Living with a chronic dieter means facing feelings of helplessness with regards to their sabotaging and harmful behaviors. Spouses must face their fears of the consequences that are likely to occur if their soul mate isn’t able to reach and maintain a healthy weight. “Will I be a widow at 55”?” “Will he have a stroke and be unable to work?” “Will we be able to enjoy the rest of our lives together as we planned when we married?”
Even the flip side is rough. One husband commented, “I get nervous when my wife does lose weight because I don’t know if it’s going to stay off. I feel helpless. It’s a roller coaster ride- I get excited when she starts a new plan (eating or exercise); I’m hopeful that she’s finally found what will work for her, and then I’m frustrated when it doesn’t work.”
It’s easy to become frustrated when we see our partners making poor food choices. One spouse said, “I have to constantly remind myself she’s working as hard as she can.” He’s learned that it’s not about the diet per se…in part it’s about what his wife learned growing up. “Her mother made a lot of food, and in those days it wasn’t healthy, but it was comforting.” Today, Scott knows it has a lot to do with their stress levels. “We live in a stressful world–we take care of the house, our jobs, two kids in college. We always have to squeeze everything in, including the gym for stress management.”
Many partners of chronic dieters don’t really understand. They want to help and there’s only so much they can do– and then it backfires. Too much “help” feels like nagging. Too little help feels unsupportive.
Here are some things you can share with your partner:
1) Partners can model good eating habits. Scott said, “I never ate salad before. Now we eat it all the time with chicken or fish.” Instead of getting a burger and fries, he orders nutritious meals at a restaurant, and his wife Carol is more likely to do the same. “If the fries are not on my plate, she’s not feeling badly that she doesn’t have them either, and she isn’t looking for them. We no longer buy a half gallon of ice cream-we buy 100 calorie options. When the package is empty, dessert is over.”
2) Plan ahead to be sure the house is always stocked with healthy choices. You can serve delicious watermelon instead of cake at summer bar-b-ques.
3) Split meals. Carol said, “I like when Scott suggests splitting a meal. I’m so programmed to order my own plate that I often forget that it’s enjoyable to share something and walk away from the table feeling satisfied and not stuffed.”
4) Get intentional and incidental exercise together. Scott and Carol go the gym together most days, in addition to walking more, taking the stairs in a hotel, and having a rule of not using the moving escalator at the airport. Exercising together helps the non-dieter see that the dieter is working hard. Although Scott gets resentful at times of all the money they spend on the latest program, the bottom line is he sees paying for the gym and a trainer as helping to keep Carol motivated. He keeps the end goal front and center–he loves Carol and wants her to live a long and healthy life–with him.
5) Suggest healthy activities casually–“Do you want to go for a walk together?” (instead of “You need your exercise so let’s go for a hike,”)
6) Plant a vegetable garden together.
7) Express appreciation when your partner prepares healthy meals.
8) Offer to do more of the grocery shopping and meal preparation – Keep it healthy
9) Choose a restaurant that has salads and seafood instead of calorie laden Italian or Mexican food.
10) Compliment your partner when he or she has been working hard at the program.
11) Notice smaller clothing sizes.
12) Don’t pester the dieter. Carol says, “When Scott leaves me be, it helps. If he pesters me, I feel more self conscious. We hate ourselves as it is.”
13) Remind your spouse to put themselves first. Carol says, “It is helpful when Scott reminds me to put myself first….when I want to take care of what I think is another pressing issue. I appreciate when Scott reminds me not to put my food planning or workout on the back burner. I feel as though I’m being given the permission that I can’t seem to always give myself.”
14) Order room service for breakfast on a cruise instead of going to the buffet.
15) Let your partner decide when it’s time to go on a program (even though he might be worried about your health).
16) Offer to go dancing or purchase a video game like “Dance Dance Revolution” as a fun alternative to traditional exercise.
1) Don’t eat tempting foods in front of your partner.
2) Avoid saying things like, “Should you be eating that?” “Is that on your diet?” “Aren’t you supposed to exercise today?”
2) Don’t bring unhealthy foods into the house.
4) Don’t suggest stopping for ice cream on the way home in the evening or ask “Why don’t we ever have chips in the house?
5) Don’t complain if your partner sets the alarm an hour earlier in the A.M. to exercise.
6) Don’t make your partner feel guilty if they fall off the wagon.
7) Don’t overload your social calendar. Have balance. Carol said:
“It’s hard when Scott forgets that it’s a 24 hour struggle for me…when we make our week overly social, I struggle with planning and making good choices.”
8) Don’t dine out frequently. It’s harder because you often don’t really know how many calories are in the food.
9) Don’t make disparaging comments about overweight people.
10) Don’t track what your partner is eating or if they should be exercising–keep any thoughts or judgments you may have to yourself.
11) Don’t express resentment at the free time your partner is devoting to exercise.
12) Don’t ask, “Are you going on a diet again?” with a sarcastic or disbelieving tone.
What’s helpful for you?
A special thank you to my family, friends and weight loss clients and their spouses who provided their heartfelt input about this challenging topic.
Ellen is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco and
Redwood City, California. She specializes in Cognitive Behavioral
Therapy and incorporates the use of mindfulness into the treatment of
depression, anxiety, and emotional overeating. She runs a holistic
weight loss program called Center for Thoughtful Weight Loss,
www.thoughtfulweightloss.com. You can email Ellen at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, check out HealthyWage, the incentive experts that pay you to be healthy.
copyright © 2010 Ellen N. Resnick, LCSW
Reprinted with permission