My Partner’s Unhealthy Habit is Driving Me Crazy!: Part I

This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “My Partner’s Unhealthy Habit is Driving Me Crazy! Part I.” To listen to this episode, click here.


Welcome back to the blog! We’ve got our work cut out for ourselves with this topic. Many of us make goals for ourselves relating to our habits: eat healthier, go to bed earlier, workout more, spend less time on our phones, the list goes on and on. But today, we’re not going to be talking about your habits — we’re talking about your feelings about your partner’s habits. What should you do when an unhealthy habit of your partner is driving you crazy? In this article, we’ll explore what might be lying beneath these concerns and then in Part 2, I’ll provide some guidance on how to navigate these conversations with sensitivity and understanding.

I was recently in a conversation about a 50 something year old husband with a family history of colon cancer who has yet to get a colonoscopy. One person in the conversation argued that if this was her, she’d pester her husband until he scheduled it just to get her to be quiet. But another friend said that it’s his life and his choices. Is it just his life and his choices? If his choice to avoid getting a colonoscopy puts him at risk of cancer, that illness will certainly impact his partner’s life. What authority do you have to change your partner’s habit given their choices will affect you in the long run?

Dynamics around health behaviors show up all the time in my clinical work! And it ends up being pretty dicey:

  1. “I hate that my partner chews tobacco.” 
  2. “I wish my partner would go to the gym more often.” 
  3. “I wish my partner ate less junk food.” 
  4. “When my partner complains that they have gained weight, I don’t know what to say. Do I encourage them to go to the gym or do I say, ‘you’re just fine as you are’? I feel like I’m gonna say the wrong thing no matter what!”

This topic puts us face to face with some big existential questions about the nature of intimate partnerships:

  • To what degree are we separate individuals on our own paths versus part of a we?
  • What do we do about the reality that because we are a couple, your choices affect me? 
  • If we are a we, then when and how do I get to weigh in on your choices?

These are questions with no easy answers… and with plenty of opportunities for conflict. The partner requesting the change feels anxious, angry, and unheard. And the partner who is being asked to change feels micromanaged, defensive, and judged. 

Here’s the kicker. Couples experience conflict over perceptions of things people are doing that are bad for their health. But chronic conflict is also bad for people’s health! In fact a 2014 study for the Psychological Bulletin found that the relationships between marital quality and various health outcomes had effect sizes that were similar in magnitude to the effects of diet and exercise on clinical health endpoints. Talk about a tragic irony! Fighting about your partner’s diet and exercise has the power to erode your partner’s physical health just as much as their lousy diet and exercise! Oy! So, we have our work cut out for us today. We gotta figure out how to minimize friction and maximize loving alignment around matters of health. My plan for us is :

  1. I am going to offer two contextual factors to frame our conversation.
  2. I am going to talk about how we can practice Relational Self-Awareness by understanding the degree to which our desire to change our partner is coming from the energy of fear versus the energy of love.
  3. I am going to help us think about this problem in a relational way by introducing the idea of a Health Habit Discrepancy.
  4. I am going to talk to each partner, offering guidance to both the one who wants their partner to change AND the one who is being asked to change.

Health in Context

Now, before we get any further, I want to frame this topic in a larger context by addressing two things: 

  1. Health behaviors happen on a spectrum.
  2. Health behaviors are profoundly impacted by privilege.

First, we can put health behaviors on a spectrum from neglectful to neurotic. On one end, there exists someone who doesn’t seek any health-based information (or even actively avoids it) and isn’t engaged in any health-based practices. But all the way on the other end, there’s someone who is incredibly scrupulous and compulsive around eating, exercise, and health. And this end of the spectrum itself can veer into dangerous territory, like if someone is struggling with orthorexia. People with orthorexia become so fixated on healthy eating that it becomes an eating disorder itself and ends up actually damaging their health.

