How Time in Nature Can Improve Your Relationship
This article originally appeared on Trail Runner
Originally from Outside Online
Becca Droz still remembers how anxious she was on her first hike with her now-partner, Nikki Nichols. The rock climbing instructor, 32, who is based in Boulder, Colorado, was used to a constant stream of conversation on the trail--but Nichols was quiet. "That made me really uncomfortable," Droz says. "It made me wonder, do we not have something to talk about? It stressed me out." No such problem existed, it turned out: Nichols, 29, simply liked quiet time to think. That personality difference, made obvious by their trail time, quickly led to a conversation about communication. The couple, together for two and half years now, figured out a potential relationship tripwire right away. Today, if Nichols wants silence when they're together, she says so up front--and Droz knows that doesn't mean their relationship is in trouble.
It's no accident that Droz and Nichols figured out their communication styles through spending time outdoors. Years of research has documented how time in nature benefits individuals, and clued-in couples therapists across the country know that exposure to the outdoors translates to stronger relationships, too. If you love the wilderness, it probably feels obvious that spending time hiking, skiing, or catching a sunset with a significant other will nurture your bond--maybe even help you through a rough patch. But what, exactly, is going on under the surface?
Nature's relationship-healing powers begin deep in each partner's nervous system. Think about how you felt during your last unproductive argument: heart pounding, fists clenched, rapid breathing. This is the fight-or-flight response, a hardwired human reaction to a perceived threat. Though it's invaluable in helping us survive true emergencies, fight-or-flight gets in the way of healthy communication and conflict resolution.
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Nature works as an antidote to that stress response. Study after study going back decades suggests that outdoor time leads to lowered blood pressure and heart rate, stress reduction, and better mental health. Researchers even found that watching a flickering campfire or simply looking at photos of green spaces are associated with reduced blood pressure and relaxation. Doctors now prescribe outdoor time to patients as a way to activate this part of the nervous system, with benefits for immune, digestive, reproductive, and psychological health. So being outdoors together sets the stage for tackling issues productively. Megan Newton, MA, LPC, LPCC, NCC, and co-owner of Evolve in Nature psychotherapy practice, counsels couples on public lands in and around Boulder, Colorado. "That implicit connection to nature allows the nervous system to calm," she says. "We're operating in the therapeutic process on a completely different level just to start with. We've decreased the perceived level of threat in someone's body. Most people will name that right away: 'Oh my gosh, it feels so good to be out here.'"
The outdoors also has a way of quickly tapping into our emotions, says Jeff Adorador, LMFT and founder of Earthwalker wilderness therapy practice in Northern California. He leads three-day group backpacking trips for couples called Relationship Quest, guiding clients through outdoor exercises promoting cooperation, communication, and intimacy. "Nature very much gets us into our bodies in a sensory state," he says. "That will get you out of your head and into your feelings."
Doing an outdoor activity together like climbing, mountain biking, or skiing can extend that effect. "Our bodies are moving in sync, like dancing," says Emily Isaacs, MA, LPC, who practices in Boulder and Golden, Colorado. "It's a body-up way of connecting, rather than talking--that's mind-down. It's a different thing from the body up, with nervous systems and bodies syncing, that translates to, I really feel connected to this person."
Outdoor activities also tend to shine a spotlight on ways partners aren't connecting, as that first hike did for Droz and Nichols. "How we are one way, is how we are everywhere," notes Isaacs. "Our core issues manifest. Any couple that has recreated outdoors together knows this stuff will come up." Maybe one person is hiking too quickly, or not listening to the other's feedback on the water. Being outdoors together can make those relationship issues obvious, she says. That's partially why Adorador incorporates backpacking into his Relationship Quest. "Backpacking really reveals a lot about the power within a relationship," he says. "Who's leading, who's following? How does a couple communicate? Is there more compassion or contempt? [How much] joy, happiness, and play is there, versus a strategic, mission-driven mindset?" What Adorador observes on the trail then plays into each couple's therapeutic sessions.
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This effect can work in reverse as well, where couples cultivate healthy relationship habits outdoors that then move into the rest of their lives. "The beautiful thing about outdoor activities, like paddling a raft or climbing, is they're really collaboration-demanding activities," says Isaacs. Similarly, communication is crucial. "People need to state their needs," she adds, noting that a climber with a partner on belay can't beat around the bush if she needs more slack on the rope. You've gotta be pretty direct."
Perhaps the most fundamental way spending time in nature supports love, though, is the simplest one: it's fun. "Nature is a beautiful place where couples can engage in play together," notes Newton. "We know that reconnection and learning happens through play." You're out doing some of your favorite activities, bathed in endorphins, and sharing that joy with a partner--powerful stuff.
These benefits aren't confined to only romantic partnerships, of course. Nature can also work its magic on any relationships, particularly family connections. Research has demonstrated that time outdoors together can boost parent-child connectedness and communication and improve parenting skills.
Ready to reap the benefits? Nature-based couple's therapists suggest these practices to intentionally incorporate the relationship-building qualities of the outdoors into your adventures together.
Make It About You Two, Not the Activity
It might sound obvious, but getting too hung up on a goal can cause more relationship problems than it solves. "There's a big difference between saying 'I want to summit all the Fourteeners in Colorado' and 'I want to go out in nature and be with you,'" Newton says. Figure out a way to get out there that makes you both feel connected to each other. If one person lives for black diamonds and the other is nervous on the bunny slope, then skiing probably isn't it. "For some people, it feels really connecting to be like, I climbed this thing and you were with me the whole way, supporting me on belay," Isaacs says. For others, snuggling in a tent and stargazing is the way to go.
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Take the Tough Talks for a Walk
For some people, trying to have a serious discussion while facing a partner can be triggering and lead to a deep-seated fight-or-flight response. Instead, , Adorador says, "Walking shoulder to shoulder with a partner can be really beneficial to process intense emotions." So the next time you need to work through a problem, take it outside--and side by side.
Be Rookies Together
Stretch your comfort zones a bit by trying something new, be it mountain biking or orienteering. "The process of discovery itself shared with another person can be such a powerful connection point," Newton says.
Build a Routine
Once you find your favorite ways to bond in nature, make a habit of it. "To cultivate intimacy requires returning to connection over and over," Newton says. The trick is to make it manageable--two weeks on the beach in Tahiti will probably make you feel closer, but a nightly after-dinner walk or weekly ski date will ultimately benefit you more. Such routines can also open the door to better communication, says Adorador. Many of us suppress emotions just to get through daily life, but setting aside this time with a partner gives them space to surface. "Sometimes you don't even know that stuff's there until you take that evening walk," he says. "Then, you get real."
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It works for Droz and Nichols. The duo take a regular hike five minutes from their front door, climbing into the foothills to one of their favorite spots to sit and take in the view. "It gives us the spaciousness to stop and talk about things that probably wouldn't have come up during the busy-ness that our minds are in during everyday life," Droz says. "We process much better while outside and moving."
NatureDose is an app that measures your therapeutic time in nature. Set your weekly goal, then go outside and feel good. Download NatureDose here.
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