Jilted on the Job
Sometimes professional relationships run their course. Like that time a client broke up with me via drunk text.
I didn’t expect her to break up with me via drunk text. After nearly five years together, our relationship came to an abrupt halt when she fired off a series of inebriated, insulting messages from an evening event she was attending.
We’d been planning to meet up the next morning. She canceled last-minute, just like she had so many times before. She expected me to be unbothered by this behavior, but I wasn’t.
We weren’t dating, mind you. She was my client.
I’m a personal trainer, and my relationships with clients are more than transactional. Many want to lose weight and tone up—either for a special occasion or just to be healthier. Setting achievable goals requires that I first gain an understanding of each person’s mindset and why they struggle with fitness or weight gain. In the process, their insecurities tend to show.
Like hair stylists, real estate agents and massage therapists, people in my line of work end up privy to all kinds of details about our clients’ lives. We become their confidants.
We are also asked—and paid well—to hold them accountable. To make sure they show up, even when they don’t want to. To help them eat healthier or perhaps cut back on the booze. To listen to infinite details about their lives, from the mundane to the intimate.
Because we spend so much time together, clients learn a lot about me, too. I like to tell stories about my dog, who is one of the great loves of my life. We talk. A lot! I’ve literally had clients say, “Keep talking. Tell me a story!” as they complete a set of lunges or hold a plank position for time.
If I can find common ground on a subject—insomnia, favorite restaurants, vacation spots, my latest klutzy minor injury—we talk about those things. We laugh. It’s a relationship. They need that sense of connection to keep coming back.
So yes, personal training is personal. Getting in shape is both physically and mentally taxing. Some people spend more time with their trainer than they do with a partner or friend, which makes the line between professionalism and camaraderie rather fuzzy. I have met clients for coffee or dinner. A few have joined me for team obstacle races or pickleball games. Some who have moved away keep in touch and continue to use my services via Zoom sessions.
I invest a lot of effort in maintaining these relationships. I plan creative workouts, week after week, to keep their interest up. I create special birthday workouts and allow guests to participate at no extra charge. I keep track of things that are important to my clients—weddings, travels, kids, pets.
It’s not easy to absorb tales of family tragedies, private struggles and other topics that carry weight while counting reps, correcting their form and thinking ahead to the next exercise. But again, this is what makes it personal, and makes the experience rewarding for both parties. I know I’m making a positive, lasting difference in someone’s life.
Sometimes relationships simply run their course. The night my client texted me to cancel—in what had become a pattern of narcissistic behavior with little regard for my time—was clearly the last straw for us both. The signs of strain were impossible to ignore.
It’s normal for clients and trainers to part ways. Perhaps you get tired of each other, or the sessions become too expensive, or your schedules no longer jibe. It’s okay. But as with all kinds of human relationships, there’s a respectful way to end things.
When someone spews venom at you, especially when you believe you have given so much, it hurts, even in a professional situation. I’m still processing how this one ended and how to better navigate the client/trainer relationship down the road.
Hard knocks can be learning opportunities. I’m hoping this one will make me better for the next client.
Pamela Lessard is a “reformed communications professional” who turned her love of exercise into a fitness-industry career in 2010. She lives in Arlington with her husband and dog, and has been rejoined by her daughter, who recently returned to the area from Denver to pursue a master’s degree at American University.