I’m trying to talk about some middle range of behaviors that are worrisome, irksome, and less-than-ideal, rather than issues that are rooted in significant untreated mental health issues or create the risk of imminent danger. So let’s be clear. We’re talking about chewing tobacco. We’re NOT talking about a severe and untreated addiction. We’re talking about drinking more than ideal. We’re NOT talking about refusing to take medicine that puts their mental or physical health in jeopardy. We’re talking about your feelings that they’re not exercising as much as you’d like or that they’re eating too much fast food or drinking too much soda. We’re NOT about binge eating or extreme restriction or any other unsafe relationship with food and exercise.

Second, It’s important to acknowledge how our orientation to health intersects with culture; unfortunately, there’s no getting around the fact that it requires a measure of privilege to be health-oriented. Medical care is expensive and can be difficult to access. Organic food costs more than fast food. Even beyond money, just having the time to focus on health is a privilege. Consistently going to the gym, researching recipes and different diets, making meal plans, and cooking all require time that not everyone has if they are working long hours to make ends meet. 

Systemic issues and inequality compromise access to fresh foods and healthy options. Food insecurity, food deserts, and environmental racism all disproportionately impact marginalized communities and create complex challenges to the health of those communities. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2016 found that the richest Americans live longer than the poorest Americans. For men, that difference is by nearly fifteen years and for women, it’s a ten year gap. A 2018 meta-analysis from the British Journal of Medicine found that not only does a lower socioeconomic status put someone at higher risk for obesity, but that obesity also puts someone at risk for a downward slide in socioeconomic status! So that stigma creates extra challenges for someone struggling with obesity beyond the health implications.

It was important for me to name those two caveats– I’m addressing health behaviors somewhere in the middle of that spectrum and when we talk about health behaviors as a “choice” we have to be mindful that we don’t all have the same expanse of possibilities. Privilege expands possibilities. Marginalization constricts possibilities. 

Energy of Fear and Energy of Love

When you find yourself wanting your partner to make “better” choices around their health, one route you can take is to ask and then cajole and then insist and then threaten. Another route you can go is to practice Relational Self-Awareness and see if you can get in touch with exactly why you are trying to change them. If you’ve been following my work for a while, you have heard me talk about the fact that there are really two motivators of our behavior: energy of fear and the energy of love. 

  • The energy of fear is when we are fueled by a need for control and a lack of trust– of ourselves and our partner. The energy of fear feels tight and urgent.
  • The energy of love is when we are fueled by a desire for connection, for ease, for peace. The energy of love feels open and gentle.

Let’s look at both. 

Energy of Fear

It is likely that your desire for your partner to change their health behavior is motivated at least in part by the energy of fear because we are all just so darned human! It is uncomfortable to talk about the messy stuff that comes up inside of you when you notice your partner making choices that you perceive as unhealthy. But as James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can change until it has been faced.” So I want to ask you to get brave and ask yourself, “What keeps me from accepting my partner’s behavior?”  I’m going to run four ideas by you. See if any/all of them land. The four are: Merger, Danger, Reflection, and Invisibility. 

Merger: 

Merger sounds like this: “When your habits slip, I get afraid that mine will too.” When I say that I want my partner to eat healthier or go to the gym more often, I am in part saying that I want them to live a long healthy life, but I am also saying that I want my partner to make healthy choices so that I too can make healthy choices! The overt thing is, “I am protecting you from health problems” but the covert thing is, “I am protecting myself from the risk of sliding into bad habits with you.” This fear is founded. A 2017 review published in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology found the following: 

  • Intimate partners influence each other’s mental and physical health trajectories.
  • Our physical health is linked to each other. 
  • Couples’ health and health behaviors are often similar and tend to converge over time. 

Researchers argue that these intertwined research findings happen for several reasons:

  1. We tend to pick partners who are similar to us and that might include shared beliefs or habits around health. 
  2.  Couples share an environment and our environments shape our health, whether it’s through our community’s access to healthy foods or how the urban design in our area shapes our ability to go on walks or exercise.
  3. Couples are interdependent — our daily lives might lead us to share habits around exercise, diet, and sleep. This interdependence can impact us in both positive and negative ways. On one hand, if one partner has a mental or physical health problem, that can negatively impact the other partner’s mental or physical health. But, research shows us that interconnectedness can be used to support each other through health challenges and ultimately promote better treatment outcomes.

