9 Workout Skills That Can Also Help Your Relationships
Almost every single week in my dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) group, I have a realization about my relationships — with myself, with my trauma, with the world, with my wife — that is connected, somehow, to the gym. Sometimes, it’s about the dysphoria that hits me hardest in the gym. ‘Yes!’ my group insists, ‘you are trans enough and your arm dysphoria is valid!’ Other times, it’s about the profound guilt I sometimes experience over choosing to go to the gym instead of going on a date with my wife. ‘Yes!’ my group promises, ‘you are allowed to prioritize what you need and communicate that!’ My wife agrees, and is often the one pushing me out the door because she knows that there are so many workout skills that also help your relationship.
According to sex and relationships expert Dr. Megan Stubbs EdD, ACS, communicating openly about your needs and wants is “a pillar of healthy relationships,” she tells Bustle. And, believe it or not, a lot of the communication skills necessary to create and maintain a supportive, affirming relationship can be honed during your workout. Translating these skills — perhaps especially when you didn’t even know you were cultivating them! — into your relationship can be immensely rewarding. Here are nine skills you use in your workouts that sneakily help in your relationships.
1. Protect Your Alone Time
Heading to the gym requires you to carve out time for yourself. Often, this is time that other people (a romantic partner, perhaps) would like you to spend with them. And that's wonderful: spending time doing all kinds of things, with all kinds of people, is brilliant. But if you want to get to the gym, very often you have to create that space, just for you, yourself, and you.
It’s much the same in relationships: just like the gym has taught me to protect my "me" time, it’s also taught me to bring that attitude home with me. And that boundary-setting is necessary to every healthy relationship, according to Dr. Stubbs. “Being alone with your thoughts can help keep you present,” she tells Bustle. “Also, your partner doesn’t have to do everything with you or like everything you like. It’s why you have friends outside of a relationship.” So if I need alone time, I try to say that. That self-assertion is terrifying for me, especially as a person with borderline personality disorder (BPD), so practicing it in the gym is essential for bringing the skill home. And it only brings my wife and I closer together: the less we model our relationship on co-dependent L Word relationships, the better!
2. Identify Your Weakest Links
If I want to work out at my best — and I really, really do — I can’t afford to be ignore the fact that my hamstring and calf flexibility is nowhere close to where it needs to be. I need to acknowledge it, or I’ll never be able to sink into a deep squat or successfully rip 400 pounds off the ground (I’m getting there). If I willfully ignore the things I’m not great at, my lifts suffer, and so do I, because injuries are no fun. So I need to put in the extra work of figuring out where my vulnerabilities are.
This strategy of self-reflection is essential in relationships, too. It can be much more complicated than identifying which of your muscles are tight, but it’s well worth it. Because even when I make faces and memes about stretching, I know I feel better when I do it. And even though making yourself vulnerable and asking for feedback on what you can improve is terrifying, those kinds of conversations are some of the most beautiful and rewarding that I’ve had with my wife. I’m just sayin'.
3. Hold Yourself Accountable
Once I’ve identified my less-great parts, I’ve got to do the work and hold myself accountable to what I know about myself. Doing that self-reflection and then accountability work often means therapy. For me, it’s meant physical therapy for the gym, and a whole lotta psychotherapy for the relationship.
I’ve learned to hold myself accountable during my workouts with my phone camera. Filming parts of your workout is helpful because you can see whether you're using good form, but it's also terrifying because what if the phone proves that you're doing it wrong?
But that accountability is the only way I’m going to get better. And the mental toughness that I forge under that barbell genuinely does translate into the kind of mental toughness — and outside-of-yourself-perspective — that you need to stay accountable to your partner. Because according to Dr. Stubbs, even when you’re alone, it’s important to “Be present with yourself and see that everything you do (well, most everything) is serving your goals and who you truly want to be.”
4. Challenge Yourself To Set Goals (Even When They’re Scary)
Goals can be terrifying, especially the big ones that we can try for but may not actually accomplish. This year, one of my huge scary workout goals is to squat over 300 pounds. With my history of chronic knee pain and surgery, that’s a terrifying goal indeed. And it’s one of the most exciting ones I’ve ever had. So challenging myself to set that goal is itself a goal.
