First of all, the bad news. As someone who’s been married for several decades and been a life coach and couples therapist for as many years, there’s one thing I’ve learned: We cannot “get” our partner to do anything. One of the most important things I know is that we are not in charge of our partner’s choices; we cannot convince, shame, or bribe true change in another person.
For some of us, the movement toward a healthier lifestyle comes gradually as we integrate new ways of living into how we’ve done it for most of our lives. We discover yoga helps our body with flexibility, or that a diet with less gluten and more greens makes us feel better, or that a gratitude journal offers better payoffs than a resentment log. Other times, a moment of revelation like a personal or medical crisis causes us to revamp our lifestyle and make changes quickly.
However we get there, once we experience the benefits of healthy living, we want our partner to join us. Perhaps we’ve noticed the rewards we’re experiencing and begin to worry about our partner’s weight, stress levels, and overall health. One of the most difficult issues I see among couples is when they have lived in a certain way together for a long time and then one person “gets healthy,” then tries to save the other by preaching the gospel of a healthy lifestyle. I promise you, this will not go over well.
However, there are still some things you can do. Here are four suggestions, from the easiest to the hardest:
1. Avoid criticisms, stay real, and share your own struggles.
Put-downs, shaming, and negative judgments are not good motivators. Talk about your own experiences without making it a lesson for your partner. It can sometimes be helpful to share your struggles rather than being an overly enthusiastic cheerleader. A statement such as “I wish I had done this sooner; I feel wonderful, and I’m committed to a new life without gluten, meat, sugar, alcohol and with a daily yoga practice” will usually not invite them to come closer. Confiding, “I know the workouts I’m into are making me feel stronger; it’s just hard to get myself to the gym some days,” may help encourage your partner to join you in a small way, even with encouragement.
2. Speak from a place of genuine caring.
Share your concerns about your partner’s health out of love and appreciation rather than trying to get them to be a better person or telling them how unappealing they are with that 25 extra pounds. Telling them that you “care about their health” and “want them to live a long time” will be much more effective than telling them what a turnoff they are. Stocking healthier foods in your house, cooking more meals, and inviting your partner to join you on walks and workouts because you enjoy their company will go a lot further than nagging or sending them the latest health studies.
3. Notice what your partner is doing right, and encourage more of it.
Support and appreciate small changes without requiring them to change everything. Remember, a healthy lifestyle includes more than just physical fitness; it also incorporates things like generosity, emotional intelligence, and positive social relationships. Inner fitness includes an ability to forgive, humor, and self-awareness. Pay attention to those things you appreciate, and acknowledge them regularly. Remember, they are not you and will not experience a lifestyle change the same way you did.
4. If you feel you need to be more honest, speak from your own perspective.
One of the most dramatic couple sessions I ever experienced was with a couple who was referred to me by a physician. The man had suffered a coronary, and his doctor was worried he was not changing his lifestyle and was headed toward another heart attack. His wife had tried everything to help him change, and he was unwilling to even talk about it. When they came to the session, I could feel something new in her—a confidence and surrender that hadn’t been there before.
She spoke slowly, without blame or anger: “I have been with you for 30 years, and I couldn’t love you more. I intended to spend my life with you, but I have come to a point where it may not be possible.” Then she looked at him tenderly and firmly as she continued: “If you got hit by a car crossing the street and it wasn’t your fault, I would look after you forever. But if you have another heart attack because you are not following the doctor’s preventive guidelines, I will not. Do whatever you decide, but if you continue to smoke, eat the same way, and not exercise and this results in you becoming dependent on care, I will help you find a good solution, but it will not be me.” There was no anger or blame as she spoke, just sadness and firmness. To my astonishment, he told her she was right and agreed to make the changes his physician had requested.
The decision to embrace a healthier lifestyle is often difficult. It demands strong motivation to turn away from foods that give instant energy and comfort, to replace a sedentary lifestyle with an active one, and to practice mindfulness, meditation, and gratitude when our society envisions competitiveness, going faster, and trying to get to the next thing as keys to success. So before you sell the grill, sign your partner up for a kickboxing class, or enroll them in a fitness program they didn’t ask for, remember that what really motivates us is empathy, appreciation, and invitation.