Dear Crucial Skills,
Over the past year, my wife has developed an unhealthy pattern of caring less and less about her physical appearance and is now considerably overweight. Whenever I try to discuss the potential impact on her quality of life, she becomes very defensive and says, “You don’t love me anymore.” I counter and say, “Actually I do love you and am very concerned about your health.” I’m concerned about her being overweight as well as her lack of sleep. She works various shifts in her job and continues to be an extremely devout mother to our twenty-three-year old daughter who suffers from a terrible disease. But I believe she is sacrificing her well-being. I even tried to explain that soon she will be unable to provide for our daughter if her health deteriorates. What can I do to better approach this topic?
Dear Frustrated Spouse,
Your question provoked a question of my own: when does a crucial conversation become an influence challenge?
Here is what I mean by that: with any crucial conversation, our goal should be dialogue—sharing our perspective and hearing and understanding others’ perspectives. If the goal of a crucial conversation is to convince or compel someone to see things our way or come to agreement with us, we will often do a great job of explaining our point of view and a poor job of understanding theirs.
My guess is that your goal, like that of most concerned spouses, is to help your wife recognize the damage she is doing to her health and help her take steps to improve her health. In short, the goal is to have her see the situation as you see it. And this is the tricky part of a crucial conversation, because if that is your goal, it often doesn’t go as well. When we see a loved one traveling down a life path that we view as destructive or harmful, it is natural that we would want to talk to them and convince them to change. That is appropriate and loving. But, it is also not within our control. We can raise the issue with caring and candor, but then we must acknowledge that others have a different perspective and may not want to change. This is when a crucial conversation becomes an influence challenge.
While I imagine how disappointed you must be that your wife does not see the situation as you do, that doesn’t mean you are left without resources with which to help her. The reality is you are influencing her right now. People are social animals and we are all influenced by the social and structural forces around us. Right now, there is a huge force influencing your wife’s behavior—her commitment to caring for your daughter. There are other forces as well, including you. This means you can choose to look at your own behavior and consider ways in which you can be an influence force for good in her life.
Let me give you an example. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating and Slim By Design (and good friend of VitalSmarts), has shown in his research that 72 percent of the eating decisions made in a home are made by what he calls the nutritional gatekeeper. This is the person in the home who purchases the food and plans and prepares the meals. Consider what would happen if you became the nutritional gatekeeper in your home. What a blessing that would be in your wife’s life as she struggles to care for your daughter and balance the other stressors in her life. Imagine coming to her and saying, “Sweetheart, I will take this burden off your shoulders and handle of all our food needs.” Then, it would be up to you to plan and prepare nutritious and delicious meals that your wife will enjoy and that will lead to her improved health.
This is just one of the many ways you could help change and redirect the sources of influence in your wife’s life. The point is not that this is the magic bullet answer for you in your situation. You will need to figure that out for yourself. The big idea is that too often we have a crucial conversation with someone and think that the goal is to get them to recognize the problem so that they will change their behavior. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it is up to us to allow them their agency and decide what kind of an influence we want to be in their lives.
Best of luck,
17 thoughts on “Addressing Health in the Home”
The first sentence “Frustrated Spouse” wrote has me questioning his motives: “Over the past year, my wife has developed an unhealthy pattern of caring less and less about her physical appearance and is now considerably overweight.” Caring less not about her health, but her physical appearance. Makes me wonder if he is focused more on her appearance than her health. Even if he doesn’t state that when talking to his wife, it probably comes through in what he says and how he says it.
You beat me to it Julinda, I had the same concern when I read that sentence.
Completely agree. His concern is about himself and not her. He should be worried about why a presumably middle-aged person would suddenly gain weight–Is she depressed and in need of medical care? Certainly the devastating illness of a child could make anyone depressed. Working different shifts in and of itself is not healthy–is he allowing her to sleep enough? Is she doing all the caretaking of her daughter? Perhaps he could do some of the caretaking and allow her some time for herself. This would be more loving than not letting her shop for groceries. The reasons for overweight and obesity have nothing to do with how much one cares about one’s physical appearance–hardly anyone does not care about their physical appearance deep down. He is making a value judgement about her and she is well aware of that. She needs support and kindness, not judgement. His “concern for her health” is disingenuous.
I agree with your statement regarding him taking on caretaking. I was the primary caretaker, nutritional gatekeeper & handled all the bill paying. I also worked nights & shiftwork or modified my schedule to handle most things releated to the family. So while I sincerely agree with you point, “Perhaps ‘he’ could do some of the caretaking and allow her some time for herself.” However, that is just a first step. Once he takes that under his belt, and adjusts his healthy lifestyle, he should definately move on to take more of her responsibilities, until they are truely shared. Take on the food shopping, cooking/cleaning. Because he is correct in the fact that she may dig herself a hole that she cannot come back from. I personnally ended up with physical damage to both my feet, then knees at a young age, due to my weight gains & extended physical exertion, caring all that weight(plus the added weight of many items 50-70+ lbs), this while working exteneded shifts on concrete floors.
I may be telling myself a story, because my experience is that women typically take on the larger share of the home workload, plus work full time. While men typically believe they are doing thier share. The only way to truely divide the household workload it to switch. Come up with a plan of what you believe is a fair division of duties. Then after 2 or 3 months, completely switch all duties. Then you each walk in the others shoes.
This didn’t happen for me until I was older when the economy dumped in 2007(construction families were the 1st to be hit by the depression), & my construction hubby ended up not having any work. It was very interesting to see the realization of the how much home/housework was actually there for a simple family of four, when you never had to do it.
Absolutely frustrating agreed. First point reflected back: Men in general think first with their eyes then their hearts. He should consider where his eyes go and where they return. His wife notices and her response in his POV reflects this.
She is a shift worker and that leads to obesity because meal and sleep patterns shift. This is well documented in reliable science based research.
I noted that division of labour is very present here by what was not said. This conversation needs to happen and then he needs to pick up his part in this and do some dirty work and use some elbow grease.
Maybe they need to revisit the personal care of an adult daughter. Being a 24/7 caregiver is an incredible burden. What about more outside help and sharing of the duties? He did not state his contributions. Is this all on her shoulders?
The one who is the nutritional gatekeeper could be the food police, or the eternal cookie provider, or some happy balance. It is a huge responsibility to be the one totally responsible for food provision and preparation and cleanup. He again needs to step up to the plate. (and not just to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labour.)
She is around the magic age where a woman’s body does one of two things, depending on genes and lifestyle. She either gains weight or loses weight. Each has its benefits and difficulties. He could do some good science based research reading and adjust his requirements for his happy life.
She is the wife of his youth and as such deserves some respect in her maturing years. He has not done this and needs to PDQ before she has a health incident or loses 180 pounds instantly. He clearly has not fed her heart so that her attention turns to the two of them individually and as a couple, not just her daughter and the family budget.
He is blessed with the opportunity to turn this around. Get they rear end in forward gear and push the vacuum, cook some meals, and hire a caregiver for respite care, etc. with enthusiasm. Only he can turn