We chatted about this online for awhile and reviewed possibilities. For a long time after our conversation, I thought about her situation and how similar it is to so many other couples I know as friends or have seen as patients.
How do you help a loved one stop self-sabotage? How do you intervene when you see someone you love mired in an unhealthy lifestyle --whether he or she is eating or drinking all the wrong things or in line to set a couch potato record? What do you do when a partner rejects your healthy suggestions either directly or through passive resistance?
State your case and then step back. Don't nag. It reinforces stubborn resistance. Express your observations about an unhealthy habit or habits and your concern about how this might impact his or her health. Keep your tone loving, not judgmental or carping. Let your partner know that your concern comes from love, from wanting him or her to have the longest healthy life possible.
Give subtle encouragement: meals that are healthy yet delicious -- spaghetti squash or spiral veggies instead of pasta, fruit in place of pie. There are celebration meals, of course, when only pie or cake will do. But for everyday meals, keep the sugar and carbs at a minimum and maximize your use of vegetables. If you're the usual cook in the family, that is fairly easy. If you share cooking duties with your spouse or he or she does most of the cooking, volunteer to cook more and choose healthy alternatives to your usual favorites. Make it more convenient to grab a healthy snack -- a piece of fruit, cut up vegetables with hummus or a healthy dip. Banish the old junk snacks -- the potato chips, cookies, crackers and candy -- and see how you and your spouse do without these, one day at a time.
Turn the situation around and ask for help yourself. Instead of focusing on your partner's health challenges, share your concerns about your own health with special requests -- e.g. to eat out less and enjoy more home cooked meals, to take an evening walk together, to join a gym. Encourage your partner to try new ways of eating and exercise routines along with you -- to enjoy more time together, more healthy food adventures together and the prospect of a healthy future for both of you.
Ask how you can help. If you want to help your loved one build a healthy lifestyle, ask him or her how you can best help. While we might assume that facts, statistics, news reports and charts as well as regular lectures and occasional nagging would be most helpful, what would feel most supportive to your loved one might be something entirely different. You won't know unless you ask. Your loved one might do better if you share your concern and then back off, supporting positive results and letting go of the need to oversee or control the outcome of his or her efforts to change. He or she might appreciate it if you keep trigger foods out of the house (it's amazing how many spouses criticize the other for eating too many sweets but keep these around for themselves because they don't have a weight problem!).
Make a gentle, but startling observation: there are some things worse than death. Some people who overeat all the wrong things and skimp on exercise get defensive when spouses tell them that they may be shortening their lives with unhealthy habits. Perhaps in denial about how fragile life and good health can become as we age, they reply with stubborn bravado that they'd rather die happy with chocolate in hand or joke that a healthy lifestyle doesn't make life longer, just seem longer. But, for many of us, the prospect of a disabling health catastrophe can be more frightening than death. To be rendered helpless by a stroke, by COPD, by heart failure or diabetic complications, to be dependent on others to perform the most routine of daily tasks from bathing to using the toilet, for example, can be torture for someone who has been proud and independent.
I see this in a friend's husband who has become an invalid via a perfect storm of ailments. He was once a powerful corporate executive who traveled the world. He ate, drank and smoked excessively and was too busy to worry much about his expanding waistline. Now his wife and a full-time attendant change his diapers, bathe him, lift him from bed to wheelchair and feed him soft foods. Not all of his disabilities are a result of his previous lifestyle, of course. Some may be genetic, some just plain bad luck. But the fact is, he has lived quite a significant portion of his later years with a very poor quality of life. He is frustrated, humiliated and profoundly sad at this turn of events.
It may help to remind your own loved one that becoming helpless with prolonged disability can make for very poor quality of life and, in many cases, this can be prevented by wise choices now.
I just got another email from my friend with the stubborn significant other. She reports that, by mutual agreement, the junk food is gone, they're walking several miles a day and vegetables are a larger part of their daily meals. She says that they're both feeling better and more optimistic about the future.
None of us can know what the future holds for us, but it makes sense to tip the balance in our favor with healthy habits now so that we and our loved ones can live fully and in good health for as long as possible.