Dating in the dojo can bring up several unusual complications and benefits different from those that may arise from dating within other extra curricular activities. Another aspect to consider is ranking. Unlike many other activities, most martial arts disciplines involve some form of a ranking system. Dating around a ranking system can add a different complication.
Ida Dolce a black belt instructor in Chicago adds her perspective on remaining professional. “I’ve dated a few guys who’ve gone to my martial arts school, all have been lower ranked. I told them that I am a very affectionate person, but for both our benefits at the dojo, the dynamic is always going to be that I am a black belt and instructor, and they are a student. I’ve never dated one of my own students, but I told them that if I am ever teaching their class, I am going to be just as tough and objective with them as I am all the other students. I’m not afraid of people knowing about me and a significant other at the dojo, but I find it’s in bad taste to get affectionate while training, and can make others feel very awkward.”
A Chicago male martial arts instructor who wished to remain anonymous has a policy of avoiding thinking of his students as potential dates. “An instructor should never ask a student out as it is unprofessional. Instructors dating students can cause problems in the classroom; it is hard to take your significant other seriously. If you break up, you may lose a student or have some serious awkwardness in the classroom. Instructors cannot change their class schedule as easy as a student may which can be tough if [the student] chooses to stay in their class.”
“I personally find that it is a bad idea to flirt while at the dojo,” says Dolce. “Especially for a female, because one runs the risk of not being taken seriously as a martial artist. When dating, there is the risk of rumors being spread, just like at the office or in school.” Female students also need to be careful dating male instructors as they may be accused of achieving promotions simply because of their relationship. If a female students decides to pursue a relationship with her instructor anyway, she may want to avoid accepting promotions in her boyfriend’s class and at the very least, she should make sure to continue to train in other classes as well and with other students. Martial arts is still a very male dominated activity and the double standard does sometimes still apply here. Male students don’t often seem to be as adversely affected if they date their instructor.
Before asking your instructor out, or saying yes to an invitation proposed to you, you may want to consider the questions that martial artist Tranette Williams applies. “Can I still give [my instructor] the same level of respect in class? And if you can’t give them that same level of respect, do you have enough options open if you have to change instructors?”
“When it comes to being approached by a man,” says Dolce, “I’ve always been the higher ranked one, which for some men, has kept them modest and respectful, some a little intimidated, and some just thinking it’s a challenge to see if they can land the instructor.”
Both instructors and students should be cautious and avoid being seen as a conquest for either side. Although the possibility of being ‘just a conquest’ obviously exists outside the dojo as well, it can be more harmful and emotionally painful to watch your ex run through a series of others ‘conquests’ as you attempt to continue your own training or teaching.
Obviously the lower level partner would need to take more care in this situation as a ranking instructor may have the power to affect their promotions or membership within the school should they feel significantly threatened by an ex’s complaints or continued presence. Although hopefully both partners will be stable enough to avoid such an outcome, it is worth consideration. “I’ve never had someone quit training due to the breakup,” says Dolce of her breakups with lower ranking students, “but I have had some who stopped on their own, and some who are still training. I’ve had some that I do not wish to speak to or even train with, and some that are still very close friends. But I’d never force someone to quit their training just because of us breaking up. It’s bad for the school and bad for my reputation as a martial artist or instructor.”
Dating closer to your own rank seems more socially accepted and less fraught with complications. An anonymous male martial arts student agrees that fellow students can be great potential dates, “If anything ever goes wrong it is easy not to see each other by switching classes, instructors or days. The dojo is a great place to meet people with similar interests and personalities, and you know you both like to be fit. You know they’re always gonna look better outside the school than when they’re all sweaty and in pajamas.”
A bonus when dating someone near your rank is that you will both have a unique understanding of what the other person is going through and can both benefit from the resulting support. When dating someone significantly advanced, such as your instructor or any instructor within the school, you may find that you have difficulty or are unable to confide in them at all if they feel that they must distance themselves from you during certain testing periods or promotions because of their rank. If you are nearer to the same rank, you can often act as each other’s personal motivational team.
If you and your partner begin at the same rank, perhaps you meet while you’re both white belts, be aware that there most likely will come a time when one partner will outrank the other. Whether this is due to natural skill or more time spent training, the newly lower ranked partner is likely to harbor some feeling of being ‘left behind’ whether they want to or not. If this occurs, it’s best to acknowledge the feeling, but remember that your partner worked hard for this as well and they deserve to have their moment of feeling accomplished. Be happy for your partner and take the time to examine your own feelings as well. Whatever you do, be sure to contain any feelings of hurt until you are in private. A meltdown at the dojo over anyone getting promoted while you don’t doesn’t bode well for furture promotions for you, but a poor attitude when your partner receives a promotion will most likely cause new issues for you and your partner to fight about at home later.
When training or partnering in together, be aware of how your constructive criticism affects your partner. Especially if one partner has gained rank on the other, it may be best to only correct your partner if they ask for it specifically. If you are being corrected by your partner, bear in mind that they most likely are just trying to be helpful and want you to succeed. If you can’t handle being criticized by your partner, let them know and take responsibility for the issue being your own. Thank them for their help, but let them know you’d rather just work without corrections. Leave the corrections to the class instructor or other classmates who may be working in with you. Many couples have a difficult time handling criticism from their significant other. Martial arts is a difficult activity, requiring continuous mental and physical adjustments and can be frustrating on it’s own. Oftentimes having your partner pointing out your flaws adds to the frustration. It is sometimes best for couples to concentrate on being a source of encouragement for each other, rather than trying to instruct each other.
If, however, your partner is the instructor of a class that you have chosen to attend, you should accept their adjustments with the respect that you would give any other instructor and do your best to apply them. If you are unable to do this, you shouldn’t attend your significant other’s class.
Rank complications are not a phenomenon unique to martial arts. Many corporations either forbid supervisors to date underlings or require it to be reported to human resources so that objectivity can be maintained. In the martial arts arena, there are often no such rules in place, requiring practitioners to police themselves. Take care when considering a relationship that crosses large ranking gaps, especially if an instructor is under consideration, and just as if you were in the ring, protect yourself at all times.