When we feel good, we want the whole world to feel good. So seeing a partner keep unhealthy habits while we ride-high on the fitness train can be a tough situation to handle. Here’s what we suggest.
I’m in the living room at 9:30 p.m. The white noise machines are whirring in the kids’ rooms and I hear a rustling sound coming from the hallway. Crinkling and crackling. I identify it—it’s the sound of another chocolate-chip granola bar being opened. The habitual thoughts begin: “Why is he eating another granola bar at 9:30 at night? He should have some fruit. He doesn’t eat healthily enough.”
What do we do as we move toward healthy choices in our lives when our partners don’t make the same choices? It’s a common issue that causes stress in relationships and it’s a way for judgment and disconnection to thrive.
As a therapist, and in my own marriage and friendships, I’ve listened to lots of folks bothered by the choices their partners make or don’t make:
- Not exercising despite back pain, weight gain or depression
- Not reaching out to friends despite depression and isolation
- The extra beer or cookie or candy bar
- Not calling a therapist even though he/she struggles with anxiety
When we are making strides on our own path of growth and self-development it can be triggering to witness stuck behaviors in our loves that we don’t like. A common first reaction to this is to encourage him or her to do what we think they should be doing. The conversation might go like this:
“Honey, it seems like your back is really causing you troubles. Don’t you think that getting back to the gym would help?”
“Yeah, it probably would. I just feel so tired all the time.”
“Well, why don’t you schedule it into your week…you could go on the days the kids are in daycare—like Monday, Wednesday, Friday.”
“Yeah, I should. I’ll start next week since this week’s almost over…”
And then next week comes and—you guessed it—no gym. Often if there’s no change in the next week or two or three we find ourselves getting into judging, nagging, criticizing or disconnecting in our disappointment at their lack of action. What then?!
Before you pack your bags and start sleeping in the guest room, I want to offer the following tips.
Note: We’re not talking about red flag issues here like denial and avoidance creating major life problems.
1. Take Back Your Power
If your happiness depends on him or her doing the “right” healthy things, eating the “right” healthy food, exercising or meditating the “right” number of times a week, you’ve lost your power. It’s hard to see our partners stuck—partly because we love them and want them to be happy and partly because it feels nice to be around cheerful, positive people. But when our happiness depends on someone else’s mood we need to work to remember our own wholeness—regardless of our partner’s struggles.
2. Remember how long it took you to start ____________.
Fill in the blank with meditating, exercising, doing yoga, eating kale, flossing your teeth, etc… With hindsight, it may seem like anyone should be able to pick up those habits, but it probably took you a while to integrate them into your life and see the benefits.
3. Bring to mind three healthy behaviors your partner does (that you still don’t).
Maybe he’s less critical and more accepting. Maybe she stays organized and keeps stress from piling up. Maybe he takes more deep breaths and doesn’t yell at the kids when he’s stressed. You may be the yoga maven right now, but there are probably healthy, evolved things your partner is doing that you aren’t and he/she is probably not on your case about those things.
4. Notice How You Might be Projecting
Often we judge and criticize our partners when we feel insufficient ourselves. Maybe on some level you fear something might be wrong with you if he’s not buff enough or she’s not svelte enough. Take a breath, put your hand on your heart, and try to tune into your own sense of safety and self-acceptance.
5. Accept the Imperfections
He may always have a belly. She may never be into yoga. He may never organize his finances the way you’d like. She might always procrastinate. If the situation is a make or break one, there’s got to be a serious conversation; but if it’s just something you really, really wish he or she would do, you might have to work on accepting the present. Life will go on and you will have to find your own okayness without sharing that interest or habit with your partner.
It’s totally understandable to want to share healthy habits with our partners. But sometimes the healthiest habit we can embody is letting go of the need to change another person and making peace with our own perfectly, imperfect relationships.