So Your Boyfriend Wants to Backpack with His Ex
Your partner’s planning an epic adventure with his ex, but you’d rather be his go-to travel buddy
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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 have been dating my boyfriend for about a year and a half. When we first started dating the pandemic hit, so we really haven’t been anywhere except a visit to his family about four hours away for house-sitting and visiting his parents downstate. Lately we have talked about going to Europe, but we haven’t made any concrete plans.
Meanwhile, his live-in ex-girlfriend of six years has asked him to go hiking with her next month (eight hours away, in another state), and he hasn’t agreed to anything but says he is “thinking about it” despite the fact that we don’t have any actual travel plans and we literally have not left our home state since the pandemic started. I am totally devastated, not only because she seems to have such an important place in his life as an adventure partner while I am just a domestic partner, but also because the very first thing he wants to do when we are vaccinated and out of lockdown is consider traveling with her rather than trying to make plans with me. When I confronted him about it, he insisted it was no big deal and just like if he were traveling with one of his male outdoor buddies. But this woman lived with him for almost six years and shared so much of his life, and even so he can’t break his attachment from her and insists that he needs her in his life as his hiking buddy.
I know that I have limitations when it comes to outdoor activities because I have back pain and I am limited to low-impact day hikes and a maximum weight of around 15 pounds. However, he’s never even tried to work within my limitations to see what I could do in terms of outdoor trips and just keeps going back to thinking of her as his go-to adventure partner. This makes me feel so hurt and like I can never replace her in his life. I even asked him if he could just give me a little bit of time to try to condition myself to light day hikes or maybe try an overnight camping trip before he writes me off as an outdoor travel partner. But he insists that I would hate camping and hate hiking (despite the fact that he has never gone camping or hiking with me or even tried to work with my challenges). He isn’t even appreciative of any of these compromises that I’m trying to make, and instead insists that I am being spiteful and taking an opportunity to go on an outdoor trip away from someone who would really enjoy it (that someone being his ex-girlfriend), but I think this whole business just shows that he has some unnatural attachment to her and is always going to think of her as the person in his life with whom he shares adventures while I am supposed to hold down the home front. Believe me, that is never the way I would think of myself, and I’m not sure if I can move forward with someone who thinks this way about me. Is there any hope for this situation?
Look, is there conceivably a world in which someone could go on a backpacking trip with their ex without threatening or diminishing their current relationship? Sure, I’ll buy it. A two-person backpacking trip is intense and fairly intimate, but in an ideal world with full, honest communication—and in which the non-backpacking partner has veto power over the trip, and neither backpacker harbors any lingering feelings—it could probably work. Is it wise? Eh. But people do unwise things all the time, and delicate situations need to be handled for what they are: delicately.
That is not what’s happening here.
Your boyfriend is (1) planning his first out-of-state trip without you, his partner, who has supported him through the pandemic while (2) consistently prioritizing his ex’s feelings over yours and (3) making it seem like the problem is your body and (4) lying to you about what you do and don’t like while discouraging you from trying something you might enjoy and (5) accusing you of being unreasonable for wanting to have fun yourself.
I think what frustrates me most about this conflict is that your boyfriend has twisted the narrative to blame everything on your physical capacity (as if your back pain is forcing him to go backpacking with his ex-girlfriend specifically, rather than with any of his platonic buddies) and not his complete refusal to work within the limits of what you actually can do—which is, frankly, a lot! There are absolutely outdoor trips, even multi-day outdoor trips, that can be done with short hikes and light packs. In fact, your limitations are incredibly normal, and totally workable, unlike his limitations, which include—at best—an embarrassing lack of empathy and self-awareness.
Can we also talk about the fact that he said you were being “spiteful” by wanting to go camping, and “taking an opportunity away from someone who would really enjoy it?” Excuse me? You are not there for your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s enjoyment of life. It is not your responsibility to sacrifice your own fun so that she can have it instead—with your boyfriend. Together. Without you. This whole thing is a mess of red flags, but even if this comment were the only problem, it would be enough. (To be clear, I don’t blame the ex-girlfriend in this situation. But still. I mean, come on.)
I usually try not to assume things when I don’t know the whole story, but I’d put money on the fact that he is open to at least hooking up with his ex, if not getting back together with her, all while keeping you around as insurance in case it doesn’t work out. Not because he considered backpacking with her—again, that could be well-intentioned obliviousness—but because of the desperate and cruel ways he dismissed your concerns and invented reasons to keep you from coming along. That kind of cruelty—literally manipulating you out of trying something that you might like (camping and hiking) because he’s afraid you would like it and then he wouldn’t have a way to keep you out of it—isn’t an accident. And it’s not something a person grows out of without a tremendous amount of emotional work and introspection. I’m not seeing a lot to suggest that he’s earned the support that this work requires, at least not from you.
You asked if there’s hope for this situation. There absolutely is—for you. I hope you can leave this situation (and this relationship) with a better sense of what is and isn’t negotiable—and a commitment to treating yourself with the kindness, openness, and understanding that your soon-to-be ex-boyfriend can’t seem to spare.