My Partner’s Unhealthy Habit is Driving Me Crazy!: Part 2

This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “My Partner’s Unhealthy Habit is Driving Me Crazy! Part 2.” To listen to this episode, click here.


Welcome back for Part 2 of my series all about health habits. Last week, we explored why this topic is just so sticky and complicated. I offered two contextual factors to frame our conversation: Health behaviors happen on a spectrum and that health behaviors are profoundly impacted by privilege. 

And I discussed 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.

In this blog post, I am going to help us think about this problem in a relational way by introducing the idea of a Health Habit Discrepancy and discuss four root causes that might be impacting this discrepancy. Then, I’ll 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. All sounds good? Let’s dive in.

Health Habit Discrepancy

Let’s put a big juicy relational frame around this health habit conversation by talking about what I am going to call a Health Habit Discrepancy. We know that we are never going to partner with someone who is a clone of us. And differences are spaces that are ripe for conflict, power dynamics and polarization. If your partner’s unhealthy habit is driving you crazy, it might be that the two of you have a Health Habit Discrepancy. One of the side effects of conflict and tension in a relationship is that you begin to feel polarized– your perspectives begin to feel further and further apart. If health behaviors happen on a spectrum even if the two of you are not that different from each other, any wedge of light between your definition of healthy and your partner’s definition of healthy becomes a point of contention. Get curious about where this difference between the two of you comes from. Understanding how and why you have different health perspectives can help you feel more curious than critical AND it can open new pathways for creative problem solving– pathways that are simply not available when you’re locked in a good/bad/my way/your way stance. 

Root 1: Experiences of Oppression

Our health habits are impacted by so many factors; so many unseen forces. And it’s a painful reminder of the cruelty of systemic oppression — that where we grew up or how much money we make physically impacts us. Habits are notoriously difficult to change, let alone when they’re reinforced by external challenges or messages. Can you think about the messages your partner absorbed about health as a child? Are there external challenges they’ve faced that you can identify? Could these be contributing to the difference in how you two view this unhealthy habit?

Root 2: Present Vs Future Orientation 

Your Health Habit Discrepancy may show up because you and your partner different in your orientation to time. Some of us are present-oriented and some of us are future-oriented. This is an idea that was developed by Stanford professor emeritus, Philip Zimbardo. In a 2008 article in the American Psychological Association, says (quote) “every decision we make is governed by our internal time perspective, a sort of unconscious cognitive response style that’s shaped by such factors as family, economics, geography, education and culture.” To a present-oriented person, that trip to their favorite fast food restaurant is a simple joy or a timesaver so that they can focus on more fun and rewarding tasks than cooking. To their future-oriented partner, their unhealthy dinner choice might set off a bunch of alarm bells: “If you eat fast food forever, you’re going to become more and more unhealthy. You’ll get heart disease and I’ll be left a widow!” or “Why are they so lazy? Why can’t they just prioritize cooking?”

You might be reading along and agreeing with one perspective — if you’re present-oriented, you might be thinking that that worrisome future-oriented partner is being a bit hysterical. If you’re future-oriented, you might be feeling a rise of frustration that present-oriented people can’t resist what they want right now for the sake of the long game.

The truth is there are benefits and risks to both mindsets. We’re constantly in conflict with ourselves as we navigate our short-term and long-term interests:

  • You don’t want to go to the gym but you know it’ll be good for your physical and mental health. 
  • You are saving up to buy a home, but you and your partner also deserve to try a great new restaurant that just opened in your neighborhood. 

Our “psychological time” orientations explain how we navigate those tradeoffs which often relate to health behaviors. And when a couple comes together across that kind of difference, the best case scenario is that both can see how complementarity is an asset. Today’s choices do become tomorrow’s health results. And, a little indulgence and naughtiness can help a couple feel connected and alive together!

Root 3: Risk Tolerance

Your Health Habit Discrepancy may be rooted in a difference in risk tolerance: in how worried you are about bad things happening. One partner may have experienced very few unexpected challenges in their life and may feel somewhat invincible. The other partner may have lived through that feeling that the rug was pulled out from under them. If you’ve lived through precipitous and unexpected loss, you may use “safety behaviors” to prevent that from happening again. There’s so much in life we can’t control so in order to feel as in control as possible, we might focus our energies on trying to be as safe and scrupulous as possible to guard against future loss.

Root 4: Me vs We Orientation

Maybe you two struggle like this because one of you brings in a “me” orientation and the other brings in a “we” orientation– individualistic versus collectivistic. This is the difference between a “live and let live” response versus saying “loving someone means being able to weigh in on their choices.” If you have more of a “we” orientation, exiting your lane feels like a reflection of love. But, we want to take time to reflect on what’s truly behind our feelings because there can be a muddying of love and intrusiveness. When your partner experiences you as intrusive, they will close up as a way of maintaining a sense of sovereignty and the cycle will continue. Your “we” orientation is lovely. It’s relational. And in order to be able to speak in a way that you can be heard, you need to convey to your partner that you respect their right to make choices for themselves and you are struggling with those choices.

