I’m Worried I’ll Be Better than My Partner at Her Sport, and I Don’t Want to Be
She wants to show me the ropes. I want to cheer her on from the sidelines. What should I do?
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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.
My wife had a difficult childhood and is finally starting to come out of her shell in her twenties. Part of her transformation has been getting into an outdoor sport. I’m changing some details for privacy, so let’s say that the sport is climbing.
She’s happy when she’s climbing, and spends almost all of her free time either practicing or learning about it. I do everything I can to support her. I love seeing her thrive and feel like herself, especially after everything she’s been through. We often spend weekends traveling to special stores and climbing events.
Recently I’ve had to work long hours, and when I get home she’s away practicing, so I don’t see her as much. We miss spending time together, so now she’s come up with the idea that I should start climbing too. She says she wants to teach me.
I’ve always been involved in sports so it’s not a stretch to imagine that I would like climbing. I would probably enjoy it. But there’s a problem. After all these years, my wife is still climbing at a very basic level, which most people would reach after two or three sessions. She has a lot of fear to overcome, so she holds herself back. I don’t care at all about her level because the important thing to me is that she’s doing something she enjoys. But because she’s not around a lot of beginners, I don’t think she has a very realistic sense of her skill level.
The problem is that I am pretty athletic, and I think that almost immediately I would be able to climb at a higher level than her. I’m afraid that this would take something that makes her feel special and turn it into something that makes her feel like a failure, especially because she is proud of being “the climber” out of the two of us.
So far I have come up with excuses to not go climbing with her, but now my avoidance is becoming a source of tension. She feels hurt that I’m blowing her off. I don’t want to participate if it makes her feel bad about something important to her. I also think that if I tried to fake being worse than I am, she would see through my acting. I wish she had never had the idea to teach me because everything was working so well before, and I was happy to support from the sidelines. What is the best thing to do?
It’s beautiful that your wife has found something so meaningful to her, and it’s also beautiful how much you love and support her. You’re right to be cautious and sensitive in how you approach things, because the stakes are high; the last thing you want to do is tarnish an activity that brings your wife so much comfort and healing. You’re also right not to “fake” being a worse climber than you are; if your wife found out, she could be deeply hurt, or end up feeling foolish. This is a delicate situation, for sure, but it’s one where everyone seems to be acting out of goodwill—which is by far the best kind of delicate situation to be in.
First, I think you should chat with her a bit more about the possibility of you climbing. Try to get a sense for how she envisions your time together. You could ask questions like, “What would be the best way for me to start?” and “What would you be excited to show me?” Odds are good that she has a more nuanced understanding of the situation than you realize, is totally aware of the dynamics at play, and would still be thrilled for you to come along. If you get the sense that she doesn’t actually care about your respective levels, or would be genuinely excited to see you excel, you’ll have freedom to participate fully.
Keep in mind that there are different ways to be a beginner. You might have natural athleticism, but that doesn’t mean you know the terminology, the history, or the culture of the sport. If she’s been involved for years, she has way more insider knowledge than you do, and she might actually find it delightful to get to teach those cultural elements to someone who’s physically gifted. As long as you stay humble about all the things you don’t know, she’d still be the mentor in the situation.
However, if, when you talk to her, you can tell that she expects you to learn at the same pace she has (“Don’t worry, eventually you’ll get it—it’ll just take a lot of practice, like it did for me!”)—and if you sense that disappointment could damage your wife’s relationship to the sport, and to all the benefits it brings her—then you’re right to be concerned.
In that case, the best way to participate might be to take on a supportive role: stick to being the belayer, so to speak. You could also suggest an adjacent activity that allows you to be out there with her, spending time together, but in a slightly different way. If the sport she loves is skiing, get a snowboard. If she’s into diving, you could go to the pool and swim laps, or bring a yoga mat and stretch on the sidelines. (Again, I don’t know the sport exactly, so I’m just riffing. But I’m sure it’s totally possible if you put some creativity into it.) The point is that you could spend time together, and be there cheering her on, without the risk of upsetting the balance. Her sport would still get to be “her” thing, something she gets to show off to you—and you’ll still be her biggest fan.
I suspect that, with time, things will chill out in one of two ways. One, your wife’s skills will improve to the point where she is genuinely way better than you, and then you can learn from her freely. Or two—perhaps more likely—is that she’s going to feel better with time, as she grows into herself and continues to recover from her childhood. At that point, the dynamics won’t be so delicate.
In the meantime, keep loving her, supporting her, and finding ways to be true to yourself. Sure, it’ll take time, but that’s one of the most beautiful things about spending your life with someone. When she’s ready, you’ll be there.