For the first several decades of Dominique Calabrese's relationship with his wife, he was not an athlete. He smoked, didn't eat well and rarely exercised while climbing the corporate ladder and building a loving family. Then, in 2004 at age 49, he underwent a sextuple heart bypass procedure and decided to dramatically change his habits. He took up spinning, then road cycling and, in 2010, began teaching spin classes himself.
By 2014, he'd lost 75 pounds and hit a personal record of cycling 10,021 miles in one year alone. Today, despite facing many other health problems along the way – including tongue cancer – Calabrese says he's "back to doing insane challenges," having completed more than a dozen rides over 100 kilometers each this year alone.
It's safe to say he's a different man than the one his wife first met. "While my spouse sometimes thinks what I do is ridiculous for someone my age, it does not pose a relationship issue," says Calabrese, now a 62-year-old in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
That's not always the case for couples in which one member is a committed athlete – pro or amateur – and the other is, well, just not, says Terri Orbuch, a therapist known as "The Love Doctor" and research professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. As with any couple in which one member has a high-profile career or one that takes him or her away from the other for long stretches of time, couples can face practical issues like how to divvy up household tasks as well as emotional issues like envy.
"You can begin to experience insecurity – they look great, I look not-so-great; they're getting all of this validation and affirmation, but not me," says Orbuch, author of “5 Simple Steps To Take Your Marriage From Good to Great.” While specifically about weight loss and not athletics, one 2013 study gets at this point: In it, researchers found that some relationships soured after one partner lost weight, since the one who didn't sometimes felt pressured, resentful or threatened by their partner's new habits and identity.
Fortunately, in most cases in the study and plenty of real-world examples, partnerships between athletes and non-athletes thrive just as readily as any other relationship between people with different careers or interests. Still, dating or being married to an athlete comes with a unique set of considerations and insider tips. Among them:
1. Sports can be all-consuming.
When Corrin Miller, now a 34-year-old marketing manager in Portland, Oregon, began dating her now-husband, Joe English, an elite runner, running coach and former U.S. News contributor, she knew he was passionate about running and cycling. But while attending her first race of his, she saw "the amount of mental, physical and emotional preparation" one race requires, she says. "Experiencing this level of dedication in one person was my moment of truth." In other words: Assuming your loved one can easily compartmentalize his or her sport the way you may be able to leave work at work may set you up for disappointment. "They are eating, thinking, talking and training nonstop about that marathon or about that race," Orbuch says.
2. Your support is invaluable.
To English, Miller is far more than someone who can take the dog out while he's training or a loving face on the sidelines when he's racing. "Corrin is my rock on race weekends," providing encouragement in the form of words, massages and post-race (sweaty) hugs when she's there, and calls and texts when she's not, he says. "There's so much shared happiness and joy in those moments," English says, "because as a partner, she's truly happy for me when I complete a goal, and I'm happy to have someone that has invested so much time and energy in helping me get there."
3. Your interests are just as important.
English knew early on that limiting his dating pool to elite athletes would likely leave him single. "I had little expectation of finding someone that would both be compatible as a partner and also an elite multi-sport athlete – that's a lot of boxes to check in a person," he says. Now, he and Miller appreciate the interests they do share as well as those they don't. "His longer training rides or runs have always provided me space and time to have alone time and enjoy my own hobbies," says Miller, who enjoys doing yoga, crafting and spending time with friends and family. Calabrese also points to the fact that his and his wife's interests help sustain, not detract from, their relationship, particularly during retirement. "Otherwise, we would always be together, and that can be an impossible long-term adjustment," he says.
If you're losing sight of your own talents and interests, make a list of five qualities you value in yourself, Orbuch recommends. Confide in your partner, too. "They may see your beauty and wonderful body and that you're doing special things in your life," Orbuch says.
4. Communication is key.
Athletes, their partners and relationship pros agree: Good communication is the essential ingredient for making these types of relationships work. That means talking about everything from what takes priority – a family event or a long run – during training to where the partner is going to meet you after the race to how the athlete is feeling after any given workout. "Every relationship involves two people, with two belief systems and two sets of priorities," Miller says.
One trick for raising relationship concerns most effectively: Begin with a compliment ("I love how dedicated you are to your sport"), raise your concern ("Sometimes I feel like I don't have enough time for my own interests") and finish with a request ("Can you help me?"), Orbuch suggests. "Don't use 'you' statements," she says.
5. Emotional roller-coasters are normal.
"It's not you, it's me." Whether or not your partner says this, it's probably true if he or she seems emotionally unpredictable. "There will be happy times, stressful times, focused times and even sad times," English says. "It's important for the non-athlete to know that this is normal for athletes." Over time, you'll learn what to expect, what emotional cues to look out for and how best to respond.
6. Spectating can be exhausting, too.
English has seen plenty of spectators complete a race day in worse shape than their athlete companions, since they've been less focused on hydrating, fueling, putting on sunscreen and otherwise listening to their bodies. "Take care of yourself," says English, who recommends spectators study the course map ahead of time, wear or bring something (say, a bright sign or balloon) that can help the racer identify them and be patient. "It takes longer to get places on race day due to crowds and road closures," he points out.
7. Obstacles can be opportunities.
When English was training for an Ironman triathlon in Australia, Miller could have felt resentful that he was spending hours on the road and in the water on nights and weekends when other couples were attending events and enjoying movie nights in. Instead, they planned weekend getaways along the Oregon coast, where he could train and she could meet him at various points along the way. Since then, they've traveled to Ottawa, Ontario; New York City; Sacramento, California; Vancouver, British Columbia, and even got married last year during the Rock 'n' Roll half-marathon in Las Vegas. "We've had some amazing trips to really cool places – places I would have only dreamed of visiting prior to meeting Joe," Miller says.