“Divorce by Triathlon”

Jeremy Sharp, PhDrelationships 4 Comments

Couples ExerciseA friend of mine (thanks, Tim) forwarded me an interesting article the other day. It looks at the toll that intense exercise can have on a marriage. Anyone who knows me knows that this is a topic that hits close to home. As both a married marathon runner and a couples therapist, I’m well acquainted with both sides of this situation.

The article doesn’t do much in the way of making conclusions or suggestions, but it does serve to highlight the ways that exercise can impact a committed relationship. It primarily tells the story of an Ironman triathlete and his wife as they negotiate his lengthy workout routines, which take up to two hours on weekdays and five to six hours on Saturday and Sunday. He says, “It’s selfish,” while she notes that “…many wives in my position would have left.” In fact, he works out enough that his wife staged an “intervention” and enlisted other family members to help ask him to cut back. To be fair, the article does profile two other couples – one where both partners exercise together, and another where the husband is quite supportive of his wife’s frequent marathoning. So intense exercise doesn’t always have to come between couples. But the truth is that it sometimes does.

I look at these situations through the Emotionally Focused framework, which is the approach that I use in seeing couples in my private practice. The approach looks closely at ways that couples either pursue or withdraw from one another in a continual “dance” of emotional closeness. In my experience, exercise can be a withdrawal mechanism, something that keeps one partner from fully connecting with the other. Taken to extremes, it falls in the same category as excessive drinking and affairs – an activity that inhibits couples from fully connecting with one another.

What do y’all think? I welcome any comments on the post or stories of exercise’s role in relationships.

Comments 4

  1. It may also simply be a matter of the amount of time spent on exercise compared with the amount of couple time spent. If one gets home from work at 6, goes to bed at 11, and spends 2 hours every evening in solo exercise, then a spouse who does not also have a 2-hour nightly routine might get resentful.

    1. Post

      Thanks for the comment, Roy. I’m a long time Shrink Rap reader (congratulations on the book, by the way!). You’re right – it may only be a matter of adjusting the time to be more balanced between “couple time” and “exercise” time. I find myself biased toward thinking there’s something deeper going on for a partner willing to spend so much time exercising with the knowledge that their partner is unhappy. Who knows what that might be, but the article’s portrayal of him as an absentee husband and father is telling. Granted, the article (of course) doesn’t go into the relationship dynamic or talk through any of his wife’s role in the process.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I am pretty certain I will become a “Divorce by Triathlon” statistic. The underlying issue with my triathlete is the insatiable desire to have more, be more, do more, etc. If it was not an IRONMAN, it would be something else. However, this latest craze has impacted our relationship, my spouse’s relationship with our children, my spouse’s physical and mental health, and caused stress at work (i.e. feelings of guilt if a work meeting overlaps into training time). There is a fine line between supporting your triathlete and enabling an addition/obsessive compulsion. After seeking my own therapy to address my underlying issues/fears/concerns, I scheduled a session with a marriage counselor only to be told it interfered with training and wasn’t an option. I am at a loss.

    1. Post

      Jo, you’re certainly correct in identifying that “fine line” between support and enabling. It sounds like you’re putting forth a lot of effort to re-connect with your partner. Individual therapy is a great venue for exploring your feelings and learning strategies to navigate these concerns with your partner. I hope that the two of you can get in to see someone together and work on your relationship!

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