Editors Note: This is a guest post from Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen of Raise Healthy Eaters.
After having children, Rhonda and her husband took different roads in terms of self care. She made a point to keep exercising, eat well and go to bed early and he stayed up late, ate in response to stress and gave up exercise completely.
Rhonda did what millions of spouses do every day and nagged her husband to change. She bugged him to get to the gym, go to bed earlier and stop after one helping of dinner.
While the nagging sometimes worked to get her husband to take action, he always did it begrudgingly, which is why the new habit never lasted. In fact, the more she nagged, the more he resisted. And the subject was becoming a huge point of contention in their marriage.
If you are in a situation where you are trying to get your spouse (or anyone for that matter) to lead a healthier lifestyle, you may feel as if you’re banging your head against the wall. While no one can make someone do something they aren’t ready for, there are things you can do to help nudge them in the right direction.
1. Uncover the why: When someone is told they “should” do something they automatically resist. One reason for this is that “should” statements are so judgmental — almost everyone reacts negatively to them (think about the last time you told yourself you “should” do something — did you resist?).
Instead of telling your spouse what they should or shouldn’t do, try to find out the why behind the behavior. Maybe being a new parent has left little me time so your spouse stays up late. Or work may be a source of stress with fears of job loss. Sometimes it’s pure discontent at work or with one’s career choice that can wreak havoc.
Once you figure out what it is causing the behavior you can help find resolution or provide support. If it’s a lack of me time, you can offer to watch the kids while your spouse gets away. Or if it’s work- oriented just talking and offering support can do wonders. No matter what the why is, ask your spouse to consider whether or not his current way of coping is helping or hurting the situation.
2. Show them how great it is: Let’s say you come in contact with two salesmen selling the same product. One is in your face telling you how great their product is and why you should buy it. The other salesman sits there confidently enjoying his attractively displayed product. Which one are you drawn to?
If you are trying to sell your spouse on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle you will be more successful by showing instead of telling. Instead of nagging, throw yourself into your healthy lifestyle by making new goals and stepping it up a notch. Instead of playing the role of annoying watch dog, you’ll become the cool role model which might just motivate your spouse to join you.
3. Point out the positive: As a registered dietitian, I have a knack for picking out the good in what appears to be the unhealthiest lifestyles. People tell me how bad they are and I challenge them every time. This always makes them feel better about themselves and that positive change is not such a stretch.
No matter how unhealthy your spouse’s lifestyle may be, there’s always at least a few things they are doing right. By focusing your attention on their positive habits like walking, eating breakfast and going to bed early on some nights, you actually help feed the behavior you want to reinforce.
4. Encourage small steps: The major barrier that holds people back from engaging in healthier habits is simply being overwhelmed. Most people view a healthy lifestyle in extremes such as eating “only” healthy food and exercising at least an hour per day. They also fear giving up the very things they enjoy including their leisure time, tasty food and drink. As a result, people conclude that they don’t have enough time (or willpower) to make a change.
This is where small steps come in. Encourage your spouse to do little things to improve their health. Remind her them that they don’t have to give up anything unless they choose to down the line. Some first steps might be eating regular meals at the table instead of in front the TV, stop eating when they first feel full and walking an extra 5 minutes per day.
Once they master a few small steps they can add on. This is much more doable that starting with a diet and exercise plan that is not only difficult to maintain but doesn’t resemble their personal preferences or lifestyle.
5. Focus on the benefits: According to a 2008 study published in Women’s Health Issues, midlife women who exercised because it made them feel good were more likely to stick with it than women who exercised for their weight and health.
In our society we wrongly believe that health and weight will motivate people to choose healthy habits, which is why scaring loved ones with health statistics doesn’t work. The truth is people only choose healthy habits if they enjoy them, especially the intrinsic benefits.
When your spouse makes a positive change ask how it makes them feel. Always help tie the behavior to a desired benefit such as feeling good, improved productivity or something else important to them.
In the end, your spouse needs to make the decision to become healthier for him or herself. But if you can give them a little push, why wouldn’t you? It’s much better than banging your head against the wall — and it offers the best chance of success.
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen is a registered dietitian, mother of two and creator of Raise Healthy Eaters, a blog that provides families with simple and sound nutriiton advice. For expert tips, feeding advice and quick and healthy meal ideas subscribe to Raise Healthy Eaters’ email updates or RSS feed.