I think I’m the last man on the planet to be giving relationship advice (I’m better at stoves and bird beaks), but here goes:
My dad, a wise man, when asked a question like yours, would probably say, “that sounds hard, good luck with that”. This kind of answer is annoying at first, as it sucks the oxygen out of the question; he’s not offering any solution; its sounds like he’s saying he doesn’t want to talk about your problems. But often, when times are tough, especially when it comes to relationships, all we want to do is talk and talk and talk; we don’t want solutions; the pain of talking is all we want. It gives an emotional return that’s valuable, it somehow allows us to connect with someone we love, someone we loved, someone we hate but love, someone we hate and hate (but deep down we love), maybe even someone we love but actually hate (but we don’t know what love is anymore). That emotional response in talking and always thinking is like poking a rotting tooth with your tongue; it does no good; only reminds you of the constant pain you already feel. Maybe by increasing the pain, you hope for some respite; half the pain better than double the pain. Yes, it’s not good talking about these things if all you want is to be intimate with the pain; it only makes things worse. But when that’s all you’ve got, that’s good enough.
Like a rotting tooth that either kills you through septicaemia or is just pushed out by your immune system, things do eventually sort themselves out, but not if you have a mouth full of rotting teeth; that will either kill you or leave you sad and old and toothless.
And so I’ll not give you a response like my dad’s, but somewhere in between.
So let’s start at the top. Are climbers people you’d want to have a relationship with? Personally, having been married to a non-climber and a climber, as well as being in relationships with very driven human beings, I’d say that you need to be with someone who makes you feel normal, who normalises who you are; which if you’re a climber (or road cyclist, runner, Dungeons and Dragons player) is someone who sees your abnormal behaviour as normal; or if not less normal, then within the boundaries of acceptance.
For example, if you were addicted to meth, but your partner was a priest, how would that relationship go? He’d want to be doing good things, moral things, stuff that would look after his soul: praying, helping his flock; while you’d only want to be hustling for cash and smoking meth. But if he started smoking too, very soon life would be ‘normal’, your aberrant behaviour just what you do, and for a while, life would be perfect, a match made in hell.
But then, one day, you can’t hustle anymore, the money and the meth starts to run out, and you’re competing for hits, and all of a sudden it’s not about love or companionship, but all about what you, what you want (I like this analogy when talking about two very motivated athletes having a baby or two people with a child who need to train all the time). Is being with a junky a pathway to everlasting love, if neither person will ever put the other before the fix?
So, on that front, dating a climber allows the abnormal to appear normal, but still being abnormal, you have a few issues to deal with:
1. If one person is performing better than the other, this will introduce stress into the relationship; stress and envy.
2. If one person wants to climb with other people, because they have more fun, climb harder, have less stress and arguments, then this introduces feelings of abandonment and neglect (it’s like swinging or having an open marriage).
3. If one side has a better work-life balance, say they’re a teacher and finish at 3.30, and have ten weeks summer vacation, while the other has two weeks, this will introduce jealously.
4. If one person’s life is not on track, or their climbing is not going well, they may well find fault in the other, that their life is shit because they can’t climb enough (they’re under the illusion that climbing hard makes them happy when really it’s happy people who climb harder), and it’s the other that has made climbing harder.
5.What if climbing is the thing you share, the bond, but one day one of you feels that desire to climb fade. What bond do you have left?
Another factor here is that strong, long-lasting relationships are made between two adults, not between children, and that climbers are often not really adults; they suffer from the widespread problem of infantilism; they avoid all responsibility; make the ‘other’ be the adult, sometimes financially; use love as leverage to allow them to keep ‘playing out’. Such people, although cool to be around, fun, energising - like kids - but tend to be flakes, fuck-ups, unreliable beyond the climbing life. Yes, it’s cool being a dirtbag at 19, but less so at 49. We tend to be attracted to such people, Peter Pans and Tiger Lilys, as we need to escape the nasty adult world, crushed by responsibility. Such relationships are great in the short term, but not in the long, unless you’re junkies, until the drugs run out, as we all have to grow up sooner or later (Fred Becky was the exception).
It’s also worth not using the label ‘climber’ here, as you could insert any obsessive, there is a spectrum (there is always a spectrum), from gaming to triathlon, road biking to Crossfit, and that old chestnut called working for a living (which can easily have nothing to do with making money, money only being a positive by-product). So yes, they’re not a climber, but they spend a hundred hours a week tending their bonsai collection.
