When the Climb Feels Impossible

Picture Credit: Jeff Pipe

I’d forgotten how much bigger things are out West.  My wife and I were 8,000 feet below the summit of Mt. Rainier when we moved out of the tree line and onto a snowfield.  We had no intention of making the 14,000 foot summit, but picked a craggy ridge toward the top of the Muir Snowfield as our goal for the hike.  The ridge looked no more than 15 or 30 minutes away and the slope leading up to it appeared challenging, but not threatening.  Though we planted each step heavily into the snow, the icy and slushy mix broke loose every third step, limiting our progress.  As lowlanders, our lungs strained to draw oxygen from the thin air. As heart rates escalated, the speed of our stride slowed.  Resolved to complete the climb we put our heads down, focused on each step and pressed upward.  The cold wind evaporating the sweat off of our bodies chilled us when, after 20 or 30 minutes of steady climbing, we stopped for a brief break.  As I scanned up the snowfield, my heart sank.  By all visible evidence, we had made no progress.  Though exhausted from the energy spent, the seemingly small crag which had been our goal appeared no closer now than it had 20 minutes earlier.  Only upon looking behind us could we observe that we had, actually, progressed forward a couple hundred yards.  However, as we moved further up the snowfield, the view behind offered no more comfort than the view before us.  Only after two hours of solid climbing – one energy-draining step after another - did we begin to approach.  Six hours after placing our feet on the trail, we sat down below the rocky crag. 

Last week I had a couple in my office ask a question that I’ve heard many times, “Why is this so hard for us?  Shouldn’t it be easier?”  They were frustrated because they’d slipped back into an old pattern of relating – one that had dominated their relationship for decades.  A week of isolation and tension had left them raw.  “It seems like two steps forward and three steps backward.”  They despaired of gaining the security and intimacy for which they had been reaching.  Like this couple, we all pass through periods of time where it feels that our marriage is stuck or at an impasse.  We still know what we long for – acceptance, closeness, passion - that’s wired into the fabric of our hearts, our souls and our minds.  But we don’t know how to get to it and we suddenly become aware of how very far it is from us.  We dig in and try to move toward it, but every third or fourth step the ground beneath us gives way. There’s just too much conflict and the backlog of unresolved fights is overwhelming.  At some point you realize that you don’t know how to talk to your spouse anymore.  There’s no way to reach across the chasm that’s between you.  It feels like its always been this way and it will always remain this way.  Hopelessness crowds in and the questions follow:  Should it be this hard?  Did I choose the wrong person?  Are my desires wrong?  Do I have what it takes?  The mountain’s too steep, too slick and the top is so far away. 

What now? 

  • First, don’t quit.  Don’t run away, don’t shutdown, don’t give up.  Don’t try to control it or force it to happen.  Just keep leaning into the relationship.  There’s good reason to hope. 
  • Second, don’t be stupid.  It’s not about who you married, but about what you do with them. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you married the wrong person.  Trading spouses is like trading used cars; you just exchange one set of problems for another.  
  • Third, be smart.  We’ve all got issues; you’re not alone and you’re not the first couple to face what you’re confronting right now.  Reach for help.  Talk to trusted friends.  Talk to older and happier couples.  Read books.  Attend a conference.  Get counseling.  Put what you learn into practice. 
  • Fourth, persevere. Real growth and real change happens across years and decades, not weeks or months. Real intimacy and passion in a marriage is only achieved through long-term investment.  It takes thoughtfulness, risk, hard work and, above all, perseverance. 

After sharing a drink, a snack and a beautiful view, my wife and I headed back down the mountain together.  I have to tell you that it was the most fun that we’d shared together in years.  Side-by-side, hand-in-hand, we walked, ran and slid down the mountain.  What took us 6 hours to ascend, only took us two hours to descend.  The same snowfields that had been so daunting on the climb up, offered a giant sledding hill for the delightful trip down. 

-Jeff Pipe

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