How to Manage Exercise Envy
You’re actively running and cycling, but your partner’s on the sidelines. Here are tips on coping with this challenging dynamic.
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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at email@example.com.
I met my partner on a dating site about two years ago and we clicked because of our common love for triathlon. The start of lockdown was great. With few other distractions, we could run and cycle to our hearts’ content, and we did.
However, nine months ago she injured her knee, and that injury has become chronic. She’s tried everything from physio to steroid and botox injections but her injury isn’t getting better. She has become depressed and resents me exercising. I have exercised less and resent my lost fitness.
We’ve talked about it a lot, and although she says she doesn’t mind me exercising, she clearly does. I want her to seek help for depression but don’t know how to sensitively bring this up.
We moved in together during lockdown and she is keen to buy something together. I’m concerned this relationship is falling apart and I’m not ready to commit. I keep trying to see a way forward but I think we might both be better off without the relationship. Can you shine any light on the matter?
Since running and triathlon are out of my wheelhouse, I reached out to Dr. Jen Golbeck, an ultramarathoner, for her advice. Her heart goes out to what your partner is going through.
“For people who do long endurance events, I think a lot of us share the idea that pushing our limits is a really meaningful way to find joy in life,” she says. “Like the BIG kind of joy. It feels good physically doing it, but there’s the bigger notion of molding ourselves—mentally and physically—to reach things we couldn’t without the work. I liken the work of training to something like a religion, because there’s something very spiritual about it. There’s suffering and transcendence and sacrifice. It’s not the same, but there are elements there. And when that gets taken from you, it can be devastating. I have had injuries like that—I couldn’t run for three or four years because of a gruesome injury and strings of surgeries and recovery. It was awful.”
She recommends that your partner see a sports psychologist, who will be able to treat her depression and speak to her emotional needs as an athlete. Depression isn’t a weakness or a character flaw, so you’re not insulting your partner by bringing up this suggestion. That said, if you haven’t spoken much about mental health together, she may feel self-conscious during the conversation. So your best bet is to be kind but direct, and to make sure you’re speaking from a place of love rather than one of frustration. You can say that you’ve seen how much she’s suffering, and you wonder if it might be helpful for her to talk to a doctor about what she’s going through. If she’s open to it, you should offer to help her make an appointment, as that can be a daunting first step for someone who’s struggling.
Then there’s the issue of your partner resenting your exercise, or the fact that you feel she does. It’s hard for me to gauge how this dynamic plays out. If she truly wants you to miss out on the things you love most, that reflects a far deeper problem. But I suspect that, if you’re correct in sensing that she’s unhappy about your exercising, it’s not because she wishes you weren’t doing it; it’s because she wishes she could, too. Jen adds, “If missing time together is part of her resentment, it’s worth thinking about how you can adapt, too. Can you do overnight workouts? Or split them between early morning and late evening, to allow more time with her.”
She also points out that if your partner’s injury is her knee, “there’s plenty of stuff she can do that allows her to work toward challenging goals, compete, and train. She could shift to long distance swimming (if that works), or rowing/kayaking may allow her to eventually regain her workouts. And from my experience, even years of struggle may resolve with good physical therapy and medical support. A year seems like a long time, but lots of injuries take longer. That means hope for her still.”
If you and your partner are both committed, and put in the emotional effort, I think you could work through this. A tough period, especially during a pandemic, doesn’t mean that things will always be tough. And even if your relationship looks different than it did a year ago, it could still be healthy and positive—with your partner processing her grief, so she can cheer for your triathlons, and you supporting her in the ongoing challenges of her injury, as well as encouraging her other interests, which will likely evolve as she learns her new options and limits.
But here’s the thing: from your letter, I’m not sure you want to make things work. It sounds like maybe you’re looking for a way out. If that’s the case, it’s OK. You moved in together a year ago—possibly sooner than you would have otherwise, because of the pandemic. And it’s not the relationship you thought it would be. If you’re unhappy, and you know that you don’t want to make the kinds of commitments that your partner is looking for, then the kindest thing is to end the relationship gently and swiftly, without dragging things out or making promises you don’t intend to keep.
One note: if there’s even a tiny part of you that wants to leave because it’s too stressful to be around someone whose body isn’t performing to the athletic standard that she and you expect it to, then I’d strongly encourage you to talk to a psychologist yourself—out of respect for your current partner, for possible future partners, and for your own sake, too. Athletes get injured; bodies change, sometimes a lot. It’s no more fair to expect otherwise than it is to begrudge a partner’s passions just because you can’t participate. Whatever happens, you should be ready to support your partner through all their ups and downs—and you deserve someone who will do the same for you.