Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Belayer Relationship

As a psychotherapist I often work with people’s relationships and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the importance of the belayer relationship here.

Out of all my relationships the one I hold with the most value is the belayer relationship. I mean, who else do you trust with your life, literally? It’s not that I don’t value my emotional relationships, I do. I just really honor and acknowledge that my belayer holds my life in their hands.

In addition to the trust I have with them comes a lot of more subtle relationship dynamics that play out day to day. What happens when that relationship doesn’t go smoothly? What happens when we don’t know how to identify what’s wrong with it and how to fix it? Usually we just find another belayer – or take up bouldering so we don’t have to deal with anyone else. Do you see the parallel in our emotional relationships? When they don’t work out we find another relationship or isolate ourselves for a while. I’m going to venture out here and say I would bet that how you navigate your emotional relationships is going to directly reflect how you navigate your belayer relationships.

Before you can fix a damaged belaying relationship I think you first need to define it and understand it. Here are some relationship types that I see in rock climbing:

The Business Partner: you found this belayer at the gym or online, probably with a posting of someone who needed a belay partner, you meet up, you climb together swapping belays, there is little conversation, and you part ways. This person does not need an emotional connection to go along with the act of belaying – a lot like someone who would use an escort service to get other needs met. No emotional connection – just business. However, the Business Partner has potential for more of a relationship to develop if both of you can get past the mechanics of belaying and develop a friendship on another level – like when a friend with benefits becomes someone you’re attached to. Breakdowns in this belaying relationship really only occur if you feel you can’t trust their belaying or you need more of an emotional connection with them to feel that trust.

The Buddy Partner: this belay partner is both a friend and a belay partner. Maybe you started climbing with this person as you were friends outside of climbing and started climbing together. You are friends outside of the gym and while climbing you frequently chat about life while swapping belays. You are connected to this person on somewhat of an emotional level and that connection helps you trust them when they belay you. There are a lot of us who have Buddy Partners. The gym often turns into social hour/workout hour and we have a fun time while we are climbing together. Breakdowns in this belaying relationship can occur when one or both partners damage the emotional connection and eventually the trust you have in them while belaying will erode. Or vice versa: they do a crappy job belaying you, scare the shit out of you and your emotional connection to them erodes.

The Romantic Partner: this belay partner is both your significant other and your belay partner. Maybe you started climbing and talked your sweetie into joining you, or you met at the gym, were Buddy Partners until you became more than friends outside of the gym and now you are more emotionally connected outside of the gym and climb together too. You trust this person both emotionally and with your life while belaying at a more intense level than the Buddy Partner. This union has both potential to facilitate growth and destroy both your romantic relationship and belaying relationship. Never have I seen a more intense belay partners than this union. I can’t tell you how many couple arguments I’ve seen at the gym and the crags that seem like they are about one person’s lack of ability in belaying when really it’s about their lack of ability emotionally. Breakdowns in this belaying relationship can occur much like when the Buddy Partner relationship has a breakdown. But they can also occur when outside relationship difficulties play out while climbing together. Whatever is unresolved before the climbing day will definitely become highlighted during the climbing day.

I defined the three different belayer relationships based on a continuum of emotional connectivity to that person. No connection = the Business Partner. Some connection = the Buddy Partner. A lot of connection = the Romantic Partner. The belayer relationship is like any other relationship we have in that the more emotional connection we have with the person the messier the dynamics can get. I’m not saying every belayer relationship gets messy. But if you have messy emotional relationships you might see your belaying relationships get messy too.

Stay tuned, next time I’ll write about how to recognize the warning signs of a damaged belayer relationship and ways to repair it. There might not be a way around having a messy episode in a relationship but there are ways to repair it.

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