By Thomas N. Bradbury, PhD, and Benjamin R. Karney, PhD, Special to Everyday Health
If you have been in a relationship for any length of time, chances are you have said something like this to your partner: “Boy, I am not feeling great about how I look. I need to lose some weight, maybe make some changes to my diet, but I am not sure how to get started.”
And maybe you have heard something like this in response:
“Yes, honey, I’ve noticed your clothes fitting tighter too. Glad you’re working on this!”
“Sure, I am totally OK with you getting healthier, but I’m looking fine. Do what you have to do, but leave me out of it.”
“How hard could it be? If you want to lose weight, you have to eat right and move more. Just do it!”
“Hmm, where have I heard that before? Oh right! You said the same thing last year– and the year before that!”
Talking with your partner about eating, exercise, and weight-loss can be an emotional minefield. In our lab, we have videotaped hundreds of couples having some version of exactly these conversations. In fact, when we allow couples to talk about anything at all that they want to change, 50% to 70% of them choose to discuss their desire become healthy and fit. And in those tapes we have seen partners who genuinely want to support each start to panic when they find themselves uncertain about how to proceed.
What traps couples is a fundamental misconception about what it takes to maintain a healthy weight. Diet books, gyms, and even our doctors all tell us thatweight management boils down to individual choice and personal willpower. After all, our partners feed themselves and move their own bodies, so it makes sense to assume that the responsibility for healthier habits lies squarely on their shoulders and theirs alone.
As studies from several labs now demonstrate, this assumption is plainly false. If our partners are to make changes that last, they need our support. And if we have any inclination to stick with healthier habits of our own, we too need something more persuasive than the tag line from a sneaker commercial.
The fact that people in relationshipsroutinely turn to their partners for help in this situation suggests that plenty of us already know, intuitively, that our relationship can be the key to a healthier lifestyle. But that does not mean our partners know how to respond when we ask for help in changing our diet and exercise habits, or that our partners know a sensitive way to steer us toward the vegetables and away from the desserts the next time we go out for dinner.
Fortunately, new studies yield concrete suggestions for couples who want to team up effectively around diet and exercise.
Extensive research shows that our environment profoundly affects how much and what we eat, by making some foods more or less accessible than others. In a relationship, each partner shapes the environment for each other. So, without saying a word, there is a lot our partners can do to make the healthier choices easier, and the less healthy choices more difficult. When you look into the fridge for a snack, it makes a difference whether your partner has left you cold pizza or fruit and non-fat yogurt.
When we express concern about our appearance or weight, our partners might be tempted to offer reassurance (“No, baby, you look terrific!”). Observational research on couples reveals that too much reassurance can lead to complacency, and does nothing to support our desires to change. What we actually need is two distinct kinds of support: yes, we want to be loved as we are, but we alsowant support for our efforts to be healthier. The combination of reassurance and encouragement gives us the strength and motivation we need to make better choices. The next time you feel your partner is not delivering both parts of the message, take a moment and ask for exactly the kind of support that would help you the most.
It’s hard to stick with healthy choiceswhen the unhealthy ones are so tempting. But experiments show that immediate temptations lose their pull when we are thinking of our long-term goals. A slice of cheesecake looks delicious and all-but-irresistible… until we offset that image with the thought of an active retirement or time spent with rambunctious grandchildren. No one is better positioned than our partners to help us keep our eyes on the long-term prize. Our shared commitment to a healthy long-term future can be, well, the icing on the cake.
We all know by now eating right and moving more are keys to maintaining a healthy weight. But we also know from soaring obesity and diabetes rates that following this formula is difficult. Our closest relationships have the power to overcome the barriers to being healthier, provided we know how to team up effectively with our partners. When we abandon the misguided view that willpower alone is enough toensure healthy behaviors, we can recognize the opportunities within our relationships to make healthier choices a part of our everyday lives.