You exercise daily, eat plenty of veggies, and haven’t so much as touched a cigarette in your life. Unfortunately, though, you can’t exactly say the same for your significant other. Whether your male partner refuses to exercise or resists your constant entreaties to ditch his smoking habit, you’ve got a sticky situation at hand. How can you encourage healthy changes when he’s not on board? And, more importantly, how can you do it tactfully and gently, without causing marital strife?
In the first ever long-term study of its kind, a research team led by Dr. Rikke Lund, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen, concluded that stressful social relations in private life are associated with a two to three times greater risk of dying. The net-net was that the physiological reactions to stress, such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, may explain the increased mortality rate. Furthermore, since men respond to stressors with elevated levels of cortisol, this could potentially raise the possibility of adverse health outcomes even more.
The study also found that men seemed to be particularly vulnerable to the worries and demands generated by their female partners. Although the results were recently published in the highly respected Journal of Applied Physiology, the factors behind it could not be fully determined. But any man who has ever lived with a woman could claim it’s a no brainer – they are being nagged to death!
Let’s address the bigger issue here. If your husband or significant other refuses to eat leafy greens, never exercises or goes to a doctor and smokes like a chimney, isn’t there an even greater chance that he will die of a heart attack, diabetes, or cancer? So the question is, how do you tactfully get him to adopt healthier lifestyle habits without harassing or hurting his feeling? Let’s hear from the experts.
Tap into his inner motivation.
“It’s not an easy task,” says Dr. John McGrail, PhD, author of The Synthesis Effect: Your Direct Path to Personal Power and Transformation. “The study is correct in that constant arguments exacerbate and amplify stress. And stress is supposed to be, from a physiological and evolutionary perspective, a short-term condition to get us out of danger, to ensure our survival. In modern Western culture, though, stress is chronic. But trying to make someone change against their will simply leads to excess stress for both parties.”
In other words, you cannot force anyone to do anything unless they themselves want to do it to. “Human beings are, by nature, hard-wired to resist change, any change, whether good for them or not,” McGrail continues. “It’s a state of being called homeostasis, a tenacious clinging to the familiar. Generally, the more you try to make someone see the light, the stiffer their natural resistance generally becomes. In fact, even diplomatic entreaties can, and often will, create not just resistance, but an escalation of the unwanted or unhealthy habit or behavior out of resentment.”
Indeed, whenever a prospective client calls to enquire about the procedures or process for, say, smoking cessation or weight loss, the first thing McGrail asks them is whether it’s their idea. “If they tell me that they are only doing it at the behest of a spouse or loved one, I generally do not accept the case, as chances for success are iffy at best. However, I would also try to find out why they are so against doing something that would clearly be good for their health. Then I look for ways I might help them develop the inner motivation required to accomplish whatever it is they are fighting.”
With that thought in mind, if, for example, vanity is what motivates him, “try saying something like: ‘You know that beautiful suit you wanted but thought was too small, I think you’d look amazing in it and I would really like see you have it.’” Or, you might even attempt the (always riskier) law of reversal: “I know you don’t want to (fill in the blank) and, truthfully, I doubt you could do it anyway.”
Make it an inconvenience.
McGrail says that rather than simply nagging him, another possible tactic would be to ask that he take the offending behavior elsewhere: For instance, “Please don’t smoke in the house, or around me. I love you too much to watch you smoking (or stuffing your face, etc).” The inconvenience of still doing what is clearly not good for him might just get him thinking about making the change.
Be his biggest supporter.
According to McGrail, it may also be wise to gently attempt to uncover the reasons for this defiance to living more healthfully. “The underlying cause is often a fear of failure, feeling unworthy to be successfully healthy and fit, or some other defense mechanism that is in play. It could also be the result of a memory of some long distant event that triggered and subsequently ingrained a negative outlook or behavior.”
Regardless, if that fear or limiting belief or traumatic incident is finally exposed, it provides an opportunity to lend appropriate support. McGrail suggests telling him: “I would be willing to be here with you through the process– whatever it takes, we’ll do it together.”
An alternative is to take this golden moment of openness to gently steer him toward getting the professional help he may need to become motivated to take the necessary actions to help him live a longer, healthier and more dynamic life. “That might involve the willingness to do the research and make the appointments for him—and an equal willingness to even go with him.”
Don’t be bossy.
As far as inspiring your spouse to choose a better diet, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, Director, Women’s Heart Health and Vascular Institute, Lenox Hill Hospital, and author of Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart Healthy Life-Reduce the Effects of Stress, Promote Heart Health and Restore the Balance in Your Life, weighs in.
“When you tell him what he should or shouldn’t be eating and how many glasses of water he should be drinking, he probably hears his mother. And he doesn’t want to hear it from you anymore than you would want him to tell you should listen to what your mother says you should be eating.” And even if he does pay attention, it could build up resentment.
Bring in a third party.
“You are there to support and encourage each other, not to order each other around. But still and all, you want a healthy spouse, right?” So here’s Dr. Steinbaum’s advice: “Delegate this job! Call in a third party to help. Whether it’s a doctor, a nutritionist, a dietician or a personal trainer, find someone who can be the point person who you know he will listen to. Have that person talk to him frankly, as a health professional. And you? You step out of it! As long as you know he is being told the right things, you can kick back and enjoy the good results.”
Use positive reinforcement.
The doctor adds that every so often it never hurts to remind him that the man you married is vibrant and handsome, and you never want that to change. Nor do you ever want his children or grandchildren to have to see him sick. “Refrain, if you can, from saying he is setting a bad example for the kids. Trust me, he already knows that and feels guilty enough. And if that’s the case, it’s only that he’s having trouble changing and needs that outside voice of reason.” Instead of pointing the finger, be as supportive and loving as you can whenever he does something good for his health. “Positive reinforcement is your job — and it works!”
Lead by example.
Finally, if you’re the one food shopping and making dinner most of the time, the ball is ultimately in your court. “If you know he’ll eat what you put in front of him, make it good for him. He might grumble, but when he starts feeling better, he’ll appreciate the small health-boosting changes and start making more of them on his own.”
This Father’s Day, try giving the special man in your life the gift of good health…minus the stress. Instead of nagging him about his bad habits (for at least this one day) use positive reinforcement—or an appointment with a good adviser—to get him back on the right track.