Many couples have difficulty negotiating eating and weight issues. For example, maybe you’re fit as a fiddle and wish your couch-potato hubby would join you in a run once in awhile. Or you’re working on eating more nutritiously while your partner continues to snack on high-fat, high-sugar foods even though the doctor has cautioned that she’s borderline diabetic. These situations can produce feelings of distress, frustration and helplessness, generating the exact wrong attitudes and behaviors needed to encourage and support change. Knowing precisely how to help the one you love makes all the difference.
Humans are funny creatures. We often give people what we want rather than asking what might be helpful to them. It’s okay to be direct with an inquiry—as long as you bring up the subject of your sweetie’s eating or weight with tact, sincerity, humility, compassion, and curiosity. Tell her that you want to make sure you’re being helpful and ask her to alert you if you’re not. Be open to taking direction on what she thinks will work for her and check in with her often about how you’re doing.
I’ve known of cases where a partner is at a healthy weight, but feels so uncomfortable about it that she ends up eating more like her unhealthy spouse and packing on pounds. Even though it may make you—or your spouse—uncomfortable that you’re a “normal” eater and fit as a fiddle and he’s not, don’t use that as an excuse to give up healthy habits. Do what’s right for you and set an example (without pushing this fact).
Many people with eating issues suffer from depression or anxiety and take much better care of their bodies when their moods are more balanced. Look for signs of depression: isolation, irritability, poor daily living habits, sleep difficulties, hopelessness, lack of interest in activities that previously sparked interest. If you recognize symptoms of depression or excessive anxiety, your partner may be using food to deal with them and may need a psychological evaluation. In this case, again, approach the subject gently and compassionately.
Problems may arise in the spousal sexual arena when one person has weight problems and the other doesn’t. This is an area where you will want to tread very lightly and try to understand how your partner feels about her body and how her attitude may be affecting sexual dynamics between you. Recognize that your partner may feel awful about her body and not want it seen or touched, and be too ashamed to have sex with the lights on. Again, healthy communication is the answer so that both your needs and hers can be met.
Many husbands and wives end up sabotaging the weight loss efforts of their spouses because it triggers their own unconscious issues. Although you may feel enthusiastic about your husband losing weight, you may also wonder what will happen when he’s thinner or fitter—will he get hit on, will he enjoy the attention, will he act on it. Explore your own fears and insecurities about the relationship and acknowledge if you’re in any way threatened by your spouse’s weight loss. If so, make sure you take care of your own issues so they don’t spill over into the relationship.
In this fat phobic society, people who are heavy tend to forget all their wonderful attributes because thinness is held in such ridiculously, arbitrarily high esteem. Remind your partner that he’s more than a body and help him focus on what you love about him—his creativity, drive, sensitivity, sense of humor, or sound ethics.
Believe it or not, this directive may be the hardest of all. Changing eating habits and weight loss takes time—in my clinical experience many months to a few years. Rather than push for your beloved to diet and shed pounds quickly, let her know that you understand how long the process will take and that that’s okay with you. Be there for her when she’s frustrated at having overeaten or when weight loss has stalled. Let her know that you understand how hard it is for her and that you know she’s trying. Empathize with her frustration and make sure to point out her successes because it’s common for troubled eaters to recall only their food failures.
Think about how you feel when someone is on your case 24/7 about a bad habit. If you’re like most of us, you build up resentment and tune out whatever is being said, even when you recognize that the suggestions or advice are undoubtedly in your best interest. Nagging creates distance between you and the person you love, which is the last thing you want to do when you’re trying to become an ally and foster change.
Shaming your spouse for poor eating habits or avoiding exercise will get you nowhere. You may have been raised with criticism and put-downs as a motivator and think they work, that is, being hard on yourself breeds success. Even TV programs have gotten into the act of trying to shame people into becoming healthier eaters and more active individuals. Ouch! To shame someone is to intentionally hurt them. Trust me, overweight folks already feel badly that they can’t manage their food intake well or aren’t in great shape. And nix the blaming—telling your lover, “If you didn’t do this and did that instead, you’d be thinner.” Think: how do you feel when you’re blamed for your inadequacies? I bet the answer is so guilty and ashamed that you tune out the whole subject because it’s too painful to even contemplate.
When you’re practicing healthy eating habits and are at a comfortable weight, you might be inclined to try to inspire your spouse to be more like you as a way of saying, “See, if I can do it, you can too.” However, this strategy usually fails because of one simple fact: You are you and they are them. We all have different histories, biochemistries, and ways of coping. I have no doubt that your spouse has strengths and abilities that you lack and that there are areas of life your partner manages far better than you do. Food and exercise may be their vulnerable areas, so don’t pit your strength against their weakness.
Undoubtedly, you believe you’re being helpful by hiding high-fat and high-sugar foods from your partner. Maybe your spouse has even asked (or begged) you to do so. But, beware, this behavior only sets up a cat-and-mouse game that has no winners. While he’s wondering where you hid his favorite cookies, you’re constantly anxious about him finding them. This pattern gives a “forbidden” aura to certain foods which will goad your partner into searching for and eating them, when what you really want is for him to forget all about them. And remember: there are only a certain number of hiding places in any dwelling. Sooner or later, he’s going to find the treasure trove and gobble it down.
Enabling is the most common mistake people make when trying to convince someone to eat better and exercise more. When your partner isn’t acting responsibly around food, what’s more natural than for you to step in? Enabling or co-dependence means that you’re making yourself responsible for actions that your partner should be responsible for. Relationships work best and are the healthiest emotionally when we are each accountable for ourselves. I guarantee that the more you try to control your partner’s eating, the less your partner will do it for him or herself. If you’re doing it, why should he or she bother? Moreover, we generally have mixed feelings about being dependent on people—we sort of like it but also resent it. And that resentment often turns into full-blown rebellion.
Feeling helpless, you may get the bright idea to enlist family members or friends to confront your spouse, thinking all she needs is a little more support to become serious about healthy eating. Bulletin: Folks who overeat or eat non-nutritiously and avoid exercise realize that they’re not taking good care of themselves. The last thing they need is to feel ganged up on. Poor dietary or couch potato habits will not benefit from a family intervention no matter how well intended.
Upset as you might be with your spouse’s unhealthy habits, please do not make love for your spouse contingent on her eating ‘right’ or losing weight. You may be rightfully worried out of your mind about her health, but your worry is your problem to handle. Giving your spouse an ultimatum about leaving her because of her size is a terrible motivator for change. She needs to feel your love—not your contempt, disdain, and disapproval—and more love for herself in order to take better care of her body. Rejecting her is only going to make her feel worse—and eat for solace or even out of spite.
Just because there are some behaviors you want to avoid like the plague doesn’t mean that you need to sit back helplessly gnawing at your nails and fretting that your partner will never enjoy the healthful habits that you do. Be assured that you can be supportive—even proactive—in successful ways that will help your spouse get and stay on the right track with food and exercise.
The most important way to help your partner is to keep dialogue open, flowing, and non-defensive and monitor your own feelings during the long process of your partner changing what may be a lifetime of poor self-care habits. His or her job is to eat more healthfully and become more fit, while yours is to make sure you are doing nothing to stand in the way of these goals and everything to support them.
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