If this idea of merger lands for you, there might be a Family of Origin wound getting activated here. Perhaps you grew up in a family where closeness was confused with sameness. You learned to take on the habits or tendencies of the Big People in order to feel connected. Some part of you therefore knows that you’re at risk of doing that again with your partner. Perhaps you grew up in a family where you were made to feel guilty about being different or you were punished or shamed for excelling or shining too brightly. If so, you learned to pay close attention to the people around you and tone down your behavior to match theirs. 

Danger: 

Danger sounds like this: “When your habits slip, I view you as out of control. When I view you as out of control, I feel unsafe.” If this one lands for you, there’s likely a Family of Origin wound that is kicked up. For those of us with trauma or complex family dynamics, falling in love feels like a promise that we won’t ever again have to feel the kind of isolation or fear that we felt before. In our partner we feel we have found an escape from pain. Admiration sits awfully close to idealization. We unconsciously cast our partner into a role that they did not ask to play. If you grew up in a family with addiction, you tracked their substance use as a way of attempting to predict when things would become volatile or scary or to track when your caregivers would no longer be able to provide you with care! You established a pattern of tracking behavior as a way of staying safe or preventing the feeling of being blindsided. You understandably bring this into your romantic relationship, and you monitor your partner’s health habits, maybe not even consciously. Your nervous system gets reactive when you observe a change in your partner and you get angry, critical, annoyed. But what you’re really saying is, “I don’t feel safe.”

Reflection: 

Reflection sounds like this: “When your habits slip, I view you as weak or embarrassing. When I view you as weak or embarrassing, I start to feel ashamed by association.” This is a hard one. How do we hold a place of both closeness and separateness? If we are a “we,” then the things you do feel like they reflect on me. I fear people judging you and then me by association. If you grew up in a family system that confused behavior with character, this can be especially confusing for you. If you grew up feeling like you were only as good as your last A grade or your last performance, then you likely have perfectionist ideas about how you need to be. And you bring those to your partner too. Except rather than just managing yourself, you need to manage them too. This feeling of avoiding judgment through perfectionism is an understandable adaptation to a painful early reality, but when it gets projected onto a partner, when you start doing to them what you have long done to yourself, the situation is untenable and very tiring for both of you.

Invisibility:

Invisibility sounds like this: “When you make choices that you know I don’t feel good about, I don’t feel cherished, chosen, or seen.” This is a terrible feeling. Research has found that in healthy relationships, when one person raises a concern, the other person says, “hmm. OK. I don’t see it that way but I love you and I trust you and I know you love me. So, tell me more.” If your partner’s behavior leads you to feel like your concern is being ignored, your desire to control or change them makes sense. You’re attempting to protect yourself from a horrible feeling. Your partner very likely is not intending for you to feel invisible, but that is the impact on you. You are personalizing something that probably is not personal. The pain of invisibility is amplified for you if you grew up in a FOO in which you felt unseen or misunderstood.

Energy of Love:

OK, let’s move on to the energy of love. Here we’re talking about you wanting your partner to make different choices from a place that is grounded, clear, and calm. We’re going to talk about four ways this plays out: longevity, empathic concern, loneliness, and constriction.

Longevity: 

Fear of loss sounds like this, “When I feel like you are not taking good care of yourself, I become afraid of losing you.” That fear might be, “I worry you’re going to hurt yourself,” or “I worry you’ll get sick and die.” As I was working on developing this article, I read a tweet from Jack whose handle is @yougottasheher. Jack wrote: “My girlfriend told me she would break up with me unless I started to wear a bike helmet. She gave me three strikes. Now when I wear it, it reminds me how much she loves me!” The girlfriend gave an ultimatum. We have no context. We don’t know what methods she had tried before getting to this point and how the biker responded to her prior entreaties. What comes up for you when you hear this scenario? Do you deem her to be controlling? Loving? Both? Do you deem her to be attempting to mitigate her risk in this relationship– the emotional risk of loving someone who could die from a crash without a helmet? In making this ultimatum, who is she protecting? Herself? Her partner? Both?

