Last fall, my partner, Ann-Elise, and I wanted to re-energize our marriage. Juggling two kids and two careers had left us with little time to nurture our relationship. After 16 years together — eight of them as parents — we were in a rut.
Nothing romantic about it, but in November, we purchased Fitbits, electronic fitness trackers we thought might help us get back on track. Mine is lightweight plastic, about the size of a quarter, and fits into a black silicone case. Every morning, I clip it into my left-hand pants pocket.
Throughout the day, the Fitbit records my steps and the distance I've walked on its simple digital display. More expensive models also keep track of the wearer's heart rates and sleep cycles.
But the best thing about it is that it lets me compete with Ann-Elise, who wears her own Fitbit every day.
The device synchs my daily step total to my Fitbit app, which connects me to my "friends," one of whom is my spouse. She and I use the app to keep track of each other's progress, send smiley faces to cheer each other on, or, even more enjoyable, taunt each other when one of us springs ahead. The recipient of a taunt gets a message with an emoticon sticking out its tongue, essentially saying, "Look at me, I'm winning."
Before we had kids, Ann-Elise and I used to compete all the time. For months, we played a nightly game of Scrabble. That ended when I began entering Scrabble tournaments and memorizing words. Ann-Elise didn't want to study flashcards, or play against someone who did.
Then we tried Boggle, but Ann-Elise trounced me every time. Before long, we quit that, too. For a while we played mancala. Then there was an Othello phase. At some point, we switched to Bananagrams, a word game that suits us both equally.
It didn't really matter what we played. Our matches were an experience we could share, something unrelated to the dreary business of managing our household and finances. Playing games was a way for us to have fun together.
But then we had kids. And who has time for Bananagrams when there's a dirty diaper to change, or breast-pump parts to wash?
When Ann-Elise started nursing school a few years ago, our game time mostly disappeared. It dried up completely when I went through a busy stretch at work and she started working nights at the University of Vermont Medical Center. Last year, we struggled to find time to talk, much less match wits. Our relationship suffered.
And then I heard about the Fitbit. At first I scoffed. How could tracking my steps make me more fit? And why would I want to store that data? It seemed Orwellian and weirdly compulsive.
But then I realized that Fitbits were the perfect gaming devices for a split-shift couple. Ann-Elise could rack up steps at 2 a.m.; I could pick them up during the day. Better yet, the competition would boost our physical activity, something we both wanted to improve.
Ann-Elise was into the idea. On one of her days off, she went to Best Buy and came home with hers-and-hers Fitbits, which we began wearing immediately. Because Ann-Elise is a runner, she confidently predicted that she would cream me every week. "I expect to get two or three times as many steps as you do," she boasted when we turned them on.
But it hasn't worked out that way. Ann-Elise gets many more steps on the days when she runs, but my average daily totals tend to be higher. She thinks it's because I'm shorter, and I take more steps. I think it's because I keep moving all day long. I pace while on the phone. I dance in the kitchen while cooking dinner.
Our kids support our competition. "How many steps do you have?" our son, Graham, asks regularly. "Slow and steady wins the race," our daughter, Ivy, coached me one December morning.
One night when Ann-Elise and I were both home, we noticed we were neck and neck for the day, so we started trying to raise our totals. While I took the dog for a walk, Ann-Elise did laps inside the house, high-fiving the kids as she passed them.
When I got home, I jogged around the house behind her, and the kids cheered us on. "M-V-S-A! M-V-S-A!" they yelled, shorthand for Mom VS Aimo, which is what the kids call me.
When Ann-Elise stopped for a minute to concentrate on making dinner, Ivy grabbed her leg and lifted it. "Come on, Mom," she pleaded. "Keep moving! She's killing you!"
We're not the only couple bonding over our Fitbits; these gadgets cross cultural and generational divides. Ann-Elise and I are Fitbit friends with my retired aunt and uncle who live on a golf course in Myrtle Beach, S.C., as well as a friend who works at Tufts University and her researcher wife in Boston.
I knew this competition strategy was working to strengthen our marriage recently when I got a Fitbit message early one morning from Ann-Elise, who was finishing up her shift at the hospital. She had just seen the taunting message I had sent about having more steps than her.
"I wish there were a taunt giving you the finger," she wrote. Now that's love.