This is a long blog. Really, it’s a story. One that has taken me nearly 20 years to write. If you don’t have a relationship in your life, then this story may not interest you, but if you love, are, or know anyone who has a passion greater than most, you may get something from it. It wasn’t an easy story to live or write about. It’s not easy to share our flaws, our secrets, our fears.
Relationships, especially marriages, usually always have something to teach us. My teacher was coming to love a man who loves hunting, and through that, realizing that I didn’t need to make him choose. He could love both of us.
I met Ryan in Alaska as a fly fishing guide. He spent all of his days on the rivers of the Bristol Bay region, and for the first seven years of our relationship he returned there (and Russia) to live the dream job. He also had a passion for mule deer hunting, and each October, the males in his immediate family would pack up and head out to the generational hunting spot, far away from civilization and nowhere near a phone. For 7 days he would again disappear into the wilderness, and most years, return with a deer that would feed us for the rest of the year.
Nearly every year, during hunting season, a fight would erupt in our household. Ryan would leave, I would again be alone, and when he returned successful it seemed I could do nothing but be mad and unsupportive. I didn’t want to hear his stories, and in most cases I wouldn’t even look at the animal. As the years went on, his interest spread to archery, and hunting season became longer and longer.
When we had our first child, it got worse. While I was pregnant with her, I began to have early contractions, and while on the way to the hospital, Ryan decided to tell me he had killed a bear the week before. Just two days before, I had been in Montana at a baby shower my mother’s friends had thrown for me. During the party, a momma bear and two cubs appeared in her yard eating birdseed and sunning themselves on her porch. Everyone kept saying “it was a good sign”. That same day flying home, I started not feeling well, and once I heard Ryan had killed a bear, I went into a hormonal frenzy that it was his fault this was happening. Ryan couldn’t win for losing, but no matter what I said, he wasn’t going to give up hunting.
I didn’t grow up hunting, but I had a stepdad who did when I was a teenager, and growing up in Montana, hunting season consisted of pick up trucks with guns in the windows, and racks spread on the hood. We helped to cut up the elk my step dad would get, and in my time in Alaska, sectioning out and harvesting moose meat for clients was common. Truthfully, none of that ever bothered me. I remember volunteering to pluck a chicken that we killed in biology class, and with a keen interest in science, squeamishness wasn’t a quality I had. But, I also knew, killing wasn’t for me. I liked to study or dissect once it was dead, but taking the life just wasn’t in me.
When it came to our relationship, I loved everything related to the outdoors, except hunting. I challenged myself with skiing with Ryan as my patient instructor, and came to love it. I traveled hundreds of miles with a pack on my back with him in the summers, hiking, camping, fly fishing, and rock climbing the mountains of the North Cascades. We traveled on mountain bike trails, ventured out into the waters of Puget Sound salmon fishing. I loved the outdoors as much as him, but every fall, my hatred for hunting seemed to take over, and unfortunately for him, it was a fight without end.
One late night, nearly 17 years into our marriage, Ryan had had it with my unsupportive bantering and basically told me, take it or leave it. This was part of him, and he wasn’t giving it up for anyone. He had spent those 17 years quietly tiptoeing around me with the subject. He began rarely talking about it with me, and when he did, I admit, I didn’t listen. That night when he gave me the ultimatum, I had a “coming to Jesus” moment, for it was time for me to get to the core reason I resented hunting, especially if I wanted to keep my marriage. After a few moments, it became all so clear. The answer was so obvious, an old wound, buried 15 years in the past, was staring straight in the face.
In 1997, Ryan and I were married in June. Two weeks later, he left for Alaska and Russia to work. During that summer I was lucky enough to see him for a week when I flew to Alaska, but other than that, I was home, waiting for handwritten letters, and 2 minute satellite phone calls. I was living with his parents at the time, staying in his old bedroom, so that we could save money for a house. I was newly married but living alone.
Finally October arrived, and Ryan flew in at 4 am in the morning from Anchorage. As you can imagine, it was wonderful, for I hadn’t seen him for months. That first night however, I was informed that the next day was the first day of mule deer season, and I knew all too well what that meant. He would be leaving the next morning, to venture into the mountains for a week, gone again. After him being home just 12 hours, this was too much to bear.
He left in the darkness of morning, telling me he would be home, for sure, on a certain date. I was so mad and hurt, but he left anyways. Again, I was left to deal with my emotions. For those of you who can remember, we didn’t have cell phones that worked well, and there was no way to communicate from the backcountry. When he left, he was gone till he arrived home.
