Do Runners Divorce More? (Part 2 – The “Research”)

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Running & family conflicts journal article (0.2 MB PDF)

In Part 1 of this mini-series of posts, I asked readers to take a quick sampling of runners they knew, figure out their divorce rate and compare it to the US national average. Now, I will share what the research says on the matter, with a follow up on things to think about soon.

At right is a 1997  academic paper [1] that is part “research” and part literature review on the topic. It talks about leisure-family conflict, with focus on runners because of parameters defined for “serious” leisure activities. If you are not familiar with academic papers, you shouldn’t be surprised there is a paper on something so specific. What you should be surprised at, though, is the poor quality of “research”. The data is old. The sample size is small, despite the pompous self pat in the back by the paper’s author that it was unusually large at 580 people queried and 342 responding (59%). Do you think they could have trouble finding more than 580 runners, even in the 1980s when the running boom was already well under way? The paper is from the Journal of Leisure Research. Seriously, if that were the quality of papers accepted by this journal, I respectfully suggest they change their name to the Journal of Leisurely Research.

I have highlighted some key passages in blue and red within the downloadable file, pending importance, should you want to read it for yourself. I will summarize and talk about the content in more plain language that more people can understand, and add to it.

From a referenced study in 1980, one-third of American families reported stress from leisure conflicts. This is the phenomenon this post is about, ultimately. Divorce is just an outcome. Now, I know life is very different now than in 1980, but this is a phenomenon that is hardly new, and I would argue is only worse today given all our options of leisure activities compared to in 1980.

The one good thing the paper did bring to the discussion was R.A Stebbins’ definition of leisure, which was a little more specific than the definition in the dictionary. Stebbins focused on serious leisure and serious leisure participants by virtue of six criteria (in plain language below):

  1. Participants must occasionally put up with difficulty.
  2. Participants have leisure “careers” with stages of development, turning points, and improvement.
  3. Serious leisure requires effort and application of acquired knowledge, training, and skill.
  4. Serious leisure provides durable benefits such as self-discovery, self-enrichment, enhanced self-image, and belonging.
  5. Participants pursue their activity within their own social circles with beliefs, norms, events, values, and traditions distinctly associated with the activity.
  6. Participants identify strongly with their activity. They speak frequently and proudly of their participation and present themselves in terms of it.

Sound any runners you know? Sounds like quite a few runners I know. That’s why runners were picked as the specific group to study among the many serious leisure participants out there. That, plus runners have numbers, a clock and/or distance by which they could measure improvement. But there’s more, as in the three types of commitment required, as defined by T. Buchanan in 1985:

  1. Consistent behaviour over time that could involve intense focus and some rejection of other behaviours that might be socially beneficial.
  2. Attachment is acceptance of norms and values of a role which has become a central life interest.
  3. Side bets are investments in things which maintain consistent behaviour due to the potential cost of quitting, e.g. practice time, equipment purchases, and friendships with others in the activity.

Now, I didn’t list these six criteria and three types of commitment for you to judge runners you know as being serious or not. If they train at all, they pretty much exhibit all these criteria. Rather, I wanted to show what was involved with serious leisure and its participants. Most people don’t ever sit to think about this, but the serious in serious leisure is well earned when you look at the commitment and sacrifices made, as well as the embracing of the activity into one’s identity. It is this last identity factor, to me, that is possibly the key to potential serious conflicts, like those leading to divorce. The person you know is changing, for better or for worse, because of the leisure activity, rather than just doing it like some repetitive task they don’t care a lot about. Keep this “load on lifestyle” in mind for future discussion.

The most interesting bits of the research paper to this post, albeit the most useless, was a statistic it gave regarding runners and divorce rates. Legendary New York marathon race director, Fred Lebow, had claimed New York marathon runners had a divorce rate 3.5X the national average. It has also been referenced in this most fascinating of articles by the New York Times in Jan 11 1988. The article suggested relationships improve more as women ran more, but essentially countered that point. I’ll talk more about its content in the next and final post to discuss issues more from a psychological perspective rather than a quantitative analysis.

But back to Fred Lebow’s claim. What divorce rate would Fred be talking about, exactly? Surely not the 50% of marriages end in divorce. You can’t have 150% of marriages ending in divorce. Even if it were the more correct 30.5% divorce rate I showed a few posts back, 3.5X that is still 106% and that’s not possible. Fred probably referenced the number of divorces per thousand rate that includes every living person, no matter what age. Unfortunately, he would be cheating because he would have no babies running the New York marathon. Whatever Fred did mean, though, the academic paper should have referenced it. To have left that out was ridiculous!

Equally ridiculous was this paper citing Fred Lebow, by B. Glover and P. Schruder, also citing a poll taken in the Boston area that found 40% of married runners who ran more than 70 miles a week got divorced. Have you tried running 70 miles a week any time? That’s pretty serious mileage for a week, never mind week in and week out. I’m frankly surprised that divorce rate wasn’t 100%. Besides, how many people could they have found to include in that sample to make it have any statistical significance?

