Nourish Your Relationship On-the-Go: What Couples Can Learn from Athletes


It’s simple shifts, fine-tuned and practiced, that often make the biggest impact on your day-to-day relationship health.

I’m not one for shortcut fixes. But if you could develop a few quick, reliable ways of improving connection in your relationship, wouldn’t you fare better in the long-run?

To explore how on-the-go relationship tending allows you to take on more in life, and work through the challenge you face as a a couple, I’ll dig into my past forays into triathlon and marathon running.

So, how is being in relationship like being an endurance athlete?

Sure, both can involve prolonged agony and immense fulfillment. Also, one key to feeling good and succeeding with either is finding the right nourishment.

Ever felt like your attempts to feed your connection don’t work, and trying (and failing) leaves you down a few notches?

Partners often report feeling depleted when they try to tend to each other or nourish their relationship in the midst of everything else in their lives. Endurance athletes would call this “bonking” (not to be confused with the other kind of “bonking” most couples would like more of). In sports, the remedy for bonking is to find an easily-absorbed nourishment to sustain energy on-the-go. There are hundreds of bars, gels, goos, cubes, beans and other products that do essentially one thing: quickly deliver energy (and sometimes other nutrients) when you’re on the move.

Sound like what your relationship needs?

Like our bodies, healthy relationship needs frequent tending.

For the sake of giving a name to the relationship equivalent of ‘energy goo’, I’ll call it a Resource Boost: anything you say or do that gives you or your partner more physical, mental or emotional capacity to face challenges as a couple.

Two pitfalls couples get into are:

1. Not taking the time upfront to refine their on-the-go relational nourishment

This is the equivalent of the triathlete taking energy bars on their 112-mile bike ride that they’ve never tried, only to realize the bars make them completely nauseous. You’ve got to find something that tastes good to you and digests well, and before you need it. Further in, I’ll discuss how you and your partner can dial-in what you “feed” your relationship before you need it.

2. Trying to use on-the-go relational nourishment in the place of deeper work

This is the equivalent of an athlete trying to exist on bars or gels, and never sitting down for a proper meal. It’s not sustainable. 

Most couples know some of the bigger-ticket items to recharge their connection (eg. vacation, special dates, or time with a coach/therapist). When it comes to the quick, effective on-the-go nourishment, though, many couples struggle to find what works.

The issue is not that you’re bad at it, or that your partner is broken. You just haven’t found the right “nutrient”. In other words, you need to find what you can say or do in 2 minutes or less that will positively impact your partner’s mental, emotional or physical state. 

When you do, you’ll see the effect in your partner immediately, and you’ll experience only minimal effort.

You might have been trying to give them the right nutrient for you, in other words telling them what you need to hear. It might also be that you have the right nutrient but the wrong timing, such as telling them your whole plan to get your finances in order when all they need in the moment is that you love them and you’re committed to working things out together. 

So, what will help them in a pinch?

Verbal reassurance. Touch. Possibly both. 

1. Verbal Reassurance

Ask yourself “what’s my partner’s worst fear in relationship?”. Are they more afraid of being abandoned and neglected? Or are they more afraid of being engulfed and smothered? Maybe it’s something else. You’ve probably heard about it many times.

Now, with that knowledge, ask yourself “what do they most need to hear?”. The trick is to keep it as simple as possible. I recently had a couple find the “Twitter version” of what they each needed to hear. In other words, it had to be short and pithy. This helps you steer your relationship with maximum effect and not get lost in detail.

Ever notice how there are certain words you can use that reliably turn your partner into a flaming crater of post-apocalyptic doom? Well, you can flip this phenomenon on its head and find the words or phrases that evoke their resilience, perspective, and love.

For example, someone with a fear of being abandoned might need to hear “I’m in this with you for good, my dear.” Someone with a fear of being smothered might need to hear “You’re doing great, I believe in you.”

The trick is, you’re saying this to regulate their nervous system. It doesn’t necessarily have to make sense to you. If they seem happier and more relaxed when you use it, it works.

2. Touch

For touch, ask your partner what feels best and experiment while you’re both relaxed to find one or two ways that reliably feel great for them. It could be gentle or firm, a loving hand squeeze or fingers through the hair, sweet or sexy. 

Look for physical signs that they are moving toward a more relaxed state:

  • their breathing evens out, sometimes with a deep breath or a sigh

  • their shoulders drop

  • they smile

  • their posture improves

You learn to lead in relationship by steering your partner from stress to resource.

The bonus in it for you is that your partner will stay more collaborative & empathetic where they (and probably both of you) get defensive/pissy/mean or whatever flavor of stressed-out is your go-to. Plus, by taking the time upfront to learn what actually works well, you save yourself the effort of trying to fix things in well-intentioned but ineffective ways you might have resorted to in the moment. And no, I’m not singling you out by urging you to tend to your partner with nothing in return. Learn to do this well for each other, and you’ll be amazed at the sense of trust and collaboration that comes with knowing that you’re looking out for one another. Have them read this too, or better yet, read it together and take a few minutes to dial in your on-the-go resources.

And if you’re wondering, “what about when these quick resource tools run out and our deeper s**t comes up?”, you’re onto something. Endurance athletes can’t live on energy goo. Sooner or later, they have to sit down and have a meal. And sooner or later, you’ll have to make time to work your couple dynamic more deeply, on your own or with a coach or therapist. The great thing about having these tools dialed is that you can use them while you’re working some of the bigger issues.

If either of you starts to get overwhelmed when diving into charged topics, just use the phrases or touch you’ve fine-tuned to keep you in good shape through the discussion.

And like a seasoned athlete would do, make sure to celebrate & integrate your successes as a couple

Found what works for you? Stuck finding something that does the trick? Share your insights or questions here!

Photo credit: Everton Vila on Unsplash