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.
Back when I was in school, I played field hockey and basketball and lacrosse. Doug wrestled and ran cross-country. You can see the germ of our current conundrum right there: I chose team sports, and he was inclined toward the solitary contest. He’s an only child; I’m a middle kid who grew up fighting to win more attention from my parents than my siblings got. This is a strong, primal urge; there was a time, evolutionarily speaking, when getting extra food or the first boost away from danger would have meant my life saved over theirs. Doug never faced that fight. He grew up secure. Not me.
But like me, he feels that with the kids off doing their own thing, we owe it to ourselves as a couple to do some reconnecting. And he’s made stabs at reestablishing the sort of athletic simpatico we had back when we married 30 years ago. “Would you like me to buy you a bike?” he asked not too long ago, as he headed out on a long solo ride.
I thought about it. The lure of that Scottish idyll is still strong. But I know how he rides now; I see him come home soaked in sweat from a 30-mile jaunt. I don’t want to ride 30 miles on a bike on a sunny weekend day. And if I ride 10 miles with him, well, he won’t be getting much of a workout, will he? He’ll be going easy for my sake, and I hate the thought of that.
Just to see if this sort of standoff is common, I called longtime Main Line personal trainer Nancy McKenna and laid our dilemma out for her. Did she have other middle-aged clients in this situation?
“I’m in that situation myself,” McKenna, who’s 53, said. Turns out she plays soccer in a suburban women’s league, while her husband prefers triathlons. “Some people are more into team sports,” she acknowledges. “You’re looking for companionship, the camaraderie.”
Still, she notes, with so many exercise options available these days, there must be something Doug and I could do together. She suggests compromise: “He makes sure he gets his workout, and then there’s what you do together for the sake of spending time together. Something you do instead of going to the movies.” We never go to the movies. Instead, we watch sports, live or on TV: baseball, football, basketball, soccer. Not so much because he wants to. Because I do.
“It’s hard to turn off being competitive,” McKenna says, then pauses before posing a logical-sounding question: “Do you have to do something together?”
No. We don’t have to. But we both feel we should. Aren’t these golden years supposed to be filled with the suffused glow of a Cialis commercial? If we keep on exercising separately, might we not begin to do other things separately—like sleep, or take vacations? What if this is just the beginning of the end? Who wants to watch 30 years of marriage circle the drain?
Midday on a Sunday, my cell phone rings. “What are you doing?” my friend—let’s call her Jill—asks at the other end of the line.
“Heading out to visit Marcy”—my daughter—“in the city.”
“Oh,” Jill says, sounding a little crestfallen.
“What is it?” I ask. “Is there something you need?”
“I don’t want to hold you up.”
“I’m not in any hurry,” I assure her. And that’s when the story comes out: She started off on a long bike ride that morning with a bunch of other people. She made it 10 miles, but now she’s run out of gas. She’s beside an empty cornfield in the middle of nowhere. Can I come get her, please?
Of course I can. I drive the 20 minutes or so to where she’s waiting. I make sure I have a couple of granola bars and some water for her. She’s embarrassed by what’s happened. I stick her bike in my trunk and a granola bar in her hand.
Jill’s husband is a serious biker. He’s always taking part in charity rides, the kind that take as long as a week and reach across the entire state, or from here to the Shore. She’s my regular racquetball partner; up until a few years ago, when she hurt a knee, she was the only woman who played soccer with the macho Latino men down at the public park. She’s pretty fearless. Or she used to be.
“I thought maybe I could get good enough to keep up with him,” she says of her husband. “Now I don’t think I can.”
It’s my own worst nightmare. There are times when I imagine what it will be like one day when I’m stuck in a wheelchair and Doug has to push me around. When we were younger, I pictured us growing old together at the same rate. I don’t know where I got the notion that aging would
“How about taking a yoga class together?” Doug asks one night while we’re making dinner.
I busy myself with cutting carrots, thinking about it. I appreciate that he wants us to find things to do as a couple. And I’ve taken some yoga classes with Jill. Nothing could be less competitive than yoga, right? But that’s not how I felt when I was doing yoga. I was constantly comparing my downward dog to everybody else’s, and not in a good way: That lady’s even older than I am—why is she so limber? Why is the instructor looking right at me when she says, “Use the wall for balance if you have to”? I know Doug’s going to be much better at yoga than I am. Even though there isn’t really any “better” in yoga. Except there is, for me. “You really are competitive,” Nancy McKenna says when I explain this train of thought.
Last summer, when we were at the beach with my extended family, Doug set out on a long bike ride. When he returned, everybody marveled at his fitness, at how far he’d gone. I made a joke: “He’s trying to outlive me,” I said, “so he can start again with another wife.”
That night, Doug made a point of saying to me, privately: “I’m not trying to outlive you, you know.”
“It was only a joke,” I said, and laughed to prove it. That he felt the need to deny the allegation only made me more insecure. In no other area of our conjoined lives are we separated by this sort of performance gap. We make about the same amount of money. We’re both decent cooks, parents, citizens. It’s only in this one sphere that he’s ahead of me—that he’s winning. And it just happens to be the sphere I care about most. Or maybe I care about it most because I’m losing to him.
Doug has a bad knee. He hurt it at work. It’s been weeks, and it’s still swollen and sore. “You should go see a doctor,” I say, “and get an MRI.”
“They won’t send me for an MRI. They’ll send me to PT.” That’s “physical therapy.” And it’s what Doug does for a living. So he’s already been doing for his knee what any PT would: elevation, rest, borrowing the electrical-stimulation machine I use for my arthritic ankles, that he gave to me for Christmas last year.
It’s strange to have him hobbled this way. Of course I feel awful for him; he’s in pain, the poor dear. He can’t get his regular workouts. But guess what I also feel?
I’m sorry. But I do.
It never occurred to me that something could slow him down—that time might, after all, prove inexpiably evenhanded. Once it does, it’s as if a curtain has been lifted. Hey, shit happens! He could blow out his ACL! He could get hit by a truck while he’s biking! He could keel over dead from a heart attack—look at poor Jim Fixx! I could be pushing him in a wheelchair someday!
Ideally, I’d like us both to pass away at the exact same time, holding hands, lying side by side on our marital bed. But if one of us has to go first, well—marriage is all about selflessness and making your spouse happy. Doug said he wasn’t trying to outlive me. Just for the record, I would like to outlive him.