How to Train Your Spouse

Married couple in active wear that are aligned on fitness goals.

Most likely the person that needs to be reading this isn’t. You feel frustrated and discouraged. You’ve tried over and over to revamp your meals and create a consistent workout routine. Although you’ve made your goals known to your spouse, you seem to be fighting off not only your own unhealthy habits, but theirs too. It takes all you have to mentally fight off old patterns of thinking, eating, and routines, let alone those of your spouse. This is complicated exponentially if you have children. You find yourself making three different meals: one for yourself, one for your spouse, and a separate one for your children, in addition to tending their individual schedules and needs. Healthy life changes become stressful impossibilities.

There is another way. Fitness and healthy eating can be a positive, exciting and passionate experience. Fitness will no longer be a burden but a joy as you learn master your body and see the changes you desire. You may look at those who’ve obtained this life changing perspective and think their genes are unique and their success outside your ability. They are not and it is not, I assure you. I am a product of overcoming limiting perspectives and obstacles in my fitness and health. Unfortunately, sometimes those obstacles not only come from our own perspectives, but from those we love. In my experience I have seen spouses fall into four types of “trainers”; The Ghost Trainer, The Military Trainer, The Addict Trainer, and The Partner.

The Ghost Trainer

This is the spouse who seems to be on the same page with your goals, but is absent anytime you need their help, support and motivation. They are the ones who say things like, “I support you in your fitness goals as long as it doesn’t interrupt your family duties” or some form of language to that effect. Even in their absence, you feel the haunting burden to make sure you finish your workout “on your own time”, often cutting your workout short to keep your spouse from having to pick up your “slack”.

There are few things more destructive to your fitness goals than to feel like you have no support. It’s one thing to feel like the universe is working against you, right?! We’ve all had a bad day, that’s fine, it’s hard, it sucks but hey that’s life, and we make it work. It takes effort to fight off the years of unhealthy habits, to rebound from childbirth, to resist the emotional pull of bad food choices, to find the desire to hit the workout again. But when you feel like your most intimate confidant, friend, the one you love — your spouse — doesn’t have your back or is absent in your fitness goals, it can feel defeating and hopeless. It makes you feel like your desire to be healthy and fit is a selfish burden on your spouse and family. It becomes easier to give up continue the family routine.

It’s important to recognize that the Ghost Trainer’s personality varies greatly. It can be the difficult, stubborn, and hardheaded out-spoken spouse. Interestingly though, I have found it to be more frequently the seemingly unassuming, soft-spoken spouse. That’s what’s most difficult about the Ghost Trainer spouse: their perspective makes sense, it appears reasonable. Of course the family’s needs are important, you can’t argue with that logic. The haunting guilt persuades you to give up.

The Military Trainer

The Military Trainer is self-explanatory. The moment you even suggest change, they take control. They are ahead of you 2, 5, 10 steps. They become your expert nutritionist, trainer, doctor, spiritual guru, emotional guide.

This spouse is overly involved, constantly checking up on your routine in military fashion. They refuse to purchase certain foods, enforcing curfews on meals and constantly insisting with “helpful” fitness and diet advice. They track your progress on spreadsheets or a whiteboard and make you weigh in routinely. An indulgence meal is no longer enjoyed as a reward for a job well done but a secret cheat, fearing the consequences of a military fashion tear down and punished with additional reps. Fitness should never be a punishment! The Military Trainer spouse is involved in a way that makes you feel you can’t wait to get out of boot camp. Your weight loss becomes more important than you, and you begin to resent the process. Their expectations become your fitness pursuits and you feel like you are now trying to obtain their ideal (and their approval).

The Addict Trainer

Sometimes it’s not the spouse at all, it’s us. The Addict Trainer is us.

This is in no way to make light of the serious nature of addiction. However, I have noticed similarities between the characteristics of addicts and Addict Trainers. Much like an addict’s primary goal is to obtain their substance of choice at all costs, The Addict Trainer becomes obsessed with their fitness goals — making everything else secondary. These are those who force the entire family to follow their fitness and diet routine. They, like the military trainer, demand from everyone in the family complete compliance and have unreasonably high expectations. They post lists on doors and fridges detailing how everyone should behave during their new fitness routine. Their emotions are tied to family’s level of participation.

Although the family wants to be loving and supportive, they are always on edge, which leads to resentment. The Addict Trainer can be erratic in their fitness goals, changing weekly, or staunchly rigid and immovable. Their spouse avoids saying they look good, pointing out progress or giving any form of encouragement with the fear their comment will be twisted into something it wasn’t. If the Addict Trainer fails, it’s the fault of spouse and family. The level of codependency demanded by the Addict Trainer is suffocating to the spouse and family, and inevitably hurts relationships regardless if they succeed in their goals or not.

Like an addict, it’s their rules and their way. The Addict Trainer at times is very successful at their training goals. But their success comes at great cost to their family. They are the ones who are obsessed with their way of fitness. They are condescending and believe their way is the only way to train. They no longer see people; they see fit or obese. As an Addict Trainer, you are your own worst enemy.

The Partner

I wish that all can experience the bonding, loving, motivating experience of The Partner. Notice the word “trainer” is not in that phrase! That’s because you should never, never, never train your spouse! We can help, encourage, teach and even coach but never train.