Very often, the thing a person does is just a manifestation of who they are - not what they are - and that being driven is perhaps the result of a flaw that manifests itself as a positive (the driven are evolutionary drivers). So really, the question isn’t “Do I want to have a long term relationship with a climber”, but “do I want to have a relationship with someone who’s driven?”
To answer that you need to ask yourself if you’re also driven, as driven people are generally attracted to others like themselves, both because they want to feel normal, but also because maybe they can be an ally and an aid to what you’re driven to do (‘If I go out with Alex Honnold my grade will go up, and I can stop using cutlery’).
If you’re not driven, or less driven, then you’re going to either have a miserable life if you’re with such a person, always put into the shadow; or you’ll be down with it, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like the sun, or enjoys martyrdom (a positive in someone’s character that manifests itself as a negative for them, but a positive for assholes).
So yes, this isn’t sounding too positive either way!
So the alternative is to find a ‘normal person’. First off, I should say there is no such thing as ‘normal’, but there is, just as there is abnormal. Again it’s a spectrum, but most people seek safe lives, free from mental, physical or emotional trauma, a cosy nest, conformity; transforming from radical youth, into their parents. Normal people probably make up 80% of people on the planet (give or take a billion). This ‘normal’ life, unradical, a little regretful and always a little unfilled, is what someone who wants to be happy should aim to have. But the rub is, if you have the drive in your DNA, although you think you want happiness, when offered, the other 20% generally reject it (strangely, the 80% look to the 20% to live the lives they’d like to live if they could, TV, books, stories, often a window onto the lives of the 20%).
Are we getting anywhere here? Not really, but maybe we’re moving some pieces around.
On a more general theory of positive intimate human relationships (also called love), is the core principle is being ‘valued’ - which is the type of crap they tell you a marriage counselling - but is really about both people feeling lucky to have the other one. There needs to be a balance of power that sloshes around but isn’t spilled or wasted. As soon as that power begins to slip, the man gets fat and lazy, hates his job, hates his life, feels his wife can’t love him because how could she (he turns into a pathetic loser), the power shifts and she stops loving him (“I love you, but I’m not in love with you” - classic!), and things break apart, maybe in a second, maybe over half a century.
So love is a balance of power, and it’s letting neither party exploit that power (love) in order to get what they want; i.e. love requires constant care and supervision and balancing to be sustained; power continually evolving, from physical and sexual, to emotional and intellectual, eventually to a form of power so deep and meaningful it has no name.
When a driven person is trying to have a long term relationship with a less driven person, they’ll have equality in power, to begin with, each side adjusting to fit the other. Give it a few weeks or months, and one side will want to sit and watch Mad Men with a takeaway, while the other will want to get up at 3 am to train for that Iron Man.
So is there a way to avoid this?
An iron rule of life - for me - is to tell people what you want, be that business or love, to not go around the houses and get lost, to tell lies or hide the truth, but simply say ‘I want X’, so that the other can say yes, or no, or come to some compromise (“I want a billion dollars”. “I can give you ten”. “I’ll take it”). But first, you need to know what you want.
If you want security, kids, a house with a picket fence, then maybe that’s easy to find if you find the right man, as he makes up 40% of the planet. If you want to travel the world climbing, and forgo kids and security then that’s harder, as you’re limited to just 10%, and most will have been taken (but people are in no way fixed, either by what they want, or who), but it’s still possible, as they are also looking for you. But if you want it all, to have security, kids, climbing, freedom, well that is perhaps just an Instagram fantasy, as the closer you get to this ideal life, the more you’ll have to compromise and the chances of being happy (not being miserable is maybe a better measure) will diminish. The lives of the people you imagine have it all tend to lack even the things you take for granted.
I’m 48 years old, and when I look back, it’s like a jumbo jet has landed on a busy highway, the wreckage stretches out behind me, the hurt, pain and damage caused, things I find hard to even think about still, even though they happened decades ago. It’s easy to blame such wreckage on being driven, being selfish, having bad code and faults, stuff in your DNA, a man child who shirked all responsibility, a brat. It’s a nice image, that jumbo jet, calling myself out like that, a form of repentance, that yes I have sinned, but now I ask for forgiveness as I’m fixed; but ultimately, you only become an adult, someone who does not smash and break the good things they’re given until you take responsibility for who and what you are. Do that - understand yourself - and what you want, and what you’re willing to give (and give up), you can find long-lasting love, but more importantly be someone who can be loved, climber or not.