For Better or Worse
November 14, 2016
Intimate relationships in Vail have unique challenges, as well as advantages
"Wow, I wish we could live up here," the engaged man in his late 20s said to me as we rode up the gondola. The enthusiasm with which he spoke prompted a debate about lifestyle vs. money.
His future wife had chosen an elite mountain wedding — one most locals their age couldn't even dream of affording.
"We're just visiting the site one more time before the wedding; it's in three weeks," she explained, lending credence to their forthcoming argument about how much money they make, and how they couldn't possibly leave their high-paying jobs in Chicago to pursue their real dream of living in the mountains — after I had asked, "Well, why not live here?"
It's a question many married, or seriously committed, couples face: Can we afford to live a mountain lifestyle?
My silent pondering — as I grabbed my skis and thought about the couple's obviously deep yearning — was: "Can you afford not to?"
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The money pit
The Vail lifestyle comes with its challenges, and, for most couples, the most prominent involves money.
It's one thing being single and free to work 80 hours during high seasons to stash money and do with it as you please. It's another when you work those same 80 hours and have a spouse — and kids — and cannot do with it exactly as you may please.
"Money is one of the No. 1 stressors for people (leading) to divorce, to be honest," says Amy Goscha, an attorney at Goscha Law Firm.
For couples just starting out, the biggest challenge tends to involve buying a home. Goscha has worked extensively both in Denver and Vail, and she finds that couples aren't able to purchase their first home as soon as couples in Denver can.
"It causes too much pressure when you don't have the stability to buy a home," she says, "(and there's) a greater likelihood to have more conflict; it's hard on relationships."
While some may think the answer lies in making more money — and it might — the more sustainable — and quickest — answer revolves around open communication.
"If that's your issue, you have to talk about it," says Jessica Waclawski, owner of Awaking Awareness. "Money is emotional … it's essential that couples get on the same page about money and learn to talk about it."
She recommends scheduling time weekly for about an hour to revolve dialogue around a few questions:
• How are you doing, outside of work and kids?
• What is on your mind, and what's stressing you?
• What do you want to make sure we talk about?
• What do you need from me to feel supported?
• What are you looking forward to?
Both partners should go beyond the basics of rattling off daily schedules and approach one another from an open, nonjudgmental mindset.
"Generally, men are scared of being blamed or failing," Waclawski says. "The blame game is destructive. Curiosity and compassion are the antidote to criticism."
The conversations don't have to be intense, but they should focus on developing a "game plan," in which both partners are on the same team — with shared goals and visions.
"Couples in crisis are on different teams — there's usually little one on one, and the relationship hasn't been a priority," she says. "Couples need to get on the same team."
They also should avoid comparing themselves to "other teams," because as Goscha points out, one big difference in the Vail area has to do with perception of achievement and wealth.
"The affluence up here is much higher, especially in early-30-somethings," she says, adding that many may have trust funds or had help from family to launch them into higher earnings. "The Vail Valley is a big entrepreneurial area, even more than in Denver."
The schedule factor
While mountain folk highly value outdoor recreation, they also need to find a way to pay for their play.
Vail Resorts is the largest employer in the valley, yet in most positions, the hours ebb and flow. These "seasonal stressors," as Waclawski calls them, affect relationships.
The winter season demands longer hours, which steals intimate partner, and family, time. And, as Vail Resorts expands its summer offerings, much of the "downtime" couples used to enjoy together is decreasing.
Waclawski says couples need to talk, specifically, about how they manage the dilemma.
"When we get stressed when different demands come to the table, it's essential that couples have that open, honest conversation about what each partner needs," Waclawski says.
Crazy work hours, which include weekends and nights — when most "city" couples spend time together — amp up the tension when couples have one or more children.
The valley cannot provide enough daycare, so, as Goscha pointed out: Some parents must drive to neighboring towns and remain wait-listed at closer locations.
"(When couples) need childcare, it creates more stress," she says.
Some couples solve the problem by living with their parents, who babysit while each partner works, she says. Of course, that can create a new and different type of strain.
On the other hand, starting a family enables couples to connect with other parents, and therefore feel more supported.
"A lot of women find that once they have kids, they have more roots and a sense of community," Goscha says. "It tends to stabilize once you have kids. It's harder to find young professionals who have just married (without kids)."
The recreational lifestyle
People come to the mountains because they value the outdoor lifestyle. As a result, couples have more occasions to strengthen connections.
"The opportunity to do so many things, to bond over something you have in common — whereas in cities couples just congregate over dinner and drinks — keeps it interesting," Goscha says. "It keeps people feeling invigorated, or alive."
Obviously, exercise also aids health, a sense of wellbeing and stress management. She also sees how outdoor activity helps many individuals feel more balanced during a breakup.
"People seem happier up here because it's beautiful," she says. "In Denver, you can't see what makes them happy because they're in crisis mode," Goscha says.
"People up here respect work, but it's not the first thing you talk about."
Sharing new experiences is essential to a healthy relationship, Waclawski says.
"Couples who exercise together are happier, and they have better sex lives," she says. "Think abut when you're first dating; you want to impress one another and show up as your best self, with new, exciting things. Sharing new experiences tends to drop off (in long-term relationships) … boredom kills relationships. We need to be inviting newness — even cooking something new. We need to invite all the senses when we're trying to spice up a relationship; it lights up the brain."
However, skiing, biking, rock climbing and the host of other high-risk activities in which mountain lovers engage can also cause injuries, which drains finances, energy and emotions, especially if one partner continually "gets patched up and back at it," Goscha says, explaining how the injured party can't take care of kids or home responsibilities as much. "It's the allocation of responsibility in relations that can create some issues."
Partnership responsibilities also can drop off due to the general mountain culture of gathering for drinks (or other drugs) after work, after a day on the mountain, or both.
Waclawski notices how the mountain lifestyle supports habitual, daily drinking within the context of marriage more than cities like Denver do.
"(After marriage), the female brain changes, and her priorities shift," Waclawski says. "She's no longer prioritizing drinking (for purposes of) socializing or stress relieving. In Denver there's more of an overall movement and transition into family. It's more challenging up here because it's all blurred together. Schedules are askew — it's not Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 — which is attractive to most people, but with that, alternative lifestyles come into play. (Most) people are not grabbing beers every night in Denver; it's a different culture."
That said, it can be a wonderfully supportive culture for couples. The main buffer Waclawski encourages is, once again, open communication, as well as some compromise.
"It's truly listening to and understanding our partner," she says, "asking, 'What's important to you and how is this impacting (us)?' And then go from there."
The run down
Every so often, when I'm driving through the mountains on my way to teach a class for a dollar amount that now-married gondola couple probably spends on two drinks, I feel my heart fill with gratitude for my "commute." When I recall the memories my husband and I have made skiing, hiking (and, OK, truth be told, escaping to the tropics), I smile, and hope that gondola couple lives their dream — or at least visits it a few times a year. Mostly, though, I hope we can all keep Waclawski's advice in the forefront of our minds, and hearts, when she talks about nurturing a marriage:
"It's important to remember that your relationship needs to be the top priority. Your relationship with one another is sacred; it's almost like your own protected space."
"The opportunity to do so many things, to bond over something you have in common — whereas in cities couples just congregate over dinner and drinks— keeps it interesting." – Amy Goscha
»BY Kimberly Nicoletti