Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, licensed clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, Boulder, Colorado, and author of Getting Through to the Man You Love: The No-Nonsense, No-Nagging Guide for Women. DivorceBusting.com
Your spouse is a package deal—you get all the great as well as what you consider the not-so-great. Perhaps you are concerned about your partner’s eating and exercising habits, smoking, drinking, sleep, doctor visits, even subtler things such as getting out more, making friends and avoiding depression. It is a common cause of strife in a marriage or relationship—when one partner feels that his/her lifestyle is healthier than the other’s and tries to motivate the less health-conscious partner to improve.
Whatever your reasons, you’ll certainly fail if nagging is your only approach. Bottom Line Personal asked marriage and family therapist Michele Weiner-Davis for her strategies to help a spouse to adopt healthier behaviors…
Don’t complain—request. When most of us want our partners to behave differently, we complain. “I can’t believe you’re still smoking cigarettes. You know how harmful it is for your health. It’s a disgusting habit.” That is a complaint, prompting your spouse to immediately go on the defensive.
Strategy: Make a request for change. “I know smoking has been a big part of your life, but it would mean the world to me if you would consider cutting back.” A request for change is speaking about the future, while a complaint addresses what has happened in the past—something that can’t be undone. There’s no guarantee that your request will be honored, but it stands a better chance than mere complaint.
Find “the hook.” I recently counseled a woman who was concerned about her husband’s drinking. She didn’t think he was an alcoholic, but she feared for his brain health, since dementia ran in his family. She complained, pointed him toward studies linking alcohol to brain health, asked him to change for her—but nothing prompted him to change. Finally, she realized there was one thing that might motivate him—he was an incredibly doting grandfather. She asked him how he felt about the possibility that he might not be around to enjoy his grandkids…that he might not be present for them mentally…that they might never know the real him. Result: He cut back his drinking. This woman had found what I call “the hook.”
Strategy: Ask yourself what motivates your partner. You can be completely honest and sincere about your own needs and preferences, but if you haven’t hit upon the thing that your spouse truly cares about, you won’t get him to change. Present the problem using the hook.
Use positive reinforcement. Humans respond better to positive reactions than negative ones, yet many of us can’t vocalize our approval of incremental progress. Instead, we focus on the fact that the problem still exists—“Sure, you went for a walk one evening, but one walk per week just isn’t going to cut it.” That is a surefire way to kill anyone’s motivation.
Strategy: When you notice any small sign of change—even if it’s far from where you want it to be—bring on the fanfare. Positively acknowledge, out loud, every small step toward the ultimate goal. “I was really glad to see that you took a walk Wednesday evening, honey. That’s awesome.”
Lead by example. Maybe you can eat dessert every night without gaining weight. Lucky you—but if you’re asking your partner to go without, you’ve got to model the behavior.
Strategy: Start living the healthier lifestyle yourself. Buy healthier food, serve low-calorie meals, join a gym, take a daily walk or run—and ask your partner to join you. Present it as a fun thing for you to do together.
Try “The Opposite.” In a famous episode of Seinfeld, luckless George Costanza gets fed up with his unsuccessful efforts with women. He decides that since everything he has tried has met with failure, he’ll do the opposite of what his instincts tell him. And of course, that’s what finally works (at least for a while—he is, after all, George Costanza).
While that is, of course, fiction (and comedy, at that), there’s some truth in it. When people try to get their spouses to change, they often follow a predictable pattern. First, they state how they’d like things to be. When nothing changes, they try again, this time with feeling. When there’s still no result, they escalate and get angry. I call this method “more of the same only louder.” Result: You build more resistance to your ideas with every round.
Strategy: Instead of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, try something completely different. Real-life example: A woman I was counseling was concerned about her husband, a truck driver who had been injured on the job and became depressed. He withdrew from the family, spent all day in bed, drew disability benefits and refused to look for work that wouldn’t aggravate his injury. Her life with him came to a standstill. She tried everything to motivate him to start living again, but he grew increasingly angry at her failure to appreciate the extent of his injury. My advice: Immediately stop asking him to change. Instead, I suggested she bring home some brochures from assisted-living facilities and nursing homes and leave them where he would see them. Then she was to have a conversation with him in which she said, “I have an apology to make. I guess I didn’t fully understand your disability and how hard it must be for you, and I realize I’ve been pushing you too hard. I understand now, and I promise I won’t do it anymore. I’m going to get on with my life, and I want you to just rest and take it easy.” It was like a lightning bolt—he instantly got up and started moving again, integrating himself back into the family life.
Accept what you cannot change. Not everyone thinks that just because you’re married to someone, you have a say in how that person lives his life and what he does with his body. And different people have different standards for healthy living. Are you perfect? If you’d married an ultramarathoner, would you want him harping on you for not exercising enough? If you’d married a bodybuilder, would you want him griping about the hot fudge sundae you ate on Labor Day?
Strategy: Consider the dynamic within your marriage. You and your spouse may have the kind of relationship in which it’s fine to have preferences about the other’s lifestyle choices. And if you want your spouse to do better, try the steps above. But after a certain point, you simply may have to accept that backing off is your only option. In fact, research shows that even among happily married couples, a full two-thirds of what they argue about is completely unresolvable. No matter how spectacular your partner is, there will be some things you have to learn to live with.