What struck me about this example is that rather than hardening into defensiveness and a battle of wills– “My girlfriend cannot control me. I’m my own person.”– this twitter user stepped into a story about love- “My girlfriend loves me so much, and the idea of losing me is so wretched, that she set a boundary.” I also hope this twitter user rewound the tape a bit and explored the sequence of events that led to the girlfriend’s declaration. Had she asked many times and the twitter user rolled their eyes? If so, this person might want to explore what keeps them from leaning into their girlfriend’s influence?

If you are finding yourself annoyed at your partner over an unhealthy habit, remember that annoyance is rooted in your love! You’ve heard the advice that “you can’t change someone else” a million times before. And you can’t. But it’s worth keeping clear that the desire to change your partner’s unhealthy habit stems from your desire for them to live long, healthy life so that you can continue to enjoy each other for many years to come. A desire that our teen daughter would call, “pure.” Just make sure that when you raise your concerns with your partner, that you really challenge yourself to lead with your love. It’s more vulnerable for you, but it is also likely more effective because your partner can more easily see that you are reaching for connection not control. That fear might be, “When this habit of yours changes, it feels to me like you change and I don’t want you to change because I like you the way you are!” When we choose a partner, we are not promised or guaranteed that they will stay the same forever

Empathic concern: 

Admiration sounds like this: “I am clear that you deserve to feel good and whole on the inside, so it hurts me to see you taking less than great care of yourself.” You want the best for them. You wish them to be well and healthy. And from where you stand, the choices they are making are not in the service of health. There might be a difference between the two of you in terms of your risk tolerance and your health ideologies, but you’re clear and aligned on the inside. Based on what you believe to be true, your partner’s behaviors put them at risk. And because of the amazing person they are, you want it to be different for them.”

Loneliness: 

Loneliness sounds like this: “When your health habits slip, you get a bit lost in your own world (because you feel badly or because your energy is low), and I miss you.” Here, your reactivity to your partner’s unhealthy habit is your very healthy protest against a loss of connection. In your experience, when they are sneaking away to chew tobacco, they are more closed and guarded around you. When they stop going to the gym, they become distracted in their world of self-criticism and therefore less available for connection with you. Your desire for them to make healthier choices is driven by your desire to feel close to them!

Constriction: 

Constriction sounds like this “When I feel my energy going into worrying about your health behavior, I have less energy available to be fun, relaxed, and present with you. Am I responsible for my mood? Yes. Are we interdependent? Yes. Your behavior affects my mood. My mood in turn affects your mood which probably also affects your behavior. And on and on we go.” The idea here is that you want your partner’s behavior to change because you know that there’s a toll it takes on you. It’s tricky right? You’re responsible for your mindset, for what you focus on. And at the same time, the two of you are interdependent. You do feed off of each other. And you know how you want to feel with your partner– open, light, connected. And you know that it’s really freaking hard to do that when you’re watching them make a choice that does damage to them.

So here you’re sort of saying, “Help me help us!” Be mindful of your behavior so that I can be the partner to you and for you that you need and deserve! Do your part to set us up for success!

By talking through the energy of fear and the energy of love, my hope is that you can deepen your understanding of why you are struggling with your partner’s habit. To understand your struggle specifically and deeply. In a way that is beyond, “Anyone can see what they are doing is wrong or dangerous.” By considering the energy of love and the energy of fear, you can:

  • Get in touch with who your frustration is trying to protect? Your partner? Both?
  • Better understand what your frustration is trying to protect you from experiencing.
  • Tend to the parts of yourself that are feeling unsafe or unseen. You have a responsibility to care for those young parts of yourself that get stirred by this problem, so that when you do talk with your partner, you’re approaching in a calm and empowered way.

Conclusion

Now that we’ve gone through some of what might be lying beneath this tension, I think this is a good moment to pause. We’ll return next to discuss some of the factors that might be playing into this Health Habit Discrepancy in your relationship. In the second article, I’ll also give you some tips and strategies for how to navigate this conversation with your loved one — whether you’re the one raising the concern or the one receiving the feedback.

This topic is just bursting with opportunities for reflection so I invite you to take some time to reflect on the ideas we discussed today — which of those speak to you? I look forward to sharing Part 2 of this series with you.

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