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Q. My partner and I have been going out for 10 months and he has now moved in. He’s a gym bunny and I’m not, but I made the assumption that his gym-going habits might lessen once he was in a relationship. He tells me that he used to go 11 times a week, but has cut it back to seven. He goes every evening and gets home at 9pm. This means that we don’t eat together and have about an hour and a half together before bed. He goes on weekend mornings, too.
He’s kind and thoughtful but hasn’t been in a relationship for 11 years. I’ve spoken to him about how it feels like I’m not his priority, despite him saying this isn’t so, but he says the gym is a key part of his identity. The problem is it’s making me feel miserable and lonely. What can I do? Name supplied
A. When your partner says that exercise is a key part of his identity, he’s warning you that challenging his gym habits feels like attacking him as a person. It’s early days, and you are both figuring out what this relationship can be, so there’s no better time to work out how to disagree. The way you manage conflict will be key to long-term happiness for you both.
At the moment, the bottom line is that this level of activity makes him feel good, and you miserable. My sense is that there is underlying anxiety on both sides; you are feeling insecure because one of your expectations has not come true, and he has uncomfortable feelings which he deals with through exercise. He may even fear that his own identity could disappear in the relationship unless he defends it. One question I have is whether this counts as an exercise addiction. Although not recognised as an official mental health disorder, a behaviour has addictive aspects if there is an element which the person can’t control, especially if they refuse to see its impact on other people. What made him decide to cut down from 11 sessions to seven? How did he do it? How did he feel about it at the time?
Your aim in asking these questions is to grow in your knowledge of each other. Relationship expert John Gottman calls it building your ‘love map’. He has also spent 40 years researching how to manage conflict. When choosing a partner, you’re choosing their problems and they’re adopting yours. No one escapes this, but happy couples find ways to understand what’s going on at a deeper level. You might try simple but profound questions, such as: what’s your partner’s dream body and what does that give him? What’s your ideal evening as a couple?
In summary, I’d approach this as an anxiety and communication issue, with exercise being the symptom. It’s going to require new levels of honesty, which could be the opening to a new degree of vulnerability and closeness. In that sense, there is everything to play for, if you are both up for the challenge.
Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.