Avid sports fans come in all shapes and sizes, but what they share is a devotion that is front and center in their emotional lives. True sports fans engage in a variety of behaviors that may look strange, if not bizarre, to the outsider. They may devote a considerable share of their time, their finances, and their emotional investment to supporting their devotion to a particular game or team, or just to sports in general. If you’re dating or living with someone like this, but don’t share their “religion,” you may find this behavior not just bizarre but relationship-killing.
We tend to think of avid sports fans as more likely to be male, but there are plenty of die-hard female fans as well. Whether they root for traditionally women’s sports (field hockey, softball) or go for broke with their hometown pro or college team, women can have just as strong an allegiance and put just as much emotional energy to their passion as can any guy.
Whether you’re the sports widow or widower, then, your dilemma remains the same. How can you preserve your relationship, even if it puts you off to the sidelines?
University of Tampa Sports Management professor Jason M. Simmons along with University of Louisville professor T. Christopher Greenwell (2012) conducted one of the few studies done on fan-family conflict. Their study, carried out on fans attending a Division 1 college football game, examined the differences in family conflict among fans who described themselves as high, medium, or low in their identification with the team. As we might expect, the fans who identified strongly with their team had more conflict in their role as fan and family member and a higher perception of strain in their roles. In terms of behaviors, the moderately-identified fans were more likely than fans low in identification to experience conflict. Fortunately, however, the total amount of conflict that these fans said they experienced was relatively low.
Simmons and Greenwell suggest that fans can benefit from the knowledge that there is the potential for their dedication to the team to interfere with the dedication that they feel toward their family. If you're the partner, you can also benefit from recognizing that being a fan may be an important role in your loved one's life.
The following five tips should be able to help you maneuver this emotional triangle consisting of you, your partner, and your partner’s team. By adapting them to your unique situation (and the psyche of your partner), you’ll have no trouble navigating the long days and nights of any sports season from playoffs, to March Madness, to spring training, or even classic game TV reruns.
1. Join in the fun.
This is the easiest way to reconcile the sports-relationship conflict, at least in principle. All you have to do is learn the basics of whatever game or games that form your partner’s obsessional pursuit. Go online and learn about the rules of the sport and start reading the local paper, websites, or fan blogs. This will at least give you some familiarity such as knowing there are 4 quarters in U.S. football, 9 innings in a baseball game, and 2 halves in soccer (sorry, “football” to the Europeans!). Most sports involve the fundamental principle of one team’s getting a ball to land someplace that will produce a score, so at least you’ll have that piece of information going for you. If the sport involves some other type of competition, such as the various Olympic Games, the process can get more complicated, but there’s nothing so abstract about any sports that a bit of homework can’t cure.
Let’s say you’ve tried doing this and you’ve determined that (a) you have no interest in learning the game or games, or (b) you know all you need to and hate them anyhow. If this is the case, there still are ways for you to join in the fun. Many sports fans enjoy everything that goes with sports apart from the intrinsic interest of the game itself. The social experience of being at a game, or watching a game with other people, is often the sport’s biggest draw. There’s an element of suspense to almost all games that makes them exciting. Other emotions also come into play such as hope (when you’re rooting for the underdog), joy (when your team wins), and humor (as long it’s not at your team’s expense).
By allowing yourself to try to catch some of your partner’s enthusiasm, you may find that the two of you develop a set of shared experiences that actually enhance your relationship.
2. Get a hobby that occupies you during a game.
Try as you might, it may be that you simply cannot put on your game face. Your alternative is to leave the house, go to a different room, or just tell your partner to stay away until the game is over. If you’re hoping to build a relationship, though, this alternative will leave you with many hours to fill that you could have spent together in his or her company. Instead of the take-it-or-leave-it approach, by finding yourself a portable hobby, you’ll have something that will allow you to keep your mind and hands occupied even while you share the same space. You don’t have to be an arts and crafts whiz to find such a pastime. Pick up a pair of needles, some bulky yarn, and an online knitting video to teach yourself how to make a simple scarf. If that’s not your thing, find something else that you can learn easily that will motivate you and keep your hands busy while you sit on the sofa or in the stands. While you’re doing this, you may find that through osmosis you do learn more about the game and perhaps even start to enjoy it.
3. Understand the source of your partner’s extreme fan behavior.
People love their sports teams for a variety of complex reasons. For some fans, the devotion they feel is almost like something they’ve inherited from previous generations. Their parents or grandparents took them to games when they were little, and they’ve built up an entire lifetime of associations to everything connected with that game or team. Others identify with their team out of a desire to part of something bigger than themselves. Perhaps they grew up in a city whose primary claim to fame is their sports team. Now it’s not just their personal or family identity that’s wrapped up in the sport, but their sense of community as well. Some cities pride themselves on their decades of victorious championship teams while others on their decades of being underdogs. In either case, there’s a deep connection there that permeates your partner’s sense of self. Once you recognize that it’s not “only” just a team, you will not only be more patient with his or her partner’s devotion, but also gain insight about what makes your partner tick.
4. Don't get jealous of your partner’s devotion.
If you want to keep your relationship going, avoid setting up a “it’s them or me” scenario. Recognizing that your partner’s fan-ship has complex roots might help prevent this in the first place, but there may still be times when you feel that you’re coming in second to your partner’s identification with the team.
Perhaps you had your heart set on a romantic candlelit evening only to find that the afternoon game has gone into overtime, ruining the mood if not your dinner plans. Should you insist that the dinner go on even as the entire season rides on those remaining minutes of the game, you’ll only make yourself miserable, and the dinner will be ruined anyway. The next time you suspect a conflict like this might occur, come up with your own game plan ahead of time that both of you agree to follow.
Even more mundane occasions can create possible conflicts if you let your jealousy get to you. It may be a case of needing your partner to watch the kids, go to a work-related event, or visit the relatives. Again, agreeing on a strategy ahead of time is the best way to work this out. Keep in mind that your partner’s love for the team may not seem to you to be as “important” as this other obligation. However, it is important to your partner. The more you respect your partner’s feelings about the game, the better the chances of coming to an amicable resolution.
5. Recognize the emotional downs
True fans can go through emotional slumps that rival the worst doldrums of their teams. Their team’s loss becomes a loss to their own identity, and they may be grumpy and irrational, if not outright depressed, in the following days. Eventually, they will bounce back with the mantra cherished by all losing teams (“There’s always next year”). Let your partner rant and rave until eventually that mantra kicks in. Whatever you do, don’t use this as an opportunity to try to convert your partner to a non-fan. Treat your partner with a little extra kindness during that phase. By understanding why your partner feels so strongly about the team, you’ll find that this to be much easier to do.
In summary, recognize where your partner’s love for the team comes from, learn something about the game or at least find a way to keep from getting bored, and avoid a “them-vs.-you” mentality. Ideally, you may find that you can learn to love the game as much as you love your partner.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Simmons, J.M. & Greenwell, T.C. (2012). Football or Family: An Exploratory Examination of the Relationship Between Team Identification and Inter-­‐role Conflict. North American Society for Sport Management Conference.