Reflections on Rock Climbing and Marriage

"Belay On"


Many engaged couples tend to read books together, and sometimes have a few pre-marital sessions with a counselor in preparation for marriage. When we were engaged, we too read books and met with our pastor, and understandably, both were invaluably helpful and hilariously uncomfortable. We also were lucky enough to stumble upon three key principles for a partnership in marriage through a hobby we both love: rock climbing. They are communication, trust, and give and take. 

As Adam was maybe ten or twelve feet in the air, Caroline, his belay (the one connected to and supporting the climber by the rope), had the revelation, “Hey, this is sort of like our own pre-martial counseling!” Caroline continued, “Your life is literally in my hands! I could drop you if I wanted to!” Despite the fact that Adam really only heard the final sentence, this revelation sparked new insight on a few important basics to rock climbing to inform our perspective on a Godly marriage, the many styles of leadership, and the covenant made in marriage.

Let's look at the first principle: communication. Perhaps most obviously, communication is critically important when rock climbing with a partner. Believe it or not, the world of rock climbing has its own language. “Holds” are the structures on the wall that a climber uses to get up the wall with. Just the command “take,” said from the person climbing to the belay means essentially, “I’m taking a break from the wall, but don’t lower me down yet.” If the belay says to the climber “you have to smear,” the belay is using their perspective of the wall to tell the climber to just use the wall because there is no hold available for their foot. Proper use of clear communication makes the world of difference. The climber has to listen to the perspective of the belay at times to be successful. The belay has to understand the needs, goals, and sometimes fears of the climber. There’s a team effort involved in being successful, built through empathetically trusting another's perspective, just as there is in marriage.

To build on the principle of empathetic communication, climbing partners must also practice a multi-layered concept of trust in order to be good teammates. The climber and the belay must have mutual trust where each person is doing what they can to support the success and well-being of the other. This may be correlated with Christ’s example of servant heartedness. Each person has to trust that the other will see the greatness and potential inside of you and do what they can to empower you. Otherwise, it can be paralyzing when you believe the next step is a reach too far, a grip too slippery, or a hold too small. You have to trust and believe in yourself, your belay, and your ability to overcome challenges and obstacles together. The belay also has to trust their own strength and ability to provide adequate support to the climber—not just prevent them from falling, but provide strength and guidance when the climber cannot see the way up the wall. Strength and endurance must be maintained by both partners in order to support the other. It would be an improper picture of rock climbing to see it as “one above the other,” or, “leader and supporter,” but rather, “give and take.”

The principle of “give and take” is our third understanding of rock climbing basics, and by extension, marriage. Rock climbing is not just about completing the route successfully. It’s a communal, perhaps even covenanted, effort in facing fears, trusting your partner, and providing confidence and courage in weakness. Rock climbing is constant movement, adjusting to the ebb and flow of the other willingly and accordingly. The partnership involved mirrors a healthy marriage partnership, in that each person supports the other in their own strengths.