If you’re single, it’s easy to stay focused on your own healthy lifestyle choices. When in a relationship, though, you may be tempted to take on your partner’s health as your next big project.
Nagging your partner to change his or her ways can only end badly, but that doesn’t mean you should give up just yet. Whether it’s doing things like learning to love non-fried food, or breaking free from the oh-so-comfortable couch, there are many ways to help your partner live a healthier lifestyle. Here are four of them.
1. Check Your Expectations
Before you sign your partner up for a kickboxing class, or secretly replace the lunch meat with tofu, take a look at your own expectations. Sometimes, focusing too much on “changing” your partner can cause more problems than any lifestyle differences between you.
“When it really causes conflict, I notice it is because one partner is maybe trying to force their way of doing things on the other one,” says Anastasia Pollock, a licensed clinical mental health counselor. “It’s important that the active partner keep in check that maybe their way of doing it isn’t the way their partner is ever going to do it.”
Instead of trying to force your partner to do your favorite workouts, help him or her find something that fits better. Kelly Costello of Evans City, Pa. did just that when she learned of her husband’s interest in mixed martial arts.
“It had been a dream of his to learn to fight,” says Costello. “For Christmas I got him a membership to a special gym that was, thankfully, a few blocks away. Within two months he was looking great and he loved every second of it.”
2. Respect Your Partner
Respect in a relationship isn’t just reserved for discussion about finances and child-rearing. It also applies to living with your partner’s diet and exercise choices.
“When they feel like they’re being picked on, or they feel like their partner’s being condescending to them, that’s when it’s not sustainable,” says Pollock, “and that’s when major problems continue. And it can actually break up their relationship.”
Change your approach by asking your partner why he or she is having trouble making time to exercise or eat right. There may be an underlying cause that you can tackle together, such as stress at work, feeling overwhelmed by making big changes, or not having enough money to spend on a gym membership.
You can offer to help your partner set goals and come up with a plan to achieve them. But keep in mind that your partner will only make changes that he or she is ready to make. And no matter how much your partner’s choices bother you, pestering won’t make it better, something Brenda Do of Sparks, Nev. knew intuitively when her husband resisted her attempts to get him to live healthier.
“If one person smokes and the other doesn’t, and you just wish they would quit smoking because you know it’s hurting them—it causes that kind of friction,” says Do. “But it’s a matter of are you going to accept that is just where they are, or are you going to constantly be a thorn, because being a thorn never helps.”
3. Focus on the Benefits
Help your partner learn to love healthy living by focusing on its benefits instead of tracking weight loss or treadmill miles—like having more energy or sleeping more soundly. Even better, show your partner how much fun you have working out and cooking nice meals.
“I spent the first couple of years of our marriage bugging my husband to exercise, eat better, drink more water, etc. Naturally, he dug in his heels and went completely opposite,” says Do. “So I spent the next few years just doing my own thing, filling the house with healthier foods, and hoping to lead by example.”
And don’t forget one of the biggest benefits of living healthy—more active years together.
“I would encourage someone to start out with letting them know what they love about their partner, and letting them know that they want them to be around for as long as possible,” says Pollock. “And having a conversation about how both people can take good care of themselves to make sure that they’re around, and their life is as long as it possibly can be.”
4. Keep It Positive
Even if your partner doesn’t like to exercise—or celebrates National Doughnut Day everyday—steer clear of negative comments.
“Encouragement always goes a lot further than criticism,” says Pollock. “Praise the little changes that they do see—if the partner stops eating chips as often, or drinking soda, or is willing to go on walks. Praising is going to go way further than trying to convince somebody with criticism or contempt.”
You can also encourage your exercise-shy partner by choosing activities that you can do together, like hiking or biking, cooking at home, or exploring a new city on foot. Make these a regular part of your week by scheduling healthy dates in advance.
“It may be realistic to do active things as a couple that are more about relationship enrichment and less about fitness,” says Pollock, “That way, the person who is more active feels like the other person is giving something.”