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"How can I motivate my spouse to get fit?"

*This first appeared as a column in the Five Towns Jewish Times*

Dear Elisheva,

This message probably makes me sounds like a shallow, judgmental person, and maybe I am. My husband and I are both in our late 30s. We have a great marriage- in most ways; all the ways that should matter, really. “Alan” works hard and does well, so we live comfortably. I work very part time, at a job that’s more for enjoyment than the income. We have three great kids, and we’re all healthy. Over all, I have to admit that we are very fortunate. So here is my issue:

When we got married, we were a cool couple. We were both popular, athletic, confident, and we were both considered extremely good looking. Our religious high school didn’t have a prom, but if it did, we might have been considered for prom king and queen. (I realize this probably sounds arrogant, but I’m trying to paint a clear picture of how it feels.) It was fun being with the guy that everyone liked, and being the couple that our friends admired, but it’s always been more than that for us. We both dated other people in college, but eventually reconnected and got married. We love and appreciate what’s “on the inside” too. That’s why I feel so bad about the following.

Alan isn’t aging as well as some of us. His hairline is receding, and he’s lost his athletic physique. He’s gained a lot of weight. I go to the gym almost every day and watch what I eat. I dress well, and I even started getting some “work done” to help me stay younger looking. I try hard to keep up my appearance. It doesn’t feel like he’s making any effort to do so on his end. I hint, I ask, I tell him straight out- but it doesn’t seem to make a difference; he’s just not interested. Part of me feels like I’m being a baby about this- like we’re not in high school or college anymore; he’s a great husband, dad, provider, person- let this be his shortcoming. But it just really bothers me. I once tried expressing concern about his health, as a way to convince him to try more. He told me that he goes to his doctor annually and has been told he’s in good overall health. I try to invite him to come with me to the gym, but he says he’s happy to just go for walks, or occasionally use the treadmill in the basement. I’ve offered to go with him to a dietician, to research hair plugs, try some Botox, to come up with a lighter meal plan together, to stock and cook foods that will help him, but he just tells me he’s not interested in vanity or a health kick. I say it’s not a health kick- it’s a way of life, that will help him look and feel better, instead of getting old prematurely. He’s just not interested.

Sometimes I feel like it’s unfair; I work so hard, and he gets to have a spouse who looks great, while he doesn’t do the same for me. But then he just says that I don’t need to try so hard, that if I want to do these things he supports me, but that I shouldn’t do it for him- he would love me regardless. Then again- that’s easy for him to say under these circumstances.

You probably think I’m a critical, mean wife, but I actually give him a lot of love and positive feedback about most other things. We have an amazing life together, and a great relationship- including love and passion. In every other way, he’s a terrific husband and an incredible dad and person. It’s just that I’m feeling frustrated, embarrassed, and resentful about this one thing- at my wits’ end about this. Have you seen more effective ways for spouses to motivated each other to get fit? What do you recommend that I do?


Wishful wife

Dear Wishful wife,

This phenomenon is not uncommon and can be very painful for both parties. And it goes both ways: There are women who are disappointment with changes is their husbands’ bodies, and sometimes men who feel this way about their wives. It’s probably one of the most personal, sensitive, and difficult topics to address in a marriage. Bodies change over the life span- this is not a surprise. Attraction is not an insignificant part of a love relationship, and as you point out, people age over time, and not always in the same ways and paces.

The emphasis you place on maintaining both your fitness and appearance is an example of a value. It may be a value you used to share with Alan, and his priorities have changed. Or it may be a value he never shared, but this only became apparent when his natural youthful looks began to change. But either way, values are often subjective.

What I’m about to say might not sound fair to you, and it may not be. But it’s what I (subjectively) believe to be true about relationship health, as a general rule:

It’s pretty much never ok to criticize a partner’s body.

It’s rarely ok to criticize a partner’s eating or exercise habits.

Nagging, preaching, or pressuring a partner to change values or lifestyle practices, generally doesn’t work, and even if/ when it “does,” there is often a price paid in the realm of emotional intimacy and relational integrity.

Before you choose to marry someone, it’s important to be sure you feel chemistry and attraction with each other. But once you’re married and already love them, it’s important to actively nurture and maintain that chemistry and attraction from within the self, even if it’s difficult, and even as bodies inevitably change.

Now, if he were neglecting an immediately dangerous medical condition, developing an addiction, or behaving in a way that was directly harmful to you, himself, or the children, it would be a completely different conversation. It’s not the case that a person should have no say at all in what a spouse says or does ever. (Although even in those cases, it’s far from straightforward.)

But you were honest and evenhanded in describing the nature and extent of your concern. You both agree that he’s not in any danger. It doesn’t sound like a hygiene or mental health problem. It doesn’t even sound like a health concern. If he sees a physician annually, and he’s been told he’s in good health, then it really sounds more like an aesthetic or image issue for you. For you, not for him.

You mention that you “work hard” at maintaining your standard, but feel short-changed because he doesn’t seem to do so. But you actually used that exact phrase with regard to his work, saying: “he works hard and does well, so we live comfortably.” He does work hard; just differently from you. You describe him as being a wonderful husband, father, and general human, which is a beautiful way to feel about your spouse. We all have flaws. Some are more visible than others. His “flaw” seems to be that he’s not as invested in his outer appearance as you’d like him to be. That’s understandably disappointing to you, given how much that seems to matter to you. While this is clearly bumping up against a value of yours, it’s probably worth taking some perspective as well.

It's ok that you wish he would take on some of the lifestyle habits that you value. It’s also ok that he doesn’t want to. It’s ok for couples to not see eye to eye on certain matters. It’s even ok to make certain requests, kindly, respectfully, once or twice. But it’s not ok to pressure, shame, berate, or repeatedly nag our spouses to do or be something they don’t want to do or be, simply because it’s our preference. Particularly in the realm of body- diet, weight, size, exercise, attractiveness- that stuff is so, so psychologically loaded and complex. Even when people do try to pressure their loved ones into changing these, not only does it rarely help, but it often causes harm- to the emotional well-being of the person being pressured, and to the health of the relationship.

If this has become an obsession of yours, it might be worth discussing with a therapist, close friend or mentor, why the need to look a certain way and resist aging is such a pressure for you, and try to let go of some of that- even for yourself. It’s possible that this preoccupation is robbing you of some of the joy you could be feeling within your own body and life experiences. (And maybe it’s not.) But it sounds like it’s definitely tainting your otherwise beautiful marriage.

I know you were hoping I would recommend a magical way to motivate Alan to do what you want here. If you want to fill your home with diverse and delicious nourishing foods and wholesome activity options for yourself and the children, that might be a great outlet for your own wellness passion. It’s possible that he might hop along for the ride sometimes, but don’t set that as an active agenda. Let go of trying to change him.

I believe that your conscious intentions are mostly good, and I imagine you’re disappointed in my answer. But we can’t and shouldn’t try to make our partners (or anyone else) into something they’re not or don’t want to be, especially when they’re pretty awesome the way they are.

What can you do instead?

Love him. Appreciate him. Try to truly let go of judging, criticizing, looking down on him for this stuff. Enjoy him. In the meantime, just celebrate everything you love about him, and maybe even consider taking a page or two out of his book about feeling at home in your own skin.

*If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy this: Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking

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