Relationships: Being an athlete in a relationship
October 8, 2018
Dear Lori and Jeff,
I am a professional athlete somewhere in the middle of the life of my career. I've hit a bit of plateau and think that some of the struggle to raise my game has to do with my marriage. When my wife and I met, I tried to make it clear that my career as an athlete was extremely demanding of my time, energy and attention. She seemed to understand and jumped in with both feet in a support role, as my salary was just enough so that she didn't have to work full-time. For the first few years everything seemed to go well. But now we have two kids and I don't feel the same kind of support from my wife as I once did. I even sense some resentment coming from her when I'm away for longer periods of time at training camps and events. How do I keep both my marriage and career a success?
— Not in the Zone
Dear Not in the Zone,
Lori and Jeff: It's not the marriage itself that detracts from performance, but rather the stress of having unclear roles and expectations. As an athlete, there are frequent transitions taking place that also affect your partner and the relationship as a whole. Changes that occur to your team contracts, training and event schedules and even your level of success impact how each of you are able to show up for each other. When you add in starting a family, it's time for you and your wife to revisit the playbook.
Jeff: The life of a professional athlete is often single-focused. With advances in science and technology, the difference between winning and second place is now often a product of what's going on in your head. If you're distracted by the challenges in your civilian life, you're not in the zone. Clearly this kind of laser focus is critical to your career, and is often easier to develop and maintain without a partner. But since you've chosen to add the roles of husband and father to your plate, it's important to understand what the expectations of those roles actually entail.
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It sounds as though you were as clear as possible from the start of the relationship about what you were capable of, given the focus on your professional career. At that point, with plenty of uncertainty and unknowns, being rigid with the structure of your time was not only reasonable but also necessary. Because you've chosen to expand the scope of your responsibilities, however, more flexibility and negotiability is required. It's not necessarily a matter of having to give more — especially when you feel your tank has been emptied by your athletic efforts. It's about nurturing a deeper connection with your family, which can create an even stronger support system.
Lori: Relationships in which one partner is a high performer (an athlete, artist, or executive) require constant rebalancing. One partner's dream is positioned to support the pair. While both partners make concessions, the performer often reaps more meaningful rewards. In order to make the relationship sustainable for the supporting partner, two things need to remain in the forefront: identity and connection.
In the beginning of the relationship, your wife may have been exploring her identity through you (the girlfriend of an athlete) and felt fulfilled by sharing in your successes. But an identity created through a partner is fragile. She likely needs more opportunity to reconnect to who she is as an individual, and her own wants and goals. Consider ways to bring more support into her journey now, or look at making a commitment to when you, as a couple will shift focus from your dreams to hers. In the meantime, be sensitive to the fact that the ways she supported you early in your career were also a way for her to feel included in your world. As your success grew, along with access to more professional support, her opportunities to feel connected to you may have faded.
Lori and Jeff: The life cycle as a professional athlete is short, but marriage and family can be there for a lifetime if you take care of them. Take this opportunity to re-explore the big picture vision you have as a couple. Choosing to be a husband and a professional means having obligations to both. Find new opportunities to keep your connection alive and to honor your role as supporter to your wife.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.