What to Do When Your Adventure Partner Isn’t Pulling Their Weight
“I went into this relationship happy to share my experience with someone new to the sport, but lately I just feel like an unpaid guide when what I want is a partner”
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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently moved to a new state and have been trying to make friends with a shared interest in my favorite outdoor sport, which requires a partner for safety reasons.
I’ve met a partner who invites me out regularly, and we’ve been getting outside together consistently over the past six months. She’s a perfectly nice person; my problem is that she remains a newb. While she claimed she wasn’t new to the sport before we arranged to meet up, it was instantly clear that she lacked a lot of basic skills. Initially that was fine, but what gets me is that she hasn’t bothered to learn the systems that make our sport possible, and she remains completely reliant on me to do all of the planning, gear setup, and safety checks that keep us both protected. She’s happy to use the systems I demonstrate but never remembers them. I went into this relationship happy to share my experience with someone new to the sport, but lately I just feel like an unpaid guide when what I want is a partner.
I’ve tried to be the friend I wished I had when I was learning, but having to demonstrate the basics every time we get together and shoulder all the responsibility is wearing on me. Am I being a snob? Is there a kind way to dump your mentee in an outdoor partnership that’s just not blossoming?
If you were being a snob, you’d think you were better than her for knowing more, or you’d look down on her for having a lot to learn. That doesn’t really seem to be the case. You’re not frustrated because of your partner’s level, but because even as you spend time teaching her, she still doesn’t make an effort to contribute. I can definitely see how feeling like an unpaid guide would get old after a while.
Based on what you’ve told me, and similar dynamics I’ve seen, I think there’s still a chance that this is a misunderstanding. It’s possible that your partner thinks that taking on more leadership would mean she was stepping on your toes. Or that, since she’s not as good at things, the polite thing is to step back and not impose.
Are you comfortable enough with each other that you could simply ask her to take on responsibility? There might be a gentle way to do it. As you’re setting up, for example, you could say, “Hey, do you want to try this, and I’ll supervise? It’d be nice if we could switch off doing this sometimes.” She might take the hint, or you might have to be more direct: “Look, I’m not upset, but I’d really appreciate it if you’d do [insert task here] sometimes, too. Otherwise I can feel like I’m here as your guide rather than your partner. What would it take for you to be confident doing it?” She might be briefly sad to hear this—it’s hard to hear that our friends aren’t happy with something we’re doing, even when they tell us with kindness—but I think if you set a positive tone, she’ll hopefully be able to get over it fast. (If she doesn’t, that’s more information that can help you determine how much you want to invest in this relationship.)
Alternately, if she’s not comfortable tying knots or whatever, maybe she’d be willing to take leadership in other ways—say, by packing picnic lunches, taking nice photos for you to use, or cleaning and repacking gear after use. I’ve also had fantastic outdoor friendships, across skill levels, in which the person with less experience is just super enthusiastic, positive, and present—which is in itself a great contribution! You might still end up doing the setup yourself, but at least your respective contributions would be balanced, and it would feel less like you’re being taken for granted.
If your partner’s not willing to change, even after you’ve brought it up, you have a few options. One, you can of course still have adventures with her, but just know that you have to do much of the work yourself. Maybe it’ll still be worth it sometimes, but not always. At least you’ll know what to expect, and what you’re getting into.
Two, try to find other friends or partners to do your sport with. This is easier said than done, especially since you’ve recently moved to a new place. But if you’ve managed to make some other connections, you might find it rewarding to deepen those relationships instead. As for moving on from your current partner/mentee, if you choose to do so—there’s no reason to have a “breakup,” or make it into a big thing. Just say yes to her invitations less often, and prioritize spending your time with friendships that feel more reciprocal.
For what it’s worth, I think it’s great that you are trying to pay it forward within your sport, so to speak, by being the friend you wished you had when you were learning. That kind of attitude means the world to folks who are newer in an activity, and it also shapes the culture of the activity itself—emphasizing that it’s about inclusion and possibility, and that the cool thing to do is be welcoming. Even if this relationship ends up having been a short-term mentorship, rather than a long-term partnership, it’s still a positive thing you’ve done, and these efforts have ripples. So whatever you end up doing, hold onto that spirit of welcome.