It’s four a.m. on a chilly autumn morning, and my husband Doug is climbing out of bed. He’ll brush his teeth and make his way downstairs to the kitchen. He’ll turn the oven on for warmth—it’s a big old house; no sense in heating it all when he’s the only one awake. He’ll make himself an egg and some toast and half a grapefruit, and then head out to the gym. He’ll get there by five o’clock. He does this almost every morning, but I’m never there to see. I’m never there to see because I would sooner be shot in the head than wake up at 4 a.m. to go to the gym.
It’s a Wednesday, though, so after I make the long drive home from the office tonight, I’ll rush into the house, exchange my work clothes for sweats, and hurry over to the local Y, where for years I’ve spent every Wednesday night playing volleyball with a bunch of other people whose competitive spirit far outstrips their athletic ability. We’ll win some, we’ll lose some, and we’ll laugh ourselves silly over each others’ missed serves and should-have-been-blocked shots. I’ll get home, ready for a belated dinner and some TV R-and-R, just as Doug is climbing up the stairs to bed.
The scenario will repeat itself throughout the week: Doug heading out early for the gym, me heading out late for volleyball or pickleball or racquetball. We’re both as busy as hell staying fit, but never in the same place, doing the same thing. Together.
It hasn’t always been this way.
When we were courting, and in the early years of our marriage, we did all sorts of sportive things in tandem. Back in those days, no one belonged to a gym. We played tennis; we jogged; we rode bikes. I’d never been more than a casual bike rider, but I wanted to impress Doug and, more important, to be with him. So I took riding seriously enough that we went on a vacation in which we pedaled all the way across Scotland—a trip that was a highlight of our married life.
Somewhere in the course of that life, though, we shifted from getting our workouts together to getting them separately. This can be partially explained by the fact that when you have kids, one parent has to be with them pretty much all the time, unless you can afford help. It can also be partially explained by the fact that when you’re running said kids to and from soccer and field hockey and basketball and football and lacrosse, that can seem like a workout in itself. But the kids are grown now, and Doug and I have plenty of leisure time to share with one another. We don’t, though. We exercise individually. And I can’t help wondering: Is this good for our marriage, or bad?
I tried the gym. I really did. For years I did the stretches and biked the stationary bike and lifted the weights. I read magazines or watched CNN while I pedaled or lifted; when I was done, I dutifully fetched the spray bottle of disinfectant and wiped the equipment down. And I’ve never been so bored in my life.
It all felt so stupid, so … phony. What was the point, beyond grimly pushing on for three more miles or bench-pressing another five pounds? The only part of working out at the gym that engaged me was surreptitiously noticing how far other people were riding, or how much they were lifting: Was I stronger than that lady over there, in the expensive workout clothes? Could I pedal farther and faster than that skinny little guy?
But this proved a singularly unsatisfying form of rivalry. The actual opportunities you have at the gym to measure yourself against anyone else are few and far between. My attention—and my energy—flagged. Besides, I’d finally begun to discover other forms of exercise for grown-ups that I really did enjoy—indoor soccer, field hockey, racquetball. Games in which there was the keeping of score. In which I could come home dancing on air because of one really fine shot or block or spike. I don’t have to be on the winning side to feel great (though it helps). I only have to make a contribution, experience that adrenaline rush, have some action of mine acknowledged by my teammates with a “Hey!” or high five. Winning is icing. The cake is the game.
Doug doesn’t really understand this. “I wouldn’t get enough of a workout,” he says when I invite him to join in my regular volleyball bouts.
“Okay, maybe it’s not the same as running a marathon,” I concede. “But it’s so much more fun!”
“I don’t do it for fun,” he says. And he doesn’t. So far as I can tell, he does it for pain. All that straining and grunting and sweating, the driven way in which he runs and bikes and lifts, the notes he keeps on what he’s accomplished each day—no wonder it’s called a workout. Where’s the joy? The team spirit? The giddy laughter?
Of course, he is in much better shape than me.