Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, 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 girlfriend and I met while she was going through a breakup. She wanted to learn BASE jumping, so I taught her before we started dating. Once things got romantic and she wanted to learn trad climbing and BASE jumping in new places, I wanted to do this stuff with her less and less because I would feel so terrible if she got hurt from something I taught her. What do I do?
Do you think your girlfriend is being reckless, or is more likely to get hurt than you are? If so, it’s worth sitting down and discussing your worries. There is a small chance, since she was going through a breakup at the time she started BASE jumping, that she’s drawn to adrenaline as a way to dull difficult emotions. If this is the case, it’s not your role to police her search for adrenaline; it’s to help her process those emotions. It’s also possible that your girlfriend wanted to learn about BASE jumping, in part, because of that one super-cute instructor—even if she went on to love the adventure for its own sake. She should know that even though you met her through BASE jumping, you adore her whether or not she decides that extreme sports are her thing.
My hunch, though, is that your girlfriend loves BASE jumping for the same reasons you do: the freedom, the rush, the way the world shrinks away and grows toward her. Your main job, as a supportive partner, is to celebrate her newfound passion just as you would one of your own.
It’s natural to feel nervous when your beautiful new girlfriend steps to the lip of a cliff, falls off the edge, and plummets like a wingless bird toward the waiting rocks below. But the humility might be good for you. After all, that fear you feel? That’s what all your loved ones feel, too, every time you jump into the sky. I’m not saying you shouldn’t jump off cliffs, of course; that’s your joy, your decision. I’m just saying that if you told your mom you’d talk to her at 5 p.m. afterward, you should call her at 4:52.
For now, be honest about how you feel. You are not responsible for your girlfriend’s decisions, but you also don’t have to continue teaching a loved one a dangerous sport if you’re uncomfortable doing so. Help her find a new instructor whom you trust—maybe even the person who taught you—and make sure she knows that you’re proud of her and believe in her. Then step back and watch her fly.
I’m a college student and I love extreme sports, but I don’t want to stress my parents out, making them think I’m going to die. I know the consequences and try really hard to play the game as best I can, but how do I minimize the stress for them?
To answer this one, I called my parents: Jewish worriers who have spent the past decade watching their daughter disappear into the Arctic wilderness and emerge weeks later, without a word in between. My parents have been together for 35 years, but they were traveling this week, so I spoke to them separately.
“A parent’s anxiety will never go away,” my dad explained. “That shouldn’t be the goal, because it will never happen. Your responsibility is to let your parents know that you’re thoughtful and careful and taking appropriate precautions. Wear a helmet, take account of the weather, commit to the best possible equipment. Find a mentor who’s a real expert. Don’t just give your parents a line about being safe; really do it. That’s the most important thing you can do.”
My mom was uncharacteristically blunt: “This is Tough Love, right? Your loved ones just have to deal with it. We don’t want you to call us every time you’re doing something. A parent is successful when their child grows up and lives a productive, meaningful life, and that doesn’t mean that that child is checking in with them daily. If a parent is too worried, then the parent needs to go into therapy to figure out a way to deal with their anxiety.”
“What did mom say?” my dad asked.
“She said that parents just have to deal with it,” I told him. “And if it’s too hard, they should go into therapy.”
“She said that?” said my dad, laughing. “Because that’s the opposite of what she does. You should call her and ask again.”
I called my mom back. She burst into giggles. “It’s hard to practice what you preach!“ she said. “I really did go to therapy! Not because of your adventures. Just because you were growing up and I couldn’t control every micro-detail of your life anymore.”
She brought up a recent example from this spring, when my husband and I took off on a 1980s two-stroke snowmobile to drive 300 miles of the Iditarod trail, crossing some of the stormiest portions of the Bering Sea coast. When we hadn’t resurfaced on social media within a few days, my mom began to worry. What if the snowmobile broke down? What if we were injured? “I knew nothing, and as a result, my fantasies went wacko.” So she wrote to a journalist at the Anchorage Daily News, who was also traveling the trail, to ask if he’d seen me. “The best thing you could ever have done for me,” she said, “is that when I told you, ‘I confess I wrote to Zach,’ you said ‘That’s okay.’ If you’d gotten mad at me, I would have been heartbroken. Because it was the only way I could pull myself out of that—irrational, it turns out—worry that you were lying with your leg broken in the wilderness.”
And that, perhaps, is the biggest lesson. If your parents are trying to control your adult choices, you may need to set explicit boundaries. But odds are, they’re doing their best to support your adventures. Their job is to be responsible for their own anxiety. Your job is to approach their anxiety with love.