Back to this journal paper, though. The paper also pointed out a few more interesting studies regarding what influence running has on relationships. These are quite believable despite lack of statistical data included, though I’m sure the original studies had data. They make for good conversation, regardless.

There is a consistent finding that husbands and wives who share leisure time in joint activities tend to be more satisfied with their marriages (D.K. Orthner & J.A. Mancini, 1990). However, high concentrations of independent leisure activities have a negative impact on marital satisfaction. These authors and others also found that commitment to leisure may result in leisure-family conflict if couples were not accepting of each others’ leisure interests. Some of these conflicts were over the use of leisure time and opportunities for companionship as specific problem areas in families. I can’t say this was surprising to me. Among my personal sampling of runners I knew, there were 4 runner couples, but two runner couples who have divorced. A common passion makes for a natural understanding and appreciation of sacrifices to be made, as well as more potential time to spend together. The runner couples I knew who divorced had two runners at significant different levels of achievement.

The authors of the journal article found that highly committed runners experienced more leisure-family conflict than less committed runners. That’s just more time and sacrifices made so it makes perfect sense to me. They also found runners with spouses less supportive of their running to have more conflicts. Both seem rather “obvious”, but I analogize it to being similar to what professional team athletes face. They just have it a more pronounced degree. I recall some hockey player saying you have to be a little bit selfish as a professional athlete because life doesn’t revolve around you, but a team schedule. Then, all those around you have to also put up with that, on top of your fatigue, practice and other related business like travels. He said without a wife supportive of that, his marriage would have ended up in divorce easily and he was very appreciative how supportive she was. It was an enlightening personal glimpse into the life of a professional athlete I admired and didn’t know or understand. However, I don’t name him here because I can’t remember which one of a handful so I don’t want to incorrectly attribute the quote.

Within the support factor came another interesting study, which was that men were less supportive of their wives running than wives were of their husbands running (K.S. Masters and M.J. Lambert, 1986). This was counterintuitive because a fit woman is a sexy woman, and may be all the more important a factor after she had put on some weight during childbirth. However, it seems a sexist point of view if one participant had what might have been a symbolic reaction, stating he perceived his wife valued running more than “saving her energy for family activities”. We’re over 20 years removed from 1986 now, but I don’t doubt some of that sexism still exist. However, I think it might be a bit of a sexist jealousy factor that they are “the man” and yet their wives were out there being the athlete. We’ll talk about that more next post.

If there were any jealousy, though, it did not come in the form of “side bets”, described above as being things like practice time, equipment purchases, and friendships with others in the activity. That did surprise me because couples show a lot of jealousy about new purchases and strong relationships, especially fun ones, their spouses have with others, whether on suspicion of unfaithfulness or just because they don’t have anything that deep and/or fun in their own lives.

Finally, the authors of the research paper above concluded a positive association between commitment to serious leisure participation and the potential for poor family relations, with runners accentuating this point from research. I’m not sure I’d risk my academic career on that based on the “evidence” they had, but I agree with the claim whole-heartedly based on intuition. You just shouldn’t be allowed to publish in academic journals based on it!

What needs to be done is to get a few race directors of medium-sized marathons, with half and 10K races at the same time, to put it on their forms a question regarding whether entrants have ever been married and divorced. It’s personal, but give people the choice to answer and tell them it’s for a study. Get enough answers to pool together from across the country so there is a small margin of error like those political polls of about 1,000 responses and call it a study. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so, and I might just give it a try!

Any thoughts? Know any multi-race, medium-sized race directors to recommend to me? 🙂

Please come back for the next post when I will bring Parts 1 and 2 together for a closing discussion.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Reading Level: 8.5




[1] The moderating effect of spouse support on the relation between serious leisure and spouses’ perceived leisure-family conflict

by Stephen J. Goff , Daniel S. Fick , Robert A. Oppliger

Journal of Leisure Research, Vol. 29, 1997, page 47+

3 thoughts on “Do Runners Divorce More? (Part 2 – The “Research”)

    • Thank you so much for the reference! I saw your post. Great stuff! I’ve just put up the third installment, which is psychological analysis instead of the statistical that was inconclusive and less water cooler conversation friendly. There’ll be a fourth one to avoid pitfalls I speculated upon, with option to advise me whether or not to marry a runner as I am one who knows and believes that runners divorce more, mostly those with non-running partners. 🙂

      I will have an even better call to action in Part 5 than in Part 2 you can help me get the word out on! Thanks again for the comment and link!

  1. I walk 5 to 6 miles a day, and I am a quite fat, thats close to an average of 40 miles a week, s I find it hard to accept that 70 miles a week is a key statistics.
    PS: I divorced my wife essencially becuase she was running 15+ miles every day and marathons at weekends, she might be slim be she is now single.

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