Root 5: Gender

I think when couples, especially cis hetero couples, bump up against a Health Habit Discrepancy, there’s sneaky gender stuff at play, so let’s talk a bit about gender. This section will primarily be focused on how gender norms manifest in heterosexual relationships but of course, the lessons we’ve learned about gender and body image influence all of us and will influence same-sex or gender fluid partnerships as well.

Research has found that men who are married to women are healthier than men who are divorced or single. Why? Women tend to provide healthy food, ensure that men see their doctor, and manage the couple’s social schedules and households. Data shows us that in heterosexual couples, women are still doing more housework and taking on more of the mental load of managing households. Given the uneven divisions of labor in many homes, the fact that he may have done less than her around meal planning, shopping, meal prep, and clean up may have a few impacts:

  • She may feel authorized to comment on his choices.
  • She may feel guilty if her partner’s health isn’t in tip top shape. Her criticism of her partner may be an effort for her partner to change so that she can feel less guilty. Codependent? Yes. The understandable downstream effect of patriarchal socialization? Also yes.
  • She may struggle to have time to care for her own health because she’s busy caring for everyone else’s.

Here’s another sneaky way that gender can shape dynamics around health behaviors. While we know that men struggle with body insecurities and low self-esteem, our society has placed an outsized emphasis on women’s looks for generations. So to me, a man who critiques his partner’s body or exercise habits strikes me in an extra tender place, versus the other way around. Criticism in general is a very quick route to eroded trust, safety, and connection. And, a man who criticizes his female partner’s body becomes another voice that lives in her head, adding to the societal pressure around maintaining a certain physical appearance. Alternatively, when he is a voice of affirmation and validation, that’s such a relational asset that we want to protect and cherish.

Another gender dynamic at play here is that women might take their partner’s unhealthy habit personally because they regulate their self-worth around his habits, attire, and physical appearance. Women have been socialized to be the keeper of the home — which includes his presence! This is highly problematic and can start to foster a mother-son dynamic. When a partner’s health or appearance becomes another responsibility, this might create an emotional enmeshment that fuels resentment.

The path forward here is recognizing the sneaky effects of gender role socialization and talking together, compassionately, curiously, about how gender stuff shapes this conflict you’re experiencing. Socialization is not your fault but by recognizing it for what it is you can begin to imagine possibilities beyond what you have internalized. You can carve your own path, one in which you each feel liberated and able to appreciate yourselves and each other from a place of equal footing. 

What to Do

Okay, so now let’s get strategic. Certainly everything I have said to this point is designed to help you shift your definition of the problem and your feelings about the problem. And I think everything to this point puts you in a good position to approach your partner’s unhealthy habit in a different way… one that will help you have a different conversation and make some different agreements. Now, I want to offer some guidance to both The One Raising the Concern, about both managing our feelings and tackling the unhealthy habit in a way that is healthy for your relationship.

The One Raising the Concern

First, I’m going to talk to the partner who is raising the feedback. The first part of the article gave you lots of avenues of self-inquiry. Make sure you flip the script and use avenues Relational Self-Awareness avenues to consider:

  • Why your partner has this habit in the first place.
  • What keeps your partner from thanking you for your concern and changing their behavior. Your partner’s intent is not to make you feel ignored and disrespected… at least I hope that’s not their intent. Their yucky habit feels personal to you, like they are doing it to you, even as this habit has much more to do with your partner’s self-perception, emotional struggles, and blind spots.
  • Trying to understand their relationship to their habit can put a little distance between you and your reactivity and can maybe possibly open up some compassion and patience. 

I want to remind you to be mindful of how you are bringing up your concerns. Delivery matters. I have a few things for you to keep in mind:

