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The Exercise Widow(er) Phenomenon [Coming to a marriage near you?]

Posted Feb 01 2011 10:31pm

Do you or someone you love suffer from the following symptoms?
- Attending only parties that serve salted nut rolls and Powerade.
- Picking up 8 pairs of different (but still look pretty much the same) running shoes every evening.
- Waking up alone to an empty bed and a note that says "8 miler, lake route, love you." Every morning.
- Is flying solo every Saturday morning and much of the weekends.
- Has to wash a separate load of laundry made up of just sweaty workout clothes every few days.
- Has a separate budget category for exercise gear, race fees, special food and stock shares in Gu.

If so, you may have Exercise Widow(er) Syndrome. Other symptoms may include dry mouth (from never being able to find a clean water bottle), headache (from waiting at a freezing finish line for 2 hours), and fatigue (from being a single parent during race season). Please talk to your doctor immediately. While there currently is no cure for EWS, it can be managed with drugs (anti-depressants for you, valium for them). Even if you are not having an active outbreak, EWS can still be contagious.

While I've written quite a bit about what it's like to be an exercise addict, I must admit I haven't given much thought to what it's like to be married to one. (Dear husband, I'm sorry.) That is until Reader Laura of Absolut(ly) Fit tipped me off to an article in the Wall Street Journal titled " A Workout Ate My Marriage ." I was giggling my way through it until about halfway down I realized my husband could have written it. Suddenly it got a lot less funny.

While addictions causing strain in marriages isn't new - the damage that workaholics, shopaholics, gambleaholics (yes I made that word up) and of course alcoholics do to family relationships is well documented - the healthy living twist is relatively new. As anyone who has ever trained for a triathlon or marathon or other competition knows, it is really time consuming. Especially with endurance sports, a large part of training is just putting in the hours. And unless you have a spouse or partner who is training with you most of those hours will be spent by yourself or with a training group, taking you away from home and family. (Dear husband, I'm really sorry.)

The Journal explains, "With exercise intruding ever-more frequently on intimacy, counselors are proposing a new wedding vow: For fitter or for fatter. 'Exercise is getting more and more couples into my office,' says Karen Gail Lewis, a Cincinnati marriage and family therapist."

Exercise is an admirable pursuit and I think most people truly want their loved one to be healthy and happy. In fact, I've read (way too many) letters to advice columnists asking how to get less-healthy spouses to get bit by the health bug. The real issue here, I think, is not the exercise per se but the inequality extreme amounts of exercise introduces into the relationship.
"Commitment to a demanding training schedule cuts to the heart of the issues couples often find themselves fighting about—who does chores, who gets time for themselves and who decides where and how the family has fun.

The threat can go beyond time issues. If one partner gets a new, buff appearance and a new circle of buff acquaintances, romantic possibilities can open up—and give the other spouse good reason to feel insecure about his or her own physique."
Okay so that last one really isn't a problem for me - no one hits on me, ever, and my husband is every bit as handsome as the day I married him - but the other issues strike very close to home.

I've talked both here on my blog and in my book about how at the height of my compulsive over-exercising I ran a marathon distance and then went straight to an hour-long kickboxing class (and then fainted and had a heart arrhythmia blah blah blah) but there is another part to the story, one I didn't really think about until today. The part where my husband watched the children while I ran for nearly 4 hours and worried because I was gone so long. The part where my husband wanted to go play Ultimate Frisbee (his passion) when I finally came home but was afraid to leave me because he knew I was going to go to the gym. The part where my husband took my shoes, my car keys and all the kids' car seats so I couldn't do further damage to myself. (For those of you who haven't read the book, I got the spare car seats out of the garage, found our spare key and grabbed my old shoes and went anyway.) The part where my husband finally stepped in and said, "This is enough. You're finished. You have to go back to therapy." That must have felt awful for him.

Dear husband, I am so so very sorry.

In the article, the main man profiled, an amateur triathlete named Jordan Waxman, admits after the reporter lists all the ways he's brushed off his family for his training, "It's selfish." He's exactly right. Reading the article through the first time I wanted to smack him for all the crap he's put his wife and kids through just so he can go ride his expensive tricked-out bike in a race he paid hundreds of dollars to enter and thousands of dollars to travel to just so he could cross an arbitrary finish line. But then I began remembering similar stunts of my own and while they never entailed flying to another state they do look pretty selfish in hindsight.

Mr. Waxman, however, remains unapologetic at the end. Even after an "intervention" staged by his wife and extended family begging him to exercise less he "stood his ground. In his view, his athletic ambition shouldn't have surprised his wife. It arose from the same qualities that drove him to obtain two law degrees, an MBA and his position at Merrill Lynch." His training paid off when he swam the English Channel.

While he says that he hopes his accomplishments will be "an inspiration" to his children, it feels hollow. Kids don't care if you swam the English Channel. Heck my kids don't even care if I accomplished brushing my teeth. (The other day my son said to me, "Mom your breath smells like pickles. I love pickles!" Oops.) But kids care a lot if you're there at dinner and in the audience at their choir performance and cheering at their soccer games and praying with them at bedtime.

The article then goes on to point out that this "Divorce by Triathlon" phenomenon is only problematic in some relationships. Some couples have a shared passion of exercise and they train and race and carbo-load together (the couple that gets runner's tummy together, stays together!). Other spouses are simply not bothered by their partner's extreme exercise, choosing to pursue interests of their own. It does seem to me that if you have children then that makes the situation a lot trickier. (More people = more needs to be met.) I think the fact that this article exists at all is evidence that this issue is becoming more and more a problem.

While I've done a lot of work trying to heal myself of this addiction and all of the crazy thought patterns surrounding it - work that is going quite well I think! - I don't think I've done nearly enough to repair the relationships that I damaged during that time. Fortunately my husband and I have an unspoken agreement: when he's down, I'm there for him and when I fall, he picks me up. In the past I've been able to be his strength when he had none left and I'm so grateful that he was brave enough to take away my shoes when that's what I needed most.

What do you think of Mr. Waxman's story - selfish or inspiring? What do you do if you and your partner have hugely different levels of interest in fitness? How do you balance exercise in your relationship?

Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!
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