There is a phrase I often hear from my clients in Marriage Therapy. “How do I train my spouse to….?” The idea that we train our spouse creates a power dynamic that leads to resentment and resistance. Training creates a responsibility and expectations over the other. In a marriage, it’s condescending and suggests the “trainer” is superior. “How do I train my husband to wash the dishes? He is so sloppy and lazy, how do I get him to be cleaner?” Even in the most positive situations, “training” is condescending: “How do I train my spouse to spend more time with me/children?” We don’t train spouses, we support and encourage them.

Don’t misunderstand me — it’s critical that we have good trainers in our life. To achieve goals, we need someone to help us see outside of ourselves and our potential. But the best trainers are really “Partners” in our experience. There are some spouses that can and know how to lovingly encourage, empower and motivate each other. But I have found it best to find another who can train in the details and technique, it is too easy to slip into another role then a partner. There is a phrase therapists say which I believe applies to fitness too: “You should never be working harder than your client”. When we work harder than our spouse at their progress, we fall into Training mode again and feel like we are pulling the other along.

Seven Ways to Ensure You and Your Spouse are Partners in Fitness Goals

1. Trust

Trust your Partner. Without trust in your marriage, everything will feel selfish and obligatory. If you don’t trust your spouse, their comments and actions will always feel critical of your fitness goals, regardless of how loving and supportive your spouse really is. Additionally, spouses need to trust that their partner’s needs are valid and important. This might be the tenth time they attempted their diet plan or workout routine. So what. Be as supportive and committed as you were the first time. Trust the process, don’t question them or put doubts in their head. Learn with them.

Think of how many arguments could be avoided, how many hurt feelings could be spared, and, in a worst-case scenario, how many breakups and divorces could be avoided if we were not so easily provoked, if we thought no evil of one another, and if we not only did not rejoice in iniquity but didn’t rejoice even in little mistakes. Think the best of each other, especially of those you say you love. Assume the good and doubt the bad.”

Jeffery R. Holland

2. Partners always Partner

Successful couples Partner in all areas of their lives.

3. Fitness is NOT Selfish

The Ghost Trainer often creates the perception that it is neglecting the children and even hurting the marriage when their spouse expresses fitness goals. It’s true that we may not achieve our goals as fast as we would like and are taxed by the level of physical and emotional commitment it requires. As a result, we may begin to believe fitness is selfish and takes away from our family. We admire people who are educated, have successful careers, are spiritual leaders and good parents. But for some reason we think taking time for ourselves to improve our health and fitness is selfish.

4. Fitness Time is Sacred Time

I have never regretted a workout. There are a few things I consider sacred time in my life, nothing gets planned over it. Dates with my wife, family time, church and temple attendance and workouts. Partners work together to ensure these activities occur, are enjoyed, and the most is gained from them.

5. Embrace Your Spouse’s Goals

You don’t have to have the same fitness goals or methods to Partner with your spouse’s fitness ambitions. But those who don’t have the same ambitions need to take extra precautions to ensure you don’t fade into Ghost Training. If one spouse has fitness goals and the other doesn’t, over time it can become easy to be less supportive, especially when life gets busy.

As a husband, father and full-time student and employee, I have battled the very real feelings that my workouts are selfish and take time from my family. After a long day at work and my wife and kids are home, the conflicting feelings of wanting to work out and be with my family collide. Feelings of selfishness increase as I think of stepping away from my family for another hour to workout. In those moments my dear wife, who is in every sense my Partner, has always encouraged me to hit my workout hard. Not just get it done, but hit it hard.

She doesn’t merely accept my goals, she embraces them. But she never forces it either. There have been times I have decided not to workout. She never holds that over my head nor views it as a failure. As such I have never regretted working out and have found it helps me be a happier father and husband.

“A word of encouragement from a teacher to a child can change a life. A word of encouragement from a spouse can save a marriage. A word of encouragement from a leader can inspire a person to reach her potential.”

John C. Maxwell

6. Learn Your Part

Partners learn their part. In addition to your spouse embracing your goals, it is equally important to know which part is yours and which part is your spouse’s. Remember, these are your fitness goals, not your spouse’s. There is a difference between supporting and taking responsibility for your goals. When I went back to school while working full time, my wife and sometimes kids helped with my food prep as I transitioned into this new hectic routine. They were equally busy but we Partnered up and made it work. It was a huge support and help.

As time went on I got better at adjusting to the new routine and was able to prep more of my own meals. It would have been an easy temptation to slip into the role of an Addict Trainer and feel entitled to their ongoing food prep, insisting that my success was determined by their continued support.

“Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”

C.S. Lewis

7. Make it Happen

When our children have school performances, sports games, doctor appointments or need a sick day, we stop what we are doing and attend to their needs. Your spouse is just as important as your children (dare I say more important?), make it happen. Whether it’s assisting with meal plans or coming home early from work to help with the kids so they can workout, do it. Partners make it happen. Life throws us curve balls, especially when you or your spouse is starting a new routine. What better way to dispel the feelings of guilt and discouragement that can come with fitness goals than by making their fitness a priority.

“A great marriage is not when the ‘perfect couple’ comes together. It is when an imperfect couple learns to enjoy their differences.”

Dave Meurer

“Most couples make the mistake of giving each other the ‘remains of the day’—the leftover time after every other relationship and task has been attended to. This is not only backwards, but destructive. Stellar partners give each other prime time and make each other their top priority.”

Rhoberta Shaler PhD