decided all of those years ago during his first thru-hike of the Camino de Santiago that he preferred to adventure with his wife by his side, he’s had to adapt the activities that give him such fulfillment to be more inclusive for his family. This past summer, the four-person tribe headed West so that David could bike the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in the company of Anna and their two kids, who met up with him along the way.
“I like going hard and going fast, there’s no doubt,” he says, “but I think the greater value is being outside and being together.”
John and Rebecca make a point of designating Thursday nights as date night. The evening’s activities must be “neutral ground,” which means no yoga and no mountain biking. The two typically go out to dinner, see a concert, or simply stay at home and binge watch Stranger Things and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
Chris and Lydia admit that date nights are few and far between. “We’re married and we kayak together and we started our own business together. There are a lot of blurred lines,” says Lydia. But when they first started dating, and before Lydia began kayaking, the couple went on really cool dates and shared new experiences, which they say they’d like to return to.
“It’s systemic in our culture that that sacred time is one of the first things that falls to the wayside,” says Chris. “We’re so motivated and so driven and so career-oriented that we forget about the things that bring real joy in our lives.”
Additionally, social psychologist Eli Finkle argues that it’s perfectly acceptable for couples to look to each other for support in achieving self-actualization, if those expectations are clearly communicated and the couples are willing to put in the hard work (read “more date nights”) to make that happen. But, says Finkle, “if couples lack the time and energy, they might consider adjusting their expectations, perhaps by focusing on cultivating an affectionate bond without trying to facilitate each other’s self-actualization.”
“I recognized pretty early on that John couldn’t be my everything, which is probably why I’ve survived being a weekend bike widow for so long,” says Rebecca. “Before, because I was so profoundly unhappy in my career choices, I was resentful of this great joy that John had. But if you stop thinking about the things that take your partner away from you and start thinking about the space that that gives you to find your passions, you’ll come much closer together. You don’t have to share the same love affair with biking, but you do have to recognize how that love affair enhances the soul. You want to be with somebody who’s got a soulful love. It just makes us whole people.”