My Partner Gets Crabby Outdoors. Should I Keep Asking Him to Join Me?
We have lots of fun when things go smoothly, but he gets in terrible moods if they don’t
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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 Small Game and Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at email@example.com.
I am an avid hiker and a moderately confident outdoors person who loves to get out into nature whenever I can. My partner is not an outdoors person at all. He’s not against it; it’s just not his thing. But he’s happy to join me because he’s happy to share in my passion, and once we’re out in the woods, he likes it too.
However, because it’s my thing, I feel pressure to make sure everything goes smoothly, or else my partner won’t want to come out with me again. He’s reliant on me in the wilderness, so I feel like I have to have it all together. That’s great if everything goes smoothly, but if I make a mistake, it feels like I’d potentially lose his willingness to be outdoors.
When my partner is in a good mood, he’s a delight to be with. We’ve had some really wonderful camping and hiking trips together, and I definitely prefer going together to going alone. I know he enjoys himself when things go well. But there have also been times when it rains, mosquitos are bad, and so on, and it’s very clear that he would rather be at home on the couch watching a movie. In these moments, his company is so lousy and sullen that I would rather be there on my own, but I end up acting extra upbeat to try to cancel out his negativity, even though it stresses me out.
Should I take less responsibility for my partner’s feelings and trust his consent that he came with me in the first place? Or do I just go camping with other friends, so I don’t have to deal with the risk of him being a Debbie downer?
When I was 18, and working at a summer camp, I used to take girls backpacking in Yosemite. For many of the kids, backpacking—and even hiking and camping—was pretty new to them. We taught them about pacing, packing their bags, staying hydrated, making camp, and how to cook and clean up on the trail. The culmination of the session was a two- or three-day overnight, and the girls had to face a number of their own discomforts and fears: homesickness, fear of the dark, bears, rain, and so on. We supported them, and they supported each other, and the pride and energy they got from the trip was always wonderful to behold.
Of course, we also had kids who liked to complain for complaining’s sake, particularly during the hiking portions. For them, we had a simple solution: every time they whined, we added a rock to their backpacks.
This worked immediately, every time. For one thing, the kids got the humor of it; they’d often stop mid-whine, start laughing, and run away shrieking before anyone could grab a rock. Or they’d find good rocks along the way and carry them themselves, waiting for someone to slip up and complain, while everyone else bent over backwards to only say ridiculously positive things.
These kids understood, inherently, what your partner doesn’t seem to have grasped yet, which is that if you’re on a group trip and you keep focusing on the negative, you’re not just adding to your own burden but also adding weight that has to be carried by the whole group. I’m not surprised that you end up acting ridiculously positive to try to balance him out! You’re trying to hold up all those rocks, because all you wanted was to have a nice time together. It must be exhausting.
The problem you’re having isn’t really about camping. It’s about you taking the time to plan something, a nice elaborate date, and then him being negative about it. Imagine if you were doing something totally different: if he planned a weekend trip to see a concert, say, and went out of his way to get tickets and make reservations, but then you spent half the time whining because traffic was bad, your hotel room smelled funny, the concert was too loud, and parking was ridiculous. Or if he arranged for you both to try a new restaurant, and you criticized the food rather than saying, “You know what, I don’t know if I’d come back here, but it was fun to try!” It’s basic etiquette—and kindness—to not be negative to the person who worked hard to create fun for you.
It’s possible that your partner genuinely dislikes camping, and thinks that if he complains enough, you’ll get the hint and stop bringing him. I think you should ask him directly, and be prepared for an real answer: “Do you want to keep camping with me? If you don’t, it’s OK. I really like it, but I don’t want to keep planning these trips if it’s not something you enjoy.” If he says no, thank him for his honesty, and try not to take it personally, even if you’re disappointed. I’m sure you’ve been a great guide, but camping just isn’t everyone’s thing.
If he says that he does want to keep camping with you, then you should take him at his word for that, too. He’s an adult, after all; he’s responsible for saying what he thinks, especially when you make explicit space for him to do so. In fact, I think you should work on doing the same. Try to notice when you’re acting super-positive to cancel out his negativity, and instead, be direct about the fact that his comments make you sad. “The thing is,” you could say, “I know it’s raining and we’re stuck inside the tent, but I actually think it’s cozy and I like being here with you. It gets me down when you complain about something that we’re doing together.” You could even bring some humor into it: “You know, I heard about someone who led kids’ backpacking trips, and every time a kid whined too much, they’d add a rock to their pack. I think I might have to start doing that with you.” He’ll probably just laugh it off. But next time he starts complaining, you can pick up a rock.