Paddling with your significant other should be fun. For many couples, it is. But some romantic partners find once seated in canoes or kayaks, communication crumbles and time is spent arguing instead of deciding what eddy to catch or where to grab post-paddling beers. This is especially true when one partner is more skilled and teaches the other. Why is the dynamic between two people in a relationship who paddle together different—and sometimes worse— than between two friends?
Luke Rookus, a 24-year-old Michigan resident, has been a canoeist for years and began dating a woman a year ago with little outdoor experience. “There’s obviously challenges with that,” he says of the disparity in their outdoor skills and the teaching process. “There can be tension and frustration that can happen if you don’t exercise patience as a teacher and as a student.” Rookus has found that having another person explain things to his partner can sometimes be more helpful than him trying to explain it. “They might not have the same patience with you not being a perfect teacher,” he says.
Stephanie Bangarth is also the more experienced paddler in her relationship. She has been kayaking since she was five-years-old and decided it would be fun to get her husband involved in the sport she is so passionate about, especially since they live near the water. She says they both felt frustrated during the teaching process. “The frustration is just having two polar opposite experiences while kayaking,” she says. Bangarth and her husband did however recently go on a backcountry trip—her husband’s first—and he said he would definitely do it again. “The rule is to pack my patience, and he does the same.”
According to Dr. Monica O’Neal, a Boston-based psychologist and relationship expert, when one partner is teaching the other something new, the issue of power dynamics comes into play. O’Neal explains that people in relationships have a certain amount of vulnerability as well as an acceptance of each other’s vulnerability. When you have to put your trust in someone in a situation where they have the power and mastery as the teacher, “it upsets the balance.” O’Neal says learning something like paddling from an instructor is different because you don’t know them well and don’t have any other vulnerabilities with them the way you do with a romantic partner.
Couples also don’t always learn and master new skills in parallel, which can make progressing or paddling together more challenging. Jason Tomkins of Arizona took his wife on moving water her first time kayaking. She struggled with technique and was very nervous, and overall didn’t come away with a positive experience. “She was very traumatized by that,” says Tomkins, acknowledging that he probably shouldn’t have taken his wife in rapids so soon. “She knows how much I love it and is all about me doing it,” he says, but he has difficulty convincing her to go with him now.
Despite the tensions that paddling couples can face, for most the experience of doing the activity you love together is worth it. Rookus says spending so much time outdoors with his girlfriend over the last year has been incredibly rewarding. “It’s a really special thing."