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Fit To Be Tied: A Couples’ Survival Guide

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When it comes to health and fitness, are you and your sweetheart compatible, combative, or somewhere in between?

Jack Sprat could eat no fat. His wife could eat no lean, and so betwixt the two of them, they licked the platter clean.

In nursery-rhyme land, this little arrangement worked out just fine. If only things jibed so well for most real-life couples! In reality, many romantic partners find that their differing approaches to health and fitness are cause for concern, consternation – and in some cases, outright conflict.

It may be that one partner loves exercise and the other can’t stand it. One is a health-food nut, the other a junk-food junkie. Perhaps one resents the other’s long hours spent training. Or maybe both partners are concerned about their own and their partner’s downhill slide into slothdom. In these and countless other circumstances, one individual’s preferences, attitudes and instincts about fitness can clash mightily with another’s. In some cases an entrenched battle ensues; in others, a silent resentment takes hold. Too often, the result is a load of discomfort, denial and misunderstanding that eventually leads to even bigger problems and conflicts.

I Got You, Babe

When Maya met Jim (not their real names), he was a slim, solid guy who was always on the go. After dating for a few years, the Minneapolis couple moved in together, and everything was great. For a while.

Today, Maya can’t be sure whether the culprit is Jim’s eating habits, his reduced activity level, the effect of time on a slowing metabolism, or a co-conspiracy of all of the above, but one thing she does know: Jim has put on weight. And it worries her.

Since Jim began packing on pounds, says Maya, he has started to complain of back pain and chronic knee trouble, and he’s resistant to walking more than a few blocks at a time. The decline in Jim’s fitness has started to affect their relationship. Maya recollects that they used to walk and go on bike rides together pretty regularly. When she was training for a marathon, Jim would bike alongside on her long runs. Now, she says, they rarely get outside together.

“This winter,” she recalls, “we decided to go for dinner at a little place in our neighborhood. It was a nice evening, and I wanted to walk, and Jim was like ‘Nah, it’s too far.’ He wanted to drive, and the place couldn’t have been more than five blocks from our house.”

For Maya, a naturally athletic person, Jim’s nutrition and fitness habits are hard to understand. While she enjoys running and working out several times a week, and tends toward wholesome, home-cooked foods, Jim is turning out to be more of a fast-food, TV-watching, on-the-couch kind of guy.

“Jim used to be a lot more active,” Maya says, “and he also used to be younger, so he could eat like that and not gain weight. I just don’t think he’s realized that he’s not 20 anymore.”

Maya says she grapples with how – or even whether – to address her growing concerns, both because she’s reluctant to hurt Jim’s feelings, and because she knows they come from totally different places.

“I’ll come home from the gym and he’ll be watching TV with a bag of cookies on his chest,” she explains. “I just can’t relate to that, particularly when I can see that it is having a negative impact on his health, but I’m afraid anything I say is going to sound unsympathetic or judgmental.”

Still, Maya can feel the tension mounting. “If this turns out to be a continuing trend,” she reflects, “I can see how it might cause some serious problems.” The trouble is, unless Jim consciously turns his habits around, the situation will get worse, and Maya knows it. “I just dread bringing it up,” admits Maya, “because I’m worried he is going to be hurt.” But Maya’s biggest concern is that Jim will continue to take no action, in which case she can’t help but envision a bleak future – one in which she winds up living with a gradually expanding human sofa cushion. “That,” she says, “is just not what I signed up for.”

Where Did Our Love Go?

According to Dr. Willard Harley, Jr., an acclaimed marriage therapist and author of the internationally best-selling book His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage (Revell, 1986), Maya voices a common sentiment – one Harley heard often during his 30-year marriage-counseling career. And according to Harley, Maya’s premonition of bigger trouble on the horizon may well be accurate, both because Jim’s habits are likely to be a continuing source of disappointment to her, and because his downshift in fitness is already impinging on her need for spending active, outdoor time together as a couple.

“Recreational companionship” – the desire Maya has to have Jim join her on walks and other active outings – is just one of 10 emotional needs that Harley identifies in His Needs, Her Needs as being make-or-break critical to the lasting happiness of most committed couples. Harley arrived at his top-10 list through decades of hands-on research, by asking tens of thousands of couples a simple question: What could your spouse do for you that would make you the happiest?

“As spouses explained to me what they wanted most, I classified their desires into emotional-needs categories,” Harley explains, “and almost all those I interviewed described one or more of the same 10 emotional needs as important to them: admiration, affection, conversation, domestic support, family commitment, financial support, honesty and openness, physical attractiveness, recreational companionship and sexual fulfillment.”

But Harley also discovered one big catch – and perhaps the primary reason that many of these couples were in his office in the first place: The individual partners inevitably ranked the importance of these needs quite differently. What was an essential, hand-wringing necessity to one could seem like a big yawn to the other.

Moreover, the more emotional-needs questionnaires Harley administered, the more clearly a pattern emerged: “The five needs listed as most important by men were usually the five least important for women, and vice versa.”

In other words, on average, Harley would find that for men, sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship and physical attractiveness would consistently rank in the top three, while for women, it was affection, conversation, and honesty that generally got top billing.

Harley hastens to point out that these averages only hold true in general. For any given individual – or individual couple, like Maya and Jim – the results could be totally flip-flopped. That’s why Harley encourages all couples to complete their own Emotional-Needs Questionnaires, which he provides for free at his Web site (www.marriagebuilders.com) and also includes in several of his books.

Truly, Madly, Deeply

A quick glance at Harley’s top-10 list reveals several items (recreational companionship, admiration and physical attractiveness to name a few) that could relate directly to physical health and fitness. On deeper examination, an even larger number emerge as contenders. For example, one person’s need for family commitment or domestic support could easily be rankled by their partner’s habit of spending several hours a day on a hardcore fitness regimen.

But hold on a minute! Can something as simple and seemingly superficial as a “fitness issue” really put an otherwise loving relationship in jeopardy? Many marriage counselors will tell you yes – for a range of vastly different reasons, most of which are surprisingly unsuperficial.

Our bodies and physical health have bearing not just on how we look, they point out, but on virtually every aspect of our experience, from how we feel about ourselves and how we spend our time, to the range of experiences we do or do not share with our partners and our ability to accommodate their needs.

Whether or not this type of issue becomes a serious problem in a couple’s relationship depends on how highly the respective needs on both sides rank, and how easily some win-win solution can be achieved. But the very first step in any case, Harley insists, is for couples to come to grips with each other’s most important needs. Know them, care about them and meet them, he says, and you’ll have a good shot at happiness. Ignore or deny them, and you’re headed for trouble.

Harley uses a “Love Bank” metaphor to explain the dynamic. When a couple is meeting each other’s most important emotional needs, he says, they’re constantly making deposits of what he terms “love units” into accounts they hold in the other person’s name. “By the time a couple decides to commit to a relationship,” says Harley, “they’ve generally accrued a great deal of respect, affection and admiration for each other.” Those positive feelings may be based on personal qualities, habits, values, physical attraction and a variety of other characteristics, Harley notes, but they all count for lots of love units. And collectively, if they reach a certain threshold, they equate to the feeling of being “in love.”

Assuming all goes well, the deposits in both people’s accounts accumulate, resulting in a growing sense of mutual confidence and pleasure in the relationship. Over time, though – as the result of a growing tide of negative experiences (like repeatedly finding one’s spouse eating donuts on the couch) or an evaporation of positive ones (like those long bike rides you used to take together) – all that respect and admiration can begin to dwindle. When things don’t go well, the “debiting” starts, and those love balances begin to drop.

If positive experiences – like shared interests, physical attraction and enjoyable time spent together – are in shortening supply at the same time that negative experiences – like disappointment, criticism and disapproved-of habits – are on the rise, the result is a sort of emotional overdraft. As one or both partners find themselves steeped in an increasing amount of disappointment, they may feel mystified (“what happened?”), numb (“the magic is just gone”), vaguely betrayed (“I didn’t sign up for this”), or downright misled (“this is not the person I married”).

Obviously, the root causes for spousal conflict are myriad and complex, and by no means do they all hinge on fitness habits, but Harley and other marriage counselors acknowledge that health- and fitness-related issues do rank as common catalysts for relational rancor, in part because they tend to provide tangible, daily evidence of what may be deeper, harder-to-nail sources of dissatisfaction.

While fitness improvements typically fuel positive change in relationships, transition periods can be problematic, particularly if one partner is resistant to the other’s changing habits and attitudes.

I Say Tomato, You Say Burrito

“Sometimes fitness fights are just the canary in the mineshaft,” points out Douglas Scott Dumas, a psychologist specializing in couples’ therapy who has a private practice with his wife, Ann, in Minneapolis. He explains, “It may be that one partner is purposely creating distance in the relationship – say by exercising obsessively, or being hypercritical about their partner’s fitness – as a way of drawing attention to the fact that they are deeply unhappy or frustrated in other areas they don’t feel ready to address.” In cases like this, fitness struggles are just a signal that even bigger troubles are brewing.

Dr. Mic Hunter, a licensed family and marriage therapist who practices in St. Paul, agrees. On the other hand, he says, sometimes the conflict is very much what it seems – a case of one individual feeling at odds with his or her partner as a result of a relatively simple, fitness-based incompatibility.

For example, says Hunter, “A lot of men would like their partners to do more active, athletic things with them, but because their approach to athletics has always been competitive, they may automatically take a no-holds-barred approach to athletic activities without even being aware of it.” What’s fine on a race course or football field, he points out, may be totally out of place on a recreational jaunt with a partner. And Hunter points out that it’s not just men who are guilty of this foible. “I once had a female racquetball partner,” he says, “who would literally run me over to get the ball.”

Whatever their gender, more aggressive persons may think they are being encouraging and playful, Hunter cautions, “but if their attitude comes off as bullying or belittling to the other person, it may wind up creating an all-around discouraging experience.”

Although many couples do enjoy working out together, for others – particularly those who are unevenly matched in terms of their fitness or otherwise athletically incompatible – that approach can backfire. A classic example: A couple goes hiking. The more athletic partner sees the hike as a fitness opportunity, and gets frustrated by his or her partner’s too-slow pace. The other partner sees the hike as a “togetherness” outing, and winds up feeling pressured and left in the dust by the faster companion.

In such cases, both Hunter and Dumas generally recommend that each individual does his or her fitness workouts alone, but then also makes ample time to do other active things with their partner, choosing activities (and paces) they can both enjoy, and on which they can enthusiastically agree.

It’s important to remember that while fitness improvements typically fuel positive change in relationships, transition periods can be problematic, particularly if one partner is resistant to the other’s changing habits and attitudes.

“People have difficulty moving forward in a relationship when their partner doesn’t reflect favorably on what they do,” explains Dumas. So if one partner decides to make some healthy lifestyle changes but finds the other partner resists or is unsupportive, or if one partner feels abandoned, jealous or put-upon by the amount of time the other’s fitness routine is demanding, the result can be a build up of anxiety and frustration. And that frustration, says Dumas, can easily contaminate other parts of the relationship and begin morphing into arguments about all sorts of things, from family responsibilities to a couple’s sex life.

So, if fitness fights can be symptoms of other problems, and they can also cause symptoms in other areas, how is a person to know what the real problem is? You can start by completing our quiz and attempting to identify your own attitudes, habits and needs, then considering how they might intersect or clash with your partner’s. If you feel one or more flags go up while you are completing the questionnaire, evaluate how serious the problems (or potential problems) are and what the root causes might be.

Next, consider some of the suggestions supplied by our experts for approaching the issue with your partner (see the “Web Extra!” portion of this article at the top of the screen). Finally, if you suspect you need more insight or professional guidance with identifying, addressing and resolving the issues you’re facing, start by consulting www.marriagebuilders.com and perusing one of Harley’s books for ideas. You may eventually decide to hire a pro to help you sort things out, but in the meantime, you’ll get a much better idea of where things may have gone wrong.

Even if you never achieve the level of effortless compatibility enjoyed by Mr. and Mrs. Sprat, and your partnership never takes on such convenient nursery-rhyme simplicity, you’ll at least be making concerted, conscious strides toward formulating your partnership’s own version of happily (and healthily) ever after.

So Happy Together

“As a rule,” says Dr. Willard Harley, JR., “people tend to fall in love with whoever they are having the most fun with and with whom they associate their best, most enjoyable experiences.” Finding and sharing enjoyable mutual interests and activities is so important, Harley says, that he recommends (against current convention) that couples spend virtually all their recreational time together. For more on this controversial topic, and to take your own “Recreational Enjoyment Inventory,” visit www.marriagebuilders.com.

Incidentally, Harley notes that health clubs rank just after offices as some of the most common places for romantic affairs to begin. They are energizing, exciting places that people associate with positive experiences and achievements, he explains, so it’s a natural context for falling in love. Treadmill for two, please!

Labor of Love

If you like the idea of doing the fitness thing with your better half, but find it tricky because one of you is substantially faster or stronger than the other, consider these tips:

  • Differentiate between what’s an official workout and what’s just an active outing. Resist the temptation to turn every walk or jog into a time trial.
  • If you are the more fit one, pre-exhaust yourself by doing your regular run or bike. And then do a second run or bike with your partner later in the day. With a good workout already under your belt, you won’t feel held back or frustrated, and your partner won’t feel as pressured.
  • Do your strongest sport on your own and your weakest with your partner.
  • Take group fitness classes, like spinning, where you can each maintain your preferred level of exertion without “falling behind.”
  • If your partner is game and won’t get mad at you for showing off, offer to run circles around them, run backwards or otherwise adjust your approach to level the field and stay in closer physical range.
  • Go to the club and run on side-by-side treadmills at your own pace.
  • Learn a new, noncompetitive sport or activity together.
  • If you want to be able to chat while single-lane biking (or if one of you wants to launch out ahead without losing contact), consider a pair of walkie-talkie head-phones – about $50 each at Radio Shack.
  • If cardio workouts aren’t working, try weightlifting together. You’ll both work harder, plus you can spot each other, alternating between your sets and rests.
  • Try partner-oriented exercises (like medicine-ball tossing and partner stretching), or do yoga and plyometric exercises where you can easily control the level of difficulty by modifying the form.

Pilar Gerasimo is the founding editor of Experience Life.

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