Marriage Lessons Learned on the Appalachian Trail
About this time two years ago, I fulfilled a dream on my bucket list — I walked the Appalachian Trail. My darling sister-in-law encouraged me to do it, and I agreed, setting off with her and a handful of other ladies, with whom I would soon become friends.
Now, before you even ask, no, we didn’t walk the whole 2,200 miles! With a family and a full-time practice, I don’t have the seven months that impressive endeavor takes. Besides, I am anything but an endurance athlete!
We started our adventure at the Swift Run Gap Entrance Station and finished 4 days later, at the Thornton Gap Entrance Station. All told, we covered about 45 miles. All uphill. All in the rain.
I jest…about the rain, at least. While it wasn’t literally all uphill, it did feel like it to this middle-aged, generally not-athletically inclined therapist! Nevertheless, uphill or not, those four days were a gift to me.
Hiking, even with buddies, is a very solitary experience. There is a lot of time to think and reflect. I found myself recognizing how many lessons I was learning on the Trail that were applicable to the work I do at The Marriage Place — lessons about marriage and about being in a relationship.
I want to share some of those lessons with you here.
Lesson 1: Get in shape for the journey
I did not take the best version of myself on the trip. Despite my good intentions, I hadn’t done the long preparatory walks. I really had no idea what I was heading into and as a result, I wasn’t fully prepared for the physical, mental or emotional demands of my journey. To remain healthy, a marriage requires deliberate on-going preparation. Some of you, despite your best intentions, haven’t properly trained yourself to be a healthy partner in a relationship. Good marriages require good relationship skills. Get in shape for your marriage. Don’t put it off any longer.
Lesson 2: Be a team
My personal choices leading up to the trip made my journey tougher. I didn’t make sure I had a backpack that fit appropriately. Or, maybe I didn’t know how to adjust it appropriately, but either way, my back was killing me after hours of trekking with it. Fortunately, one of my companions had a backpack that was easier to carry and she would switch off with me every time my back cried “uncle”. She did this even though my backpack was more uncomfortable for her also. These gals were all troopers and they know that being a team means no one is left behind. This hike was hard and at one point I was practically crying and begging them to leave me. It wasn’t pretty. But instead of abandoning me, my team cheered me on. They encouraged me to keep going. We shared laughs and sang songs to make the journey easier. They became my friends. This support system made all the difference on my journey. A healthy marriage can be your best support system. In fact, show me a good marriage and I’ll show you a marriage with good teamwork. Rarely are you both strong at the same time. Instead, you take turns being strong for each other. When one of you feels weak, the other is able and ready to carry your pack. Part of being a good team is also being willing to ask for and accept the help. Suffering in silence will destroy a team.
Lesson 3: Learn to adapt
On the trail, adapting might look like learning to pee standing up! Truth. (Men, you don’t know how lucky you are in this regard). In a relationship, being adaptable means learning to live with and love another human being through all stages of life. Someone who has had different life experiences than you — and who also has different opinions, likes/dislikes, annoying habits and triggers than you do, too. It is highly unlikely all aspects of your marriage are going to look like what you expected going into it. Your needs and wants will change over time and so will your partner’s. Learning to communicate and negotiate these with each other is where many couples struggle and need help finding a solution or compromise.
Lesson 4: Focus on your steps, not anyone else’s
On the Trail, you must keep your eyes open and focused on YOUR steps and YOUR path. If your attention turns to someone else’s, you’ll stumble and fall. The same holds true in a marriage. We are each responsible for our own contributions to our marriage. Our focus should remain there; however, it’s often easier to look across and point a finger at what our partner is/isn’t doing (especially if they are behaving badly) than it is to take an honest look at ourselves. Focusing your energies on something you can’t control — in this case, your partner — is unproductive. It renders you powerless and at risk of falling. Stay focused on you. A good therapist will help each of you do this and it makes couples therapy so much more productive. In fact, good couples’ therapy is often each of you doing individual work together.
Lesson 5: Expect the unexpected
Several weeks before my trip, I made the mistake of watching a campy movie about a bear that violently ate someone and then stalked the girlfriend through the woods for days. Gulp. The movie triggered a little OCD thing with me, and I wigged out about the possibility of meeting a bear on the trail, even though everyone told me the chances were almost nil. I did a therapy known as EMDR to combat my distress. (Yes, even therapists get therapy!) Thankfully it worked, because we did, in fact, meet a bear on the trail — but I didn’t panic! After all, I only had to run a little faster than the slowest person in my group!!
All kidding aside (the running part, not the bear), I tell this story because 1) every good hiking story should include a bear and 2) I want to highlight the importance of managing your expectations. Marriage is hard, just like hiking 45 miles with an ill-fitting backpack is hard. When you are hurting — or just feeling discomfort for a long period of time — it’s easy to focus only on the negative. It’s then you have a decision to make. You can either dwell in the pain, leaving you disappointed, stuck, and fantasizing about something better. Or, you can stay committed to your path of building a healthier marriage and see the goal to completion.
Lesson 6: Staying the course
Many couples quit too soon. They give up on their marriage or, at least give up on trying to make it better. When things get uncomfortable, they abandon their mission instead of learning to enjoy the journey, even the tough parts of it. I saw so many amazing views on my trip that wouldn’t have been possible without my long haul up the mountain.
If you find yourself in a relationship valley, or at the foot of a mountain you can’t climb alone, that’s when you need to expand your team and find an additional support system you can turn to that will shine a light on your path. At The Marriage Place, we have a team of counselors and coaches trained to be the marriage trail guides for couples looking for a path up and out. If you’d like to learn more about our services, I hope you’ll reach out. And if you ever have the chance to hike the Appalachian Trail, do it.