Couples’ sports: Making it to the finish line together

08/18/2014 1:15 PM

08/18/2014 1:15 PM

Introducing your significant other to a sport you love has all sorts of things to recommend it, right?

“Sharing activities as a couple is a great relationship-tending skill,” says Lisa Bahar, a Newport Beach, Calif., marriage and family therapist. “(It) enhances and strengthens the relationship due to one partner wanting to create an experience with the other by sharing in an activity one may not feel mastery of.”

Yet even something as seemingly simple as biking together can present problems because the human psycho – er, psyche – is delicate and complicated.

Let’s take the positive approach to success first.

Tiffany Mason of Columbia, S.C., is a life coach and an experienced figure skater who was dying to go ice skating with her husband, John. The problem was that he had never skated, was intimidated and was “nervous about falling on his butt,” she says.

Knowing how important skating was to her, John studied techniques in mindfulness and began to focus on conquering his fear of looking silly.

“Of course, he fell a few times and didn’t know how to stop, but after receiving lessons from me, he got the hang of it,” Mason says. “If it weren’t for my husband overcoming his fear of falling on the ice, we would not have been able to enjoy our time together.”

The key, of course, was that they worked together. There was no argument over who should be teaching whom, and he let go of the pride attached to looking clumsy. He also was willing to risk a bruised backside for the sake of togetherness.

But being accomplished doesn’t always make you the best teacher – or partner.

There are those who are so good at their favorite sport that it becomes difficult for them to share, says psychotherapist and relationship author Fran Walfish. She remembers a couple she worked with a few years ago. The wife was an experienced tennis player. Her stockbroker husband, who didn’t know a tennis ball from a softball, agreed to let her teach him tennis.

The wife soon became resentful over having to play at his beginners’ level. She found that she no longer even enjoyed her favorite sport. She loved her husband but chafed at the negative shift in their dialogue and conversation. Tennis was her place to shine, a personal achievement, and the experience with him quickly made her aware she should not be teaching him the game.

Walfish’s solution? She suggested that they find a different sport, preferably one in which neither was very good but wanted to learn. This allowed the wife to enjoy tennis as she always had.

There’s another scenario that might be worse, though: Being married to an absolutely, positively no-can-do spouse who has no interest participating in any activity. This special distinction often is held by die-hard couch potatoes, but other reasons may factor in.

The underlying problem is that one person refuses to compromise with the other.

“Some people hate to be told what to do and are easily angered, insulted or wounded,” Walfish says. “Each of us must at some point – the earlier the better – take that honest, open, painful look within and face our good and bad traits and qualities.”

Walfish thinks that facing the psychological and emotional obstacles that keep a spouse from compromising can lead to a better understanding and acceptance of why it’s important to do just that for the sake of a healthy relationship.

Empathy is ultimately more important than athletic ability, adds Michael McNulty, a psychotherapist and trainer with The Gottman Institute, a Seattle-based organization that specializes in marriage research and counseling.

“A partner joining in his or her partner’s dream by learning and doing the requested (sport) can mean a great deal to the person making the request,” he says.

One couple McNulty worked with included a husband who enjoyed “hard-core” activities such as rappelling from mountains, sky-diving and bungee jumping.

Although he wanted his wife to join him, those activities terrified her. Each worked to understand the other’s perspective: The husband explained that those sports helped him take risks in all aspects of life. The wife shot back, only half-joking, that avoiding those sports would help lengthen her life span. As an eventual compromise, she pushed herself to let him teach her how to sail on the high seas – a challenging activity but one with risks she felt she could accept.

Even when it works, though, the downside of competing with a spouse can mean discovering unpleasant qualities not previously experienced elsewhere in the relationship. She becomes a gloating winner. He gets mad when he loses.

Obviously this behavior does not promote companionship and a sense of sharing. But the drive that creates extreme competitiveness or temper tantrums can be tamed, says Bahar. And if it can’t, maybe it’s time to step back and reset the goals.

“This can be a challenge that will take some time to adjust to,” she says. “It’s hard once those characteristics are ingrained in an individual. It could be their ‘wiring,’ so doing some more mindful, sensory-related activities, like (taking) a long walk or people watching – something that doesn’t create the challenge of needing to be on top – can help in sharing a mutual experience without rancor.”

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