Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, UT. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.
I still love my husband, but he’s noticed that I’m not as affectionate as I used to be with him. I think it has to do with how much weight he’s gained and the fact that he doesn’t take care of himself anymore. He brings this up on a regular basis, so I know that he notices something is different. How do I bring up my concerns about his weight and health without offending him?
I am encouraged by your desire to be careful about your interactions with your husband. The way you handle this situation can be a blessing or a curse to your marriage. Let me share some thoughts on how you might proceed.
I’ll re-emphasize a point that I’ve made in previous columns. It is a fundamental law of human nature that people aren’t willing to change until we accept them as they are. The second someone feels that we are trying to change them, they begin to resist our efforts. The irony of this principle is that once we accept people as they are, we become less invested in trying to change them.
Sometimes we believe that our keen observations about our partner’s faults and weaknesses give us license to correct undesirable behaviors for the greater good of the marriage. As a result, we move forward with the idea that “honesty is the best policy” when it comes to our partner’s shortcomings. We paint a clear and rational picture of our partner’s weaknesses and hope they’ll be better able to overcome them.
I’ve never seen this strategy work in a healthy marriage.
Instead, you might consider attaching what Dr. Wally Goddard calls “companion virtues” to your sincere desire to be honest about your husband’s condition. Without companion virtues, our attempts at helping others become unbalanced and can hurt our most important relationships.
A companion virtue for your honesty might be compassion. You acknowledged that your husband hasn’t always neglected himself. If you put aside your fear of his declining health and make a concerted effort to reacquaint yourself with some of his more admirable qualities, you put yourself in the best position to bless him.
Dr. John Gottman, a prominent marital researcher explained it best in his book “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail”: “Even in strong relationships, too often people focus on the negatives in an effort to make the relationship all the better. But by dwelling on what is wrong in your marriage, it’s easy to lose sight of what is right. This is a primary reason that admiration is often the first thing to go . . . [Look] through picture albums from past vacations, or reread some old love letters . . . you need to become the architect of your thoughts. It’s up to you to decide what your inner script will contain. You can habitually look at what is not there in your relationship, at your disappointments, and fill your mind with thoughts of irritation, hurt, and contempt. Or you can do the opposite . . . If you can learn to think empathetically rather than negatively about what your spouse is going through, and maintain your admiration for your spouse’s good qualities, you will not be plagued with overwhelming distress-maintaining thoughts that trigger defensiveness and harm your marriage . . . Make a list of your partner’s positive qualities . . . Memorize this list and think about how much harder life would be without these positives. When you find yourself following a critical train of thought about your mate, use elements from the list to interrupt your thinking. Make a habit of this process and the change can be [a] dramatic . . . ‘rethinking’ [of] your marriage”.
You might wonder, “But what if my partner is doing something self-destructive? Can’t I say something?” Indeed, your partner’s declining health and expanding waist-line may be self-destructive and could have a serious impact on his well-being and could put more strain on your marriage.
However, none of this will change for the better if you haven’t done the work to “re-think” your marriage through increasing admiration, as Gottman instructed. Any attempts you make to change your partner’s behaviors will likely be met with resistance and will do nothing to help your relationship.
Experiencing this change of heart toward your spouse is a building block that must be in place before you ever proceed to bring up concerns. Once this is in place, you’ll have a better chance at understanding what your husband may be experiencing and how he feels about his situation. You will be better able to explain your fears about his health and how it affects your future as a couple.
As you do the work to connect to him in this way, you will approach this topic with more compassion and sensitivity. As you focus on the richness of your marital story with him, his current health concerns will be put in a more balanced context. In other words, he will already know that you admire him as you express concerns for his well-being.