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Risk Management : A Thrill-Seeker and a Tamer Mate Can Keep Excitement Without Endangering Love, Orange County Therapists Say


The day after Marc Whisan and Rita Keck had their first date, Whisan went hang-gliding. Despite being an experienced glider pilot with more than 17 years' experience, Whisan crashed and was hospitalized for a week.

"I thought, 'Maybe this guy's a masochist,' " Keck says. "I couldn't understand why anyone would get involved in a sport that could kill them."

She also didn't understand how Whisan had the nerve to get back in the air after he recovered, but she accepted it.

Three years later, the Long Beach couple are living together and plan to marry.

But no, they won't be taking a hang-gliding honeymoon into the sunset. Keck accepts her fiance's love of hang-gliding, but she won't try it. "I can't imagine doing it; I'd be too scared."

Keck and Whisan are just one of many couples who have faced a sometimes difficult conflict in their relationship: When one partner is involved in a risky, thrill-seeking sport and the other has an aversion to it.

"Hang-gliders say that 'air-induced divorce' is common," says Betty Pfeiffer of High Energy Sports in Santa Ana, which sells hang-gliding equipment.

One way to combat that, Pfeiffer says, is to get your partner involved. "The non-flying partner might be a driver, trying to track down the other person so they'll be around when they land," she says. "But some people get tired of that very quickly."

Says Keck: "I really enjoy driving for Marc. I got my ham radio license so I can communicate with him, and it's kind of adventurous being in a remote place and getting directions from the air, like a treasure hunt."

Whisan says he enjoys hang-gliding more now that his fiancee is involved, even if she isn't in the air with him. "She won't even ride tandem with me, but that's OK. She's just not comfortable with it, and I accept that."

Related conflicts can also be difficult to resolve.

"The partner who's involved in the activity has to be reasonable about the time and expense of the sport," says Theresa Lavenau, a marriage, family and child counselor in Huntington Beach. "They need to nurture and make special time for the relationship; you don't want the other partner to feel abandoned."

"In that kind of situation, it's important for each person to respect the other's position," says Teri Wright, a psychologist based in Orange. "You need to meet in the middle."

Bonnie Keith didn't understand husband David's love of sky-diving. "I wanted to see why he loved it, so I jumped with him. I'm glad I did it, but I'll never do it again."

The Laguna Hills couple took a tandem jump, where the two were connected to one large parachute. "My biggest fear was leaving the plane, but I don't remember doing that," she says.

Her husband, who is also an aerial photographer, has a picture of their only sky-dive as a couple. "I'm glad she went with me to see what it was like; it gave her an idea of why I do it."

For David Keith, sky-diving is "like a drug. Anytime you do something exhilarating, you can feel the adrenaline pumping through your body; it's like an addiction. If I haven't jumped for a few weeks, and I get in a bad mood around the house, Bonnie will tell me go take a jump. When I come back, I'm a different person."

Married for seven years, the Keiths made a pact before they took their vows regarding David's sky-diving. "She agreed not to interfere with this. I said that I love her, and I love the sky, but it's not the same kind of love."

For couples in an unhealthy relationship, being torn between these two loves isn't good news. "In some cases, the sport can become a mistress," Lavenau says. "One partner becomes consumed by an activity to avoid the relationship and keep from getting too close."

When Doreen Kay of Anaheim learned to scuba dive 10 years ago, she found a fascinating world to explore--one that didn't include her then-husband.

"He hated swimming, and he laughed when I'd go off scuba diving; that may be why I took to it so well. It felt so free to have a skill that he couldn't grasp, to be able to explore someplace he couldn't get to. After about a year of this, I realized scuba was ending my marriage, but I didn't care."

The school administrator met her present husband, Robert, on a diving trip to Mexico. He doesn't dive either. "It would scare the daylights out of me," Robert Kay says. "When I think of diving, all I can imagine is 'Sea Hunt,' and people were always dying underwater on that show."

"It doesn't bother me at all that Robert doesn't dive," Doreen Kay says. "I dive with a group of people, and we have fun in the water, and Robert joins us afterward. I know he worries about me, but he also knows that I don't take chances when I dive."

The fear that comes from having a loved one participate in a potentially fatal activity isn't easy to shake and can become a critical issue in the relationship.

"Being concerned about a loved one's safety is good; that's something positive," Wright says. "It's up to the partner involved in the sport to show that all safety precautions are being taken."

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