  1. “Start as you mean to go on”: Quote from oldy timey British preacher, Charles Spurgeon. Research from the Gottmans found that the first few minutes of a conversation set the tone for the whole conversation. Start the conversation when you feel calm, not when you feel fired up because you discovered an empty McDonald’s bag in the garbage can.
  2. Go meta: Are you available for a conversation? If not now, when?
  3. Lead with love: I love you. I love us. I don’t want you to feel hurt or like you need to defend yourself or explain your choices. I just want us to look at the impact that each of our choices has on the other and how we can talk together when we have concerns.
  4. Personalize your request: Connect your concern to your love and care for them. Resist the urge to point to external sources: “Research has found…” or “My doctor told me…” or “Everybody knows you shouldn’t…” which can put your partner on the defensive. Speak from your heart: I am worried… It would mean so much to me… I feel so sad when… 
  5. Embrace something healthy together: See if you can shift the conversation from a “you” Orientation to a “We” Orientation. See how you can be helpful in supporting them making healthier choices. This is tricky because you do not want to become their coach and being the one who doles out rewards and punishments isn’t great for a relationship dynamic. But a 2019 study from Harvard Health Publishing cited research out of Australia that found that working on health goals together can be particularly effective for couples. Working toward goals together can make your goal easier to achieve and strengthen your relationship. 
  6. Tie it to a value. What do you know to be true about your partner? How is this unhealthy habit out of alignment with who you know your partner is as a person? For example, your partner is a good listener, someone who really values making sure the people in their life feel heard. So icing you out on this topic doesn’t fit with this way that you know they strive to be in the world. If you can connect the behavior to a value, your partner may feel less criticized and more called forth in a hopeful way.
  7. Resist the urge to make an ultimatum. An ultimatum speaks to your desperation, for sure. But it’s likely going to just increase the polarization and distance between you, making it that much harder to put yourselves in each other’s shoes. The last thing you want is your partner sneaking around to engage in this behavior to hide it from you. If you really feel it’s time to make an ultimatum, just do the soul-searching you need to ensure that you will walk your talk. 

The One Hearing the Concern

And finally, I want to speak to the partner who is receiving the feedback. Check in with yourself. When your partner raises their concern about your behavior, how do you feel? Loved? Controlled? A little of both? This is a really important place for you to do some self-reflection:

  • What might make it difficult for you to hear in their feedback their desire for you to be well, happy, and healthy? Perhaps if you really let yourself feel how much they want you to be healthy, you would feel guilt or maybe even shame that you’re struggling to make healthy choices for yourself. See if you can tend to the shame that says, “I am hurting someone I love” and open up a little space to let in this incredible feeling of, “I have created a life for myself in which I am so loved, so cared for, that there is someone advocating for me like this.” See if you can breathe in a sense that you deserve this kind of care, this kind of concern, this quality of love. Maybe in the past, someone feigned concern about you so that they could control you or hurt you. Maybe that is NOT in fact what is happening now. You fear that’s what’s happening now, so you block your partner out. But maybe, hopefully, your partner is just coming to you with a desire for you to be well.
  • What might make it difficult for you to let in the awareness that your habit impacts your partner? It is NOT the case that you are responsible for their feelings. But it is the case that, but, being in a relationship, you are part of a system. And you do have a responsibility to that system. When you were a single person, you could be your own siloed self. But one of the side effects of partnership is that your moves affect someone else. Connection is NOT domination. Your partner does not control you. But caring for yourself is a way of saying to your partner, “I get it. We’re in this together.” 
  • What keeps you from hearing their concern as a plea not a critique? Listen, your partner might be critical, especially if they are feeling reactive based on their own wounds, as discussed earlier or if they feel like they are screaming into the void and not being heard by you. But keep open the possibility that you might be having a hard time hearing the difference between your partner reaching for you and your partner demeaning you. The fact that your partner wants you to do something different may feel the same to you as your partner saying they don’t accept you as you are. See if you can remind yourself that from where they stand, this is a change they want in the service of your health, not from a place of wanting to shame or control you. If your Family of Origin was highly critical of you, if your attachment figures viewed your behavior again and again as a reflection of your character, I can understand how easily you’d feel attacked. And that it would be hard for you to hear your partner as wanting the best for you.  
  • What from your past might prime you to turn your partner’s concern into a battle of wills? It might be the case that in your quiet moments, you can totally see where your partner is coming from. But you have a really hard time saying that to them. Get curious about why. Are you, perhaps being obstinate for the sake of obstinance? This is perhaps also tied to a wound in your Family of Origin. When you were young, you might have resisted harsh, cruel, or unpredictable authority figures as a matter of self-definition and sovereignty; an attempt to stave off someone who really was trying to control or squash your unique expression of self. What if it’s different today? What if your partner sees you as you are, loves you deeply, and therefore wants you well? 

I think trust is a really powerful tool here. Do you trust your partner? Does your partner generally have your best interests at heart? If yes, then use trust to grease the wheels between your resistance and your willingness to try. Use trust to take in your partner’s feedback: I love my partner. I admire my partner. I know my partner cares about me. My partner is saying they are concerned for me. I will therefore take steps to modify my behavior.

Conclusion

I hope this blog post gave you lots of strategies and opportunities for reflection. As always, any relationship challenge is an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your partner. Remember what we discussed right at the beginning of the series — as a couple, our physical and mental health is linked. This can be a negative or a positive. Remember that the support you can give your partner is a powerful tool and that this might be an opportunity to work together to be healthier or just to navigate a challenging conversation with empathy and intentionality.

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