At the peak of the pandemic, my husband was embroiled in a full-blown love affair. It made him frequently unavailable, led to several surprising credit card statements and impinged upon family time. To quote Princess Diana, I started to feel that there were three of us in this marriage — and one of us was an exercise bike.
During the dumpster fire of 2020, my husband’s need for control — plus his desire to drop a little banana bread weight — turned him into a slavish devotee of at-home Peloton spin classes. And I became, pardon the pun, a third wheel.
In August 2020, an Ipsos poll showed that 30 percent of Americans surveyed felt more annoyed by their partners than they did before stay-at-home orders began last March. And, not for nothing, LegalTemplates.net, a website that offers free legal forms, saw a 34 percent bump in downloads of their basic divorce agreement last summer, compared to the one previous.
Stress is a big risk factor for marital instability — and one way to combat that stress is to exercise. Working out at home has boomed during the pandemic, with sales of fitness equipment surging 130 percent last May and staying high this year. But while staying fit and taking care of oneself is admirable, what if it drives a bigger wedge between you and your partner?
‘He’s not thinking of the needs of the family.’
Lillie Marshall, a teacher and educational cartoonist in Boston, knows exercise is key to her mental health. Almost every day, she takes a walk and does a workout class on Beachbody, a streaming fitness platform. Her husband runs for up to two hours each day. “We know if we don’t get this soothing time in, we become monsters,” she said. “But we have had some pretty heated discussions about where it can logistically fit.”
Balancing their mutual need for exercise “causes more tension on top of our pandemic tension,” said Ms. Marshall, 39. The breaking point comes when her husband pads his workout time with stretching during the busiest part of their day.
“I’ll be maniacally getting dinner together and he’ll be leisurely foam-rolling,” she said. “It causes anger and frustration, because he’s not thinking of the needs of the family as a whole. But I also feel guilty, because wanting his attention means pulling him away from something he likes.”
‘My Peloton instructor is my therapist.’
Jessica Pika’s Peloton bike was delivered six days before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Sequestered in lockdown, she drew comfort from rides with her favorite instructor, Robin Arzón, whose galvanizing monologues became a powerful source of motivation.
“I cry all the time on Robin’s rides, because I feel very connected to her,” said Ms. Pika, 42, who lives in Northern Virginia. “Not in a creepy way, just an inspiring one. I joke that my Peloton instructor is my therapist.”
The pandemic has led to a major deficit in people’s social and emotional lives, said Dara Greenwood, an associate professor of psychological science at Vassar College who studies one-sided social and emotional connections to media figures, called parasocial relationships. “So it makes sense people might be reaching for media figures from the safety of their own homes to try to offset some of that.”
With fitness platforms like Peloton and Beachbody, “it’s like a triple whammy — you have someone attractive and fit, who’s breaking the fourth wall and staring at you while shouting encouraging things,” Dr. Greenwood said. On top of that, the endorphin-rich buzz you get from exercising may transfer over to the appealing person who’s cheering you on, increasing your attraction to them, she said.
While Ms. Marshall’s favorite Beachbody instructor, Amoila Cesar, is “truly amazing to look at,” she said, he’s also hilarious.
“My husband will walk past and hear this other guy making me laugh,” she said. “When you find a workout that captures you, there’s something about it that’s really engaging, and your partner isn’t a part of that.”
Simply put, it can feel isolating when your partner closes the door to spend an hour with someone else.
‘It’s this unwanted third party in our bedroom.’
For some couples, friction around fitness is less about jealousy and more about unwanted pressure. The American Psychological Association published a paper in March that found 42 percent of people have gained more weight than they intended to during the pandemic.
When Scott Salser-Smith, a stay-at-home dad in Lafayette, Calif., complained about gaining 25 pounds, his husband ordered a rowing machine — and put it in their bedroom.
“It’s right in my line of sight,” said Mr. Salser-Smith, 54. “Always. It’s just this thing sitting there, reminding me I’m fat.”
While his husband uses it regularly, Mr. Salser-Smith has used the machine once. The marriage was already strained by constant togetherness, he said, and now his self-consciousness about his weight gain — and the perceived pressure to work out — has compounded the tension.
“He encourages me to use it, but it feels passive-aggressive,” he said. “I’ll say ‘I’m having back issues,’ and he’ll say, ‘You should try the rowing machine, that might help.’”
In defiance, Mr. Salser-Smith has started using it for a different purpose. “It’s this unwanted third party in our bedroom,” he said. “I’ve found myself hanging clothes on it.”
What can you do if exercise is causing tension in your relationship?
It’s imperative to communicate to your partner how you’re feeling, said Jaime Bronstein, a Los Angeles-based relationship therapist and coach.
“Use ‘I’ statements — not ‘you don’t care about me,’ but ‘I’m feeling a little off about something,’ Ms. Bronstein said. “Take a positive spin, like ‘I’d love to spend more time with you,’ so you’re giving them an actionable way to fix it.” Come to the conversation with a pandemic-safe activity you can do together to reconnect, Ms. Bronstein said; research shows that a new experience together can reignite feelings of passion.
If you think your partner is exercising to please you, rather than themselves, assure them that you respect their desire to look their best, but you love them no matter what, Ms. Bronstein said. Try something like, “It means more to me that our time together is the priority, versus your time working out,” she said.
Don’t “blame or shame,” said Kimberly Plourde, a therapist who’s helped Olympic athletes create healthy routines and works with the mental health provider Thriveworks. Rather, suggest a practical solution: a weekly schedule you create together with clearly earmarked times for exercise, so you each know what to expect.
“If one partner values exercise and the other doesn’t, you still have to help each other do the things that are important to them,” said Ms. Plourde, who is based in Lynchburg, Va.
Laurie Roach, 50, plans her week around the Peloton rides led by her favorite instructor, Cody Rigsby. On vacation in Mexico in June, she realized she would miss his hotly-anticipated Pride Ride.
“I had so much FOMO that I paid for the resort’s Wi-Fi and sat by the pool, watching it on my phone,” Ms. Roach said “My husband was like, ‘Seriously?’”
You don’t have to understand your partner’s devotion, Ms. Bronstein said, “you just have to validate it.” Ms. Roach said her husband doesn’t always get her Peloton obsession but still surprised her with fancy doughnuts when she completed her 150th ride.
As long as your partner’s pandemic exercise habit isn’t severely disrupting your daily life, Ms. Roach said, try to roll with it.
“Find a way to embrace their passion,” she said. “It’s making them stronger and healthier and happier. I tell my husband this is an investment in our golden years.”
Holly Burns is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area and a noncommittal Peloton rider.