'My boyfriend wanted me to go to the gym with him. I did, and now he's mad'

What happens when the gym bro finally gets everything he ever wants (a girlfriend who goes to the gym with him)?

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The question

My boyfriend has been nudging me to come with him to the gym since forever, since before we started dating, even. I would go with him sometimes but just go on the elliptical and maybe a couple of the machines because I was afraid of getting too bulky and just wanted to lose some weight. About a year ago I started reading your column, and a few months ago finally got up the courage to start going to the gym with him and actually lift weights. I’m really loving it! However I'm not doing exactly what he's doing; I'm just doing dumbbell and barbell weights and compound moves, and he does a lot of different stuff, working out his arms and benching and stuff.

But now that I'm lifting, finally, like he wanted me to (!!!) he is acting really weird about it. He tells me what I'm doing is a waste of time for someone "like me" because "I can't get that strong," and that I should target the specific muscles I want to get bigger and do more than 5 reps (he is really mad about me only doing 5 reps), but when I ask him about that he doesn't really know what to tell me because I don't want bigger arms, lol. He no longer even asks me to go to the gym, really, because I just sort of go, but... if I'm being totally unfair to him, it feels like he wants me to do a very particular kind of thing in the gym with weights, and I'm not doing it, and he's mad about it and won't tell me. I like what I'm doing! Is there a particular way to talk to him about it to get him to understand? —Kate

The answer

Oh boy, I'm sorry you're going through this. Though this is not the point, really, I'm just blown away what a Pyrrhic victory we have for this exact type of guy here: Boyfriends who like to go the gym are ALWAYS teasing/nudging/bothering their girlfriends to come to the gym with them. (I answered a question from just such a gentleman a few months ago, and if you’re this kind of guy, you should check it out.) And you did it, but crucially, seemingly not on his terms, and now he is sulking. The monkey’s paw twitched, and one more finger closed into its palm.

It’s actually worth considering whether his bothering you to go to them gym was even about you, at all. Why does he care so much?? That's what I can't really tell from this question. 

But his ultimate reaction suggests there is at least a hair of "it makes me feel superior to go to the gym when so many people don't even bother, and I can extend that feeling into real life by telling people how great the gym is and they really should go." People validate their choices to themselves all the time by gushing about them and pushing them on their people even if they weren't objectively that good to begin with; even if the choice actually turned out to be incredibly disappointing, we sometimes feel like we can dig ourselves out of that emotional hole if others make the same choice. It's an objectively weird thing to do, but ever since I noticed this dynamic incredibly late in life, I can't stop thinking about it. I try to be extra careful in giving advice, because I've gotten some shitty projection-of-other-people's-problems type advice, and it led me in wrong and bad directions. Very hard lesson learned.

Anyway—I don't think your boyfriend hates or regrets going to the gym for himself. He probably loves it. But another thing about this kind of advice-giving or nudging is that he clearly didn't mean "simply show up at the gym with me”; otherwise doing the elliptical would be enough. He possibly wants you to validate his specific type of goal in the gym. I will say the quiet part loud: He possibly wishes you were lifting to be hot.  He wants you to do this by sharing that goal, but your gendered version of it; probably a girly-bikini-competitor version

Here is the thing: Most people, even people who have lifted weights for a long time, don't have the most encompassing understanding of the range of uses that lifting weights has. For a pretty long time, the extremely dominant use of weights was to control what you looked like, how throbbing your traps, how bulging your pecs, how shapely your tris, and so forth. Now there is a real strength renaissance happening, and many people can’t understand why anyone would bother going to the gym, if not to be hot. That’s fine; they don’t have to understand. But as difficult as gym-going can be for a number of reasons, they insist on making it harder. 

Previously on this subject: The myths of bodyweight training, part 3

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So what to do? I very strongly hesitate to make this your problem and say something like, “you should sit him down and ask him to share his feelings!” If I’m being honest, I think he is being a weird baby about all of this, and I hate the idea that your time and energy need to be taken up a) trying to get him to communicate what’s wrong, b) trying to understand it, and then c) in all likelihood, trying to get him to understand why he’s wrong. There’s not time on this earth!! 

He seems to be operating under the mistaken assumption that he has to approve of everything you do. Barring this being some kind of very drastic self-sabotage or putting you in grave and immediate moral danger, he is just wrong about this. And maybe he’ll figure that out on his own! I’m inclined to just let him do that, if I’m feeling patient and generous and not just saying “girl dump him.” 

You could perhaps help the process along by communicating to him about your journey, even just blurting it out on the car on the way to the gym. Something like, “you know I’m really happy I started going to the gym [insert “with you” if you wish to Shamu him]. I’ve never felt better about myself/felt better physically, I love getting this time to focus on something different, I feel so validated to do something with my body other than try to be hot, I find getting strong so exciting, I love getting to rest between sets, I’m sleeping so much better, I love eating a lot”—whatever is true. Then do your best to receive however he reacts neutrally. He may react in a way that actually reflects he was listening, such as, “Wow! What you’re doing is not really familiar to me, but now that I’m hearing this, it makes me so happy to see you happy.” That’s a perfect reaction. 

And then, I’m taking stabs in the dark here, but it could otherwise be along the lines of “What you’re doing is a waste of time,” or worse, “It concerns me you don’t care about how you look”—an absolutely massive yikes. Or it could be “I’m worried you’ll get hurt,” or something else that indicates his masculinity is threatened by what it is you’re doing, and that he’s not really listening. That’s fine; most people are not great listeners. Resist arguing with him about it. 

I want to be super clear about one thing: Ultimately, if you were to come to loggerheads about anything in this situation, it should NOT about whether you lift weights in the right way or not; it should be about his utter confusion about the idea that you need his sign-off for something like this and need to do it in the way he thinks you should. And you might! I’m sorry to see and hear it, but I can’t stress enough I hope you don’t stop doing something you love because one guy can’t see how happy it makes you.

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Just as he doesn’t have to approve of what you do, you don’t need to seek his approval for everything. You don’t need his permission or his blessing or his shining face beaming down on your every deadlift. I’ll be honest—m a n y  people STILL do not approve of women doing strength training, in a way that absolutely melts my brain

But one of the best things you can do for yourself, in lifting and in life, is cultivate a neutrality towards what other people think of what you do. Because it simply doesn’t matter. You’re not doing it for their reasons. You’re doing it for your reasons. And that is more than enough. 

I love you, thank you for reading, let’s go—

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Disclaimer: This content is for education and entertainment purposes only. Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights. Consult a professional for your personal medical and health needs.

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