A week later, he did not arrive on the day he promised (the weather had made it impossible to get out on time) and two days after, showed up hanging his head and apologizing. I had barely eaten that week, and was in a deep depression. I was pretty sure I had made the biggest mistake of my life by marrying someone who was so selfish and wanted to hunt more than spend time with me. After listening to him plead his case, I decided to forget and move on, but the truth was: I never forgave.
The Mistress in My Life
Seventeen years later as I was sitting in the dark, all the emotions of that moment flooded back. I remember the feeling of being left. I remember the pain of feeling like I didn’t matter as much as hunting, and in that moment, I realized hunting was the mistress that would always win, her pull and power was greater than any plea I could give, so I learned to hate even the thought of her, and made it my subconscious mission to make his and “her” lives hell.
I believe from that moment in 1997, I never gave hunting a chance. Looking back, I understand that we were very young, that Ryan had only been married one summer, and for most of it we hadn’t been together. He didn’t understand the compromise of marriage yet, and he couldn’t fight the pull of the hunt. Men had been doing it for generations in his family, so why should he be any different?
I was also an idealistic young woman. I came from a broken home, two dads, and I had always promised myself I wasn’t going to settle for someone who “mistreated” me. Whoever was lucky to get me needed to treat me like a queen, and if that meant giving up what they loved, well then, so be it. We both had our faults, and were only thinking of ourselves, which makes for a rocky start to an already difficult situation.
When I came to that realization, there was one truth that hit me. Ryan is who he is at his core. Of course when you spend 20 years together you change, things happen, life isn’t perfect, you make mistakes, hopefully you forgive, and you grow, but if you can’t love who that person is at their core, it’s never going to work.
From the time women are little girls, we are told that we need a man, but when that man isn’t around at our beckon call, we become despondent. We see things like hunting as non essential activities, and don’t understand the bonding between some men and nature that is essential for health. We don’t see a happier man who provides meat and saves us money at the grocery store as fashionable. We believe we should be attached at the hip and that killing is barbaric and non-evolved. We see a relationship other than ours being important, and if we are wounded or have low self worth, we see it as neglect. I can only say these things, because I’ve felt them all myself.
It’s a Lifestyle, Not a Hobby
The wild and the outdoors is the piece of Ryan that makes him such an amazing, calm, and healthy person. It’s what makes him a great husband, a wonderful father, and a successful provider. If I made him give that up for me, just because I couldn’t forget the hurt of one incident that happened when we were kids and I don’t understand his need, our life together would be miserable.
You may be saying, “geez this so dramatic”, but I know there are thousands, if not millions, of couples who battle with the same dilemma, they just never talk about it. It’s common for us to talk with young men who love hunting, who express how hard it is for their girlfriend or wife to understand and it causes a lot of stress in their relationship. I hear from younger women, how they resent being left home alone with the children, the housework, AND a job, while their man leaves to do their “hobby”. I’ve made that mistake many times, calling it a hobby, because it’s really a lifestyle for Ryan (and our family). He sees it as an integral part of who he is, a necessity. Hobbies are enjoyable, but not necessity. Again, another reason, we could not see eye to eye.
The 6 Questions I Had To Answer, and Perhaps you do too.
Now that I’ve shared this very personal story, I think it’s important to give helpful tools for those who may be navigating these same hurdles in their relationships. Self reflection is a powerful way to assess what is truth and what is a story we are playing in our heads. Here are the questions I asked myself that night that changed the way I related to hunting forever.
Am I truly against the killing of an animal? As I stated before, my answer to this would be no, but it was the common reason I gave for my attitude. I knew Ryan humanely killed these animals, he worked tirelessly to harvest them, and he greatly respected them more than most non-hunters I knew. I prepared and ate the meat without complaint, and I was happy I wasn’t spending hundreds a month on meat at the store. For some years when I was a yoga teacher I struggled with the philosophy of taking a life, and always was nervous when my “lefty” friends would come over and see animal heads on the wall. It took me many years to accept these parts of the hunt, but I’ve slowly realized I’m ok with it. If you ask yourself the above question, and it’s YES, then my recommendation would be, don’t be involved in a romantic relationship with a hunter. It’s one core piece of hunting that CANNOT be avoided.
Does he love hunting more than me? Humans are strangely wired creatures, there is a great amount of jealousy that we can muster if needed. My jealousy and pain of that earlier situation, tricked me into believing he loved hunting more than me. This question requires us to look at our deeper needs and desires. Ryan could have said many a time that I loved school more than him, because for years it took much of my time away from him. Of course I didn’t love school more than him, but there was something about school that was changing me, improving me, and breaking me down so that I could respect hardship and grow. The same was true for Ryan and his backcountry adventures. We were not choosing one over the other, we were involved in events that were making us better people. Ryan can love me and hunting, it doesn’t have to be a competition.