And relationships need goals, too. We need personal goals, and we need goals together. I individually want to work on my fiction writing every single day. Together, my wife and I want to go to the beach together at least twice a week. My individual goal helps us, as a couple, get to the beach because if I don’t get my daily fiction writing in, you better believe I’m going to be an angsty no-fun-at-the-beach human when we try to go. And our goal as a couple helps keep me accountable to writing fiction every day, because everything is reciprocal. Goals can be terrifying: but setting them, as individuals and as a couple, is so rewarding. And I learned all about it under a barbell.
5. Make A Plan For Accomplishing Those Goals
The amount of discipline required to stick to a plan at the gym is absurd. Especially when you’re like me, and your plan (your program, as we gym nerds call it) is regimented down to the amount of weight you’ll lift and the number of seconds you’ll rest in between sets. This workout program is so important to me: it’s a compass that guides how I plan my week more than anything aside from my wife and my writing. And it almost never goes perfectly.
Dr. Stubbs tells Bustle that planning is essential even when you know the plan won’t be without its flaws. “Planning in a relationship,” she says, “can give both parties a voice to be active within the relationship.” So even when life gets in the way, planning will help keep your relationship on track. “If you create a plan together it’s more likely the both of you will want to stick to it.”
6. Rest When You Need To
My wife is actually the one who has to remind me of this. All the time. I never want to take a day off from the gym (even though as a personal trainer, I need to tell you that you need to take time off from the gym! That’s when your muscles grow and other cool stuff like that). But my body, and my mind, will need rest. Both between workouts and during workouts. And that kind of self-love, self-gentleness, is disorienting for me at best and horrendously difficult and even traumatizing for me at worst. But if I want to be the best lifter I can be, I need to rest.
And that skill has never failed me in my relationship. Because sometimes I need to take a day off work just to nurture our time together. Sometimes I need to cancel other things just to spend a night on the couch together, to escape to the ocean together. That kind of rest, together and for no reason other than you want it and you need it, is the most romantic thing. Or maybe I’m just boring? Nah. I’m gonna go with romantic.
7. Assess Yourself For Yourself, Not For Anyone Else
Ah, being trans in the gym. Both empowering and torturous, my workouts make me feel so at home in my gender, and my workouts also make me feel like utter crap in my gender. I so often have to remind myself that I need to assess myself for me, not according to anyone else’s standards. I’m not a cis guy. I don’t want to be a cis guy, and I personally don’t want to pass as one, either. But the pressures of life and constant misgendering and social dysphoria, make it really hard to remember those things sometimes. The gym is where I build, just like I do in therapy, how I want to see myself.
And that translates so strongly into my relationship, too. I need to be able to identify what I want for me, on my own terms and standards, as does my wife. And, as a couple, we need to define what we want for ourselves, regardless of what other people expect or tell us. Avoiding that social pressure is hard, but it’s so damn necessary. Because as Dr. Stubbs says, “People who don’t ask for what they want often do not get what they want.”
8. It’s On You
Oh, having BPD and being in a long-term, forever relationship. My tempers sometimes feel stronger than my muscles, and the gym is often the only place I can work that out in a healthy way. Because in the gym, it’s all on me. I put a bar on my back, or I set up a bar at my feet, or I prepare to hoist one over my head, and it’s all on me. The lift succeeds or fails based on my intensity, my commitment, to this lift, right now. It’s all on me.
Just like it is with my temper and my moods and my utter inability to show myself love. It’s my responsibility and it’s my job and it’s my role to never put that on her, to never let it manifest in an abusive or controlling way. Just like in the gym, it’s all on me. That singular focus, that determination, that knowledge that what happens next is my responsibility, is key.
9. But Sometimes, You Need A Spotter, And That Will Make You Stronger
Some of my best gym experiences — a lot of them, actually — come from having a gym buddy. A spotter. Someone to make sure the barbell doesn’t come crashing down on me. Someone to make sure that I stay safe. Who, in that moment, makes my safety and success their number one concern. And it’s something that I have to be brave enough, vulnerable enough, to ask for.
And it’s the same with my wife. Because yes, it’s my responsibility to be kind. It’s my responsibility to work on myself, always, to improve, always. But it’s also my responsibility to ask for help, and love her enough, trust her enough, to receive it. Because really, relationships are all about spotting each other, through all kinds of lifts and all kinds of obstacles. And there’s no better place to learn about that than the gym.
Throughout all these skills, perhaps the most important pillar is communication. “Keeping an open dialogue with your partner,” Dr. Stubbs says, “ensures that you both feel safe enough to express when things aren’t going great.” And — just like in the gym — things aren’t always going to go great. And that’s OK: communication with yourself and with your partner is all about living to lift and love another day.