Exercise Can Set Off Conflict About Family, Free Time; Errands vs. English Channel
by KEVIN HELLIKER
As the wife of an endurance athlete, Caren Waxman wakes up alone every morning, including holidays.
"Mother's Day really upset me," says the Rockleigh, N.J., mother of three, age 47, whose husband leaves before dawn each morning for hours of exercise. In May, he will wish her a happy Mother's Day from Utah, where he will compete in a triathlon.
"It's selfish," concedes her husband, Jordan Waxman, 46, a private-banking executive at Merrill Lynch and an Ironman triathlete. He says he leaves notes for his wife and children before leaving for morning workouts.
With exercise intruding ever-more frequently on intimacy, counselors are proposing a new wedding vow: For fitter or for fatter. "Exercise is getting more and more couples into my office," says Karen Gail Lewis, a Cincinnati marriage and family therapist.
The threat can go beyond time issues. If one partner gets a new, buff appearance and a new circle of buff acquaintances, romantic possibilities can open up—and give the other spouse good reason to feel insecure about his or her own physique.
Couples therapists agree that commitment weakens as alternatives increase. Dr. Lewis recalls a client who realized she was unhappy in her marriage after she lost weight, became athletic and found she was attractive to men other than her husband. "She said, 'I married him thinking I didn't have a choice, because I was so heavy,' " Dr. Lewis recalls. Therapists say many relationships are based on similar levels of attractiveness; a shift in the equation can destabilize a marriage.
The effect of extreme exercise on divorce rates isn't clear. Even if research showed a higher rate of discord in homes where just one spouse is an endurance athlete, exercise could be a consequence, rather than a cause.
Among endurance athletes, though, resentment on the part of spouses is a common topic. The phenomenon may develop into what Pete Simon, an Arizona psychologist, triathlon coach and blogger, calls "Divorce by Triathlon." "I often wonder how many lonely wives, husbands, children of triathletes are out there wondering when the insanity is going to end," he wrote.
Of course, the surest way for a marriage to accommodate an intense exercise regimen is for both spouses to engage in it. Married for five years now, Walt and Kendel Prescott met in 2004 at the start line of a marathon. Mrs. Prescott, now 50, has run 313 marathons; Mr. Prescott, 57, has run 287. Their joke is that he keeps trying to catch up. "Running is a great excuse for me to be with Kendel," says Mr. Prescott, an airline worker in Atlanta.
The explosive growth in marathons, triathlons and other endurance sports comes largely from midlife converts such as Mr. Waxman, the Ironman triathlete. He and his wife celebrated a half-dozen wedding anniversaries and produced three children before exercise came between them.