Am I fearful of being alone? Ryan and I were never attached at the hip. If you listen to our first Hunt Harvest Health podcast, you will hear more of our backstory. Truth be told, we have spent more time apart in the last 22 years, than we have together. I think this question depends on each person’s situation. I really never had a hard time being alone, because I liked being able to do what I wanted. Ryan had full trust in me, and I in him. But I was fearful of being left alone, because it meant that I didn’t have a partner who was experiencing everything with me. I’ve missed a lot of Ryan’s life, he’s missed a lot of mine, and the fear that missing those things could make him no longer love me, is where I concocted the “mistress” in my mind. After coming to grips with this fear, I realized that I was able to enjoy my time alone, and that my husband was trusting me to live my life separately of him.
Would I want Ryan to give up hunting for me? This question was pretty easy. No. The only reason Ryan wouldn’t hunt is if I forced him to stop (which wouldn’t work), or he was disabled in some way, and both scenarios would mean that a piece of him would be gone. It’s in his DNA. Just because the urbanization of thought has led most to the belief hunting is non essential, I know, and have known for 22 years, it is essential to Ryan. The common thought is if someone loves you enough, they will give up anything for you. This thought is what perpetuates the anger, resentment, and self loathing when someone doesn’t give you what you want and creates a whole lot of miscommunication in relationships. I want to be who I am, to have a partner who supports me, and doesn’t make me give things up to be with them, which means I have to show him the same respect. If that’s part of your requirement, then my guess, it will never work out in the end.
Is Ryan’s hunting a healthy outlet? For his health, and our family’s health, YES. His hunting lifestyle is not destructive, abusive, or an addictive behavior and choice that is destroying our family and sending us to treatment, bankruptcy, or creating poor health. In fact, it is the opposite. Ryan doesn’t drink likely because he cares and wants long term health. We eat healthy meat. He is active and outdoors, and can teach our children the lost art of tracking, harvesting plants, hunting, and survival. He comes home from all trips tired of body but with peace of mind and a spring in his spirit. He is happier, focused, and loving. I will admit, my behavior towards him for many years when he returned successful and happy, wanting to share the story, was awful. It’s makes me sad that he had to experience those moments, just as it made him sad to think of me upset and hurt. Changing my outlook has improved our relationship, by removing an unneeded stress.
Do I want to be with Ryan and can I accept who he is? Let’s get real and down to it. People stay together for all kinds of reasons: love, money, necessity, children, religion, etc etc etc. I was a product of divorce, and I know i would never want my children to go through that. But I also wouldn’t want to be with someone I didn’t love, respect, and couldn’t grow with. This is the questions that really is asking, “Can I accept this person at their core?” From day one, Ryan had an energy about him I couldn’t resist. His love for nature and the outdoors was one of the reasons I fell in love with him. He was never good at communicating, and I over communicated. He worked hard, didn’t complain, and for many years, lived through tons of stress so that I could achieve my dreams. He taught me patience, to forgive, to be quieter, to be calmer. We created two amazing children, and have came to where we are today, sharing all this with you, because we knew, we wanted to be together. If you can’t say these things about your partner, and you struggle with their lifestyle, choices, and behaviors, and working on it hasn’t helped. then perhaps it’s time to move on. Accepting them at their core, and being content with that decision, is the most essential of all these questions. I accepted Ryan that night for who he was and what he meant to me and in that moment I finally forgave him. Everything changed.
The Mistress Has Left
I haven’t shared this story with very many people. It’s a personal journey that I’ve had to go through to be here, writing this blog, promoting the sport of backcountry hunting and all of the hardships and benefits it has brought to my life. I don’t have it in me to kill, but I respect those who do, for it’s part of the cycle of life. My goal with this story would be to help other women who struggle with hunting, or any other lifestyle that takes their partners away from them, because honestly we don’t hear from those left at home very often. The mistress has left our house for good, and it’s possible for her to leave yours too, if you’re willing to do some deeper reflection.
Ladies, find joy in your interests, the time you get alone, the time you get to be with your children, the moments you get to experience the happiness and sharing when your partner returns to you.
Men, communicate more, listen more, be open to criticism and discomfort, and encourage your partner to fulfill their passions as well. Put yourself in their shoes, and if you would want support , encouragement, respect, and trust, do the same for them. Who knows, if you are lucky enough, perhaps you will find a hunting partner out of it. I know Ryan is still hopeful, and as I’ve learned in this relationship, nothing is impossible.
*This is not sexist, I know a lot of women hunt too. I am generalizing above, but in my experience women do not hunt as much as men. If you hunt together, then good job! But many women who were once hunters have children, so just like life, circumstances and priorities change.