It was going to happen eventually anyway. My husband joined my martial arts gym, and despite my determination to give him space, I showed up in his classroom only three weeks later. How would I set appropriate boundaries and let him train at his own pace?
Simple: I asked him.
When I walked in, his was the first face I saw. He was holding forth, telling a story, his classmates gathered around. This is what he does. I’ve known him nearly fifteen years, and no matter the group, he winds up at the center of it. It’s part of why I wanted him to join my gym. I knew he’d fit in. I also suspected I could convince him to build a catapult that fires watermelons into the sea, but that’s a story for a different day.
He didn’t wave at me when I came in. That’s fine. As I got within range, I could hear that I already knew this story, could probably tell it for him. I’m not always his audience.
I went into the changing room, put my stuff away, and swapped out my shoes. These are the things I do before I train. Whether my mate is in the hallway or not, I have tasks. I have my own training goals. I’m here for myself, he’s here for himself.
I came out and said hello. I walked up to my husband and asked quietly, “Do you want to train with me or not train with me?”
There can be no wrong answer to this question. There can’t be any strings, there can’t be any pitfalls. If we’re both going to train here, in a few months we’ll be in classes together a few times a week. We have to establish the ground rules.
This is true of anything, from where we sit in the movie theater to what format we use to share documents. If we don’t set up some kind of guidelines, we have to keep figuring it out as we go along. That demands more mental bandwidth, more decisions, more time, and more discussions. It allows for a lot more miscommunications.
In martial arts, it also allows for some physical consequences.
Training with a partner is an intimate act. You have to be profoundly aware of each other’s physical space, facial expressions, range of motion, speed, fitness level, breathing rate, and pain threshold. You find yourself accidentally punching someone you like right in the face, or connecting your elbow to your friend’s chin. If you aren’t paying attention you can really hurt each other.
That’s bad enough with any friend, acquaintance, or even frenemy. If you bruise up your spouse, well, it can get people to talking. Try to avoid this.
I said I asked my husband whether he wanted to train with me or not. That’s not entirely true. First I had to have a conversation with our teacher.
I came in to train with the white belts because I was getting over a chest cold, and I knew I couldn’t handle the advanced workout yet. That’s what happened the last time; I wasn’t quite at 80% yet, we warmed up with “fifties,” and I wound up getting sick again a couple of days later. I didn’t realize that I was about to break the rules.
(Advanced students pay more for classes, and masters students sometimes drop in to train at lower levels, so it didn’t strike me as a problem).
Our teacher tactfully explained that advanced students don’t train with beginners out of respect. I had wondered if it was to keep the room from being too full, or if we hit too hard. Really the reason is that it’s discouraging for white belts to compare themselves to more advanced students.
This made perfect sense. My first class showed me that I couldn’t do a single pushup, that I had to grab my thigh to do a sit-up, and that I didn’t even know a lot of fitness terminology. What the heck is a jump squat? I used to turn pale when I’d watch the advanced class warming up. They seemed to move at triple speed, and their warmups seemed three times as hard. (True, all true, as it turns out).
I apologized and offered to sit out the class, because OF COURSE. I also explained that I was coming back from a chest cold and wasn’t operating at my peak. I was allowed to train, because of course - I’m known for my grit, good cheer, and positive attitude, but not for my stamina or athletic prowess. Nobody would be in any danger from me.
That includes my husband, who tactfully rejected my offer to train. He looked away and said he figured it was best to train at least once with everybody. (Technically that would include me, the new person in the room, but I didn’t need it spelled out).
I had to laugh when we went in, because my husband’s partner bears a very strong resemblance to me! We’re close in age, same height, and not only could we share a wardrobe, but I think we could even trade shoes. I liked her right away and knew I would have chosen her, too. As a shy person, she gravitated to my hubby for the same reasons I did. I felt somehow comforted that he was there for her, a safe option, something like a natural resource.
It’s a privilege to be able to train with men, especially men of exceptionally large build. I can flip another woman of my size, sure, but how often do I get to test my mettle with men over six feet tall who weigh over 200 pounds? How could I deny access to my bearlike mate to other ladies who want to learn self-defense?
Instead of my new friend, instead of my husband, I got to train with a power lifter who helped me improve my roundhouse kick. I’m sure I got the best bargain out of the four of us.
Both ladies are promoting in a couple of weeks. Not only will I be training with both of them soon, but by January all four of us will be in class together.
Back in the beginner class, I felt two things. I felt winded and a little sad at how much ground I’d lost while coughing all night. I also felt a little smug that I was still comparatively quite strong. I skipped rope the fastest and didn’t need to pause. I did my tens faster than anyone else in the room. I did walking lunges and bear crawls like they were routine - although I was still feeling it two days later. Part of me felt entitled to be there, trying to rebound from a respiratory illness, working just as hard as anyone else. Part of me also felt kinda evil, that my very presence could be discouraging, could interfere with other people’s motivation. I got it.
Not training with my husband means two things. It means we don’t have to calibrate and avoid kicking each other in the ribs. It also means I don’t show off for the brief time when I’m more advanced. I’m not going to want him to flaunt his prowess when he surpasses me six months from now, so I’m not going to do it to him today.
Ultimately, we’re training together, even when we’re not even in the building on the same days of the week. We both study under the same teachers. We both wear school t-shirts. We both follow the same cultural norms. We’ve even befriended some of the same people without realizing it. A few months from now, we’ll both go through a belt promotion together, doing brutal amounts of squats and pushups in a large pool of communal sweat. One day, we’ll meet face to face in the shark pit, and when it happens, we’ll have to manage it in the same way that we would with any other partners. We’ll respect each other.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.