Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Race for your Marriage: Everything I Needed to Know About Marriage I Learned in Cross Country


Note:  I acknowledge that there are unhealthy marriages which shouldn’t remain stable, particularly in cases of ongoing abuse of any kind (I always think this should be assumed, but someone usually manages to respond to my posts by pointing this out—as someone who has worked with both domestic violence victims and perpetrators as a group, I wholeheartedly agree).

This is the time of year that I typically help my youngest daughter train for a few 5K races as part of her gymnastics physical fitness regimen.  As I was out running this morning, I was thinking about how prolific long distance racing has become, with specialty themes like “Krispy Kreme Challenge,” “The Color Run,” and “Twinkie run.”  I have often thought it would be fun to have a “Race for your Marriage,” event because long distance running is such a great metaphor for long-term marriage.   I usually resist writing anything using running metaphors because they always seem so….well…obvious!  I’m breaking my rule here because 1) Anyone who reads my blog knows I’m not above using journalistic-type clichés (see previous sentence and title), and 2) Almost every time I go running, this theme ricochets around inside my head, so I’m hoping to put it to rest by articulating my random thoughts on paper.

I joined the high school cross country team as a freshman, when my best friend wanted me to join with her.  I had always enjoyed sports and routinely rotated through powder puff football, basketball, softball and volleyball.  My favorite events were definitely in track and field because I had been a fairly strong sprinter and jumper (probably because of years of gymnastics).  My older brother had recently set several high school records in sprinting and jumping events, and I think that made me want to participate in track and field even more.  Even though I had never run more than two miles at a time, I was confident that I wouldn’t come in last in cross country races.

I learned lessons from cross country that have always stayed with me, which weren’t reinforced as well anywhere else.  I don’t consider myself a great long-distance runner.  You could probably outrun me in a race.  My greatest strength is probably consistency.  I think it’s almost always painful and difficult, and yet if I am driving and a runner crosses my path, I experience a kind of microjolt in my brain and it makes me want to go running.  As creepy as it sounds, I still hear my high school coach’s voice in my head as part of my running self -talk.  Many of the lessons can be applied to my marriage, as listed below:

  1. It’s important to set your pace. Even though this seems obvious, I’m still surprised by how many people start a race too fast only to burn out partway through.  In marriage, sometimes people come out of the gate strong, but crumble at the first sign of disillusionment (which will happen for every marriage).  Expect to have to set a pace.
  2. There is going to be pain. Despite the runner’s high talk, I think running is enjoyable but also painful.  When I was competing, I definitely experienced a lot of pain.  In marriage, there will be pain, plain and simple.  Don’t be surprised that it hurts.
  3. You will get better with consistent practice. The more I ran, the faster I got.  I read everything I could about running technique.  I practiced particular breathing strategies.  I ran intervals to get faster.  In marriage, couples almost always get better the more they work at it.
  4. Adding extra challenges makes the easy times easier. My high school cross country team came in first place at the district and regional level year after year.  One of our coach’s secret weapons was sand.  About ½ mile of our course was through soft, deep sand at the bottom of a concrete riverbed.  When runners from other high schools came and ran on our course, they often slowed down in the sand.  By comparison, every other course I ran was easier.  I hated that sand.  It was awkward for running.  However, it made me a stronger runner.  Challenges in marriage (like unemployment, raising children, financial stress, marital disconnection) can be like the sand which slows couples down temporarily but makes them stronger in the long run.
  5. Know your strengths. My coach gave me an assessment of my specific strengths early on.  He said, “You’ve got speed and you’ve got endurance, and you’ve got a great kick at the end; so, what I want you to do is find your pace and settle in behind someone who is barely faster and let them break the wind for you (yes, I know how that sounds–I have five sons).  Then, at the end, sprint past as many people as you can.”  It worked like a charm.  Similarly, every marriage has strengths.  Some couples don’t have high conflict, so they are able to discuss things without fighting.  Some couples may have conflict, but they are passionate and continue trying even when it’s hard.  Assess your unique strengths.
  6. Don’t stop while you can still keep going. I have a vivid memory early in my cross country season of being in so much pain during practice that I stopped and started walking.  Seconds later, my coach rounded the street corner and started screaming at least 50 yards behind me, “Don’t you stop, Cluff! DON’T! YOU! STOP!!!  Start running right now!”  He caught up to me and said, “I don’t care how slow you are going, but I don’t ever want to see you stop and walk again.  Slow down to a slower jogging pace, but don’t stop.”  He wanted us to persist in running to become better.  In marriage, couples slowly drift apart because other things occupy their time and they stop working on the marriage.  Continuing to put forth effort is key.
  7. People usually perform better with a cheerleader. I remember many times near the end of the race, I would hear my coach yell out, “OK Cluff, baby, kick it in right now.”  As soon as I would start to gain on the next runner, he would yell, “OK, you’ve got her.  Move to the next one.”  Because he believed in me, I’m sure I passed many more people than I would have otherwise.  In marriage, when couples hear what they are doing well from their partners, they are more motivated.
  8. Sometimes you might take your situation for granted. I turned out to be a better runner than I thought I would be.  At our first race of the season, I came in third for our whole team and ended up being the only freshman on varsity for the season.  As a confession, I was incredibly lazy.  I often cut my workouts short.  I saw a lot of teammates work harder than I did, and I knew I was taking advantage of some natural ability.  I see marriages in which some partners are hyper-critical of their spouses, who are really trying very hard to be kind and committed.  Sometimes I want to tell them they don’t know how good they have it, and they are taking their situations for granted.
  9. Sometimes you will lose. I had such a habit of sprinting past several people at the end of a race that I expected to pass anyone I could approach at the end.  I distinctly remember one time when I approached a runner from behind and she sped up with me, which made me speed up faster because I was determined that I was going to pass her.  I didn’t.  I couldn’t catch her because she out-sprinted me, even if only by a hair.  I was humbled by losing to her.  In marriage, people have differences of opinion.  You have to be willing to lose sometimes to be in the race.  People who want to win every disagreement will end up losing the marriage.
  10. No one can make you do something you really don’t want to do. After my first year of cross country and track, I wanted to try out for the tennis team because my good friend was ranked 8th in the state of California for her age group and said she would teach me.  My cross country coach really wanted me to keep running.  I didn’t want to, because I wanted to join the tennis team, even if it meant I would be playing junior varsity.  My coach badgered me constantly and finally called my father to try to convince him that I should keep running.  My father entered my room and said, “Lori, your cross country coach says you have a lot of natural ability for running and if you keep running, he thinks he can get you a college scholarship.”  Without even looking up, I said, “I want to play tennis and I don’t need a running scholarship because I’m getting an academic scholarship.” As a result of my father scouring my academic schedule to make sure I was always taking the hardest math and science classes possible, I was setting the curve in my chemistry class and actively participating on math competition teams for my school, so I was confident that I didn’t need to run to go to college.  I just didn’t want to.  My father stood there for a minute watching me and then said, “OK,” and left.  He could not have made me run if I didn’t want to.  Similarly, nobody can make you stay really engaged or present in a marriage if you don’t want to be there.  It’s something you have to want for yourself.
  11. Enjoy the changing landscape. Sometimes when I run, I forget to enjoy the beautiful scenery because I’m so focused on finishing.  We do that in our relationships all the time.  Slowing down and appreciating the small moments really makes a difference.
  12. Lastly, you decide if you are too injured to finish the race. I still run even though I have had back surgery.  However, almost everyone I know who has had the same surgery doesn’t run anymore.  It’s too painful.  I feel blessed that my pain is mild enough that I can keep running, but I know it’s worse for others.  Sometimes marriage is too abusive, broken or painful for people to continue.  I particularly believe that an enduring loss of human dignity is no way to live.  I would not do it, but nobody else can tell me what I can and cannot endure.  Only I know, just like individuals in painful marriages have to be the ones to decide if it’s too painful to go on or not.

Marriage is a type of long-term endurance race.  Some finish and some can’t, for many reasons.  As long as you are still in the race, however, it makes sense to try.

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