"Divorce by triathlon" is a real phenomenon. A licensed therapist (and six-time Ironman finisher) shares his thoughts on the topic.
Can this relationship be saved?
I enjoy reading “Triathlete Love” and think it’s great you married another triathlete, but what about the rest of us? Most of us started triathlon after we got married. Instead of joining me, my wife, who doesn’t exercise much, threatens to divorce me every race season. Is there a way I can make my bike and my wife happy?
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret here, friend: I’m a triathlete, and I still threaten to divorce my husband every race season.
When Madam Triathlon isn’t taking you away from your wife for long, romantic trail runs, she’s trying to get you in bed (by 8 p.m.) or giving you puppy-dog eyes at the bike shop: Please, baby? I really, really want you to buy this. Face it—you’ve got a mistress. Don’t believe me? Go back and read your last sentence. You put “bike” before “wife,” for crying out loud. Now replace “bike” with “21-year-old Norwegian girlfriend” and maybe your wife’s feelings will make a little more sense.
When both partners are triathletes, it’s a little easier to handle the fling on the side—after all, it’d be hypocritical of me to get angry at Neil for disappearing each Saturday for a four-hour bike ride when I’m doing the same thing. Our bickering is usually reserved for other things, like “You ate all my Oreos, you asshole,” or “You spent how much on a wetsuit?!”
So what to do when one person becomes active while the other becomes angry? To dive deeper into the phenomenon of “divorce by triathlon,” I went to Dr. Ben Caldwell for marriage counseling (my husband, when he found out, responded, “You’re really pissed about those Oreos, aren’t you?”).
In addition to serving as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in couple relationships, Dr. Caldwell is a six-time Ironman finisher, so he understands this issue from both sides. Leave Grete—I mean, your bike—at home, and come sit on the couch for a minute.
So… “divorce by triathlon.” Is it really a thing?
The “divorce by triathlon” phenomenon is real. While all forms of exercise can be addictive, training and racing in triathlon is notoriously time- and wallet-consuming. And of course, time and money are among the issues couples most commonly fight about anyway, even without triathlon in their lives. Couples who haven’t prepared well for one partner diving into the sport can easily run into trouble.
I’ve worked with many couples where one spouse is more active than the other, sometimes much more. The good news is that these relationships aren’t doomed. In fact, as long as any concerns are appropriately addressed, triathlon can bring new richness to a relationship. For many couples, it becomes a source of adventure, teamwork and shared accomplishment.
What are some of those concerns?
I’ve known very few couples where it was the exercise itself that was the problem. People usually like and appreciate that their spouse wants to be in better shape! More often, the problem one of two things: The sudden absence of the newly-active partner for several hours a week, or the meaning that the less-active spouse puts to their partner getting more involved in the sport.
In the first case, the active partner is suddenly less available for home and family responsibilities. There are only so many hours in the day, and if you start taking several hours that had been time at home and use them to work out instead, that puts real pressure on the other spouse. If a couple hasn’t planned for that or communicated well about it, it’s easy to see how the less-active partner can get resentful.
In the second case, the less-active partner might think that the time spent working out is really an attempt to escape from responsibilities at home, or worse, to escape from them. They might even worry that your new involvement in the sport is the beginning of an attempt to “trade up” to a better partner. Often that’s just their own fear talking, but occasionally the concern about escape is based in truth. If someone takes up any sport or activity as a means of getting away from their partner, there are deeper problems in the relationship.
It seems like it’d make sense to encourage the other person to exercise, too. What are some ways to encourage an inactive spouse to become more active—without being pushy?
I know some experts advise exercising together, but if there’s a real difference in fitness levels between the two of you, that can be tough. Less-active partners can easily get self-conscious about exercising with a more-fit spouse. They worry they’ll be judged for how they look or for getting tired too quickly, or that they’ll be slowing the other one down.
If you want your partner to be inspired to get more active, but don’t want to force them into it, here are some ideas I’ve seen work:
Invite them to be a spectator at a race. Watching the finish line at a triathlon is incredibly inspiring. You see athletes of all body types completing a huge accomplishment, sometimes a lifelong dream. It’s hard to walk away from that and not want to go for a run, ride, or swim the next day yourself.
Make it possible. If your spouse or partner routinely covers for you at home so that you have the time to work out, return the favor. Plan with them for a few hours a week where you’ll cover for them, and they can use the newly free time however they see fit. A common complaint among people who don’t exercise is that they don’t have time to, so make sure they have the time to. Don’t be surprised if at first they simply want to take the time to relax, and don’t judge what they do in that time. The more chances they have to exercise, the more likely it becomes that they’ll do it.
Be their biggest fan. All of us need support and encouragement when we try new things, especially at the beginning. You know your partner better than anyone, so you probably already know what kind of encouragement they would find most rewarding. Some people do well with high-fives and celebrations, other people want data showing they’re getting faster or losing weight. If you want a partner to see you as their hero when you’re racing, then make it clear you see them as your hero when they’re challenging themselves in a new way.
So how can we keep the spouse and the bike happy, so to speak?
First and foremost, prioritize. Race times are important, but they don’t define you. And frankly, you’ll race much faster when the other parts of your life, including your relationship, are in order. So if something comes up at the last minute, and you have to choose between a partner who needs you and a race that you’ve been training for months for, choose your partner. There will be other races.
Secondly, communicate. Of course I’m going to say that, I’m a therapist! And a therapist can indeed help with this if you need it. So many of the problems that couples have around exercise and triathlon could have been resolved with better planning at the beginning, or better communication when problems started to come up. Communication here doesn’t just mean “I need an hour a day, every day, for exercise from now on,” it means explaining to your partner why the sport has become important to you, how you think it might impact your family, and how you plan to make taking up the sport a good thing for everyone, not just for you. It also means listening to your partner’s concerns, and making real efforts to address them.
Finally, make race day joyful. Anyone who even makes it to the start line of a triathlon is lucky in countless ways. You may be nervous, and your family may be nervous for you. But if you show your appreciation and enjoyment before, during, and after the race, they’ll look forward to the next one instead of dreading it. And you probably will too.
The fact is—for your relationship and for your bike—routine maintenance and care is a lot easier than fixing something after it’s broken. If something goes wrong, it’s usually fixable, but it also should be a lesson to learn what happened and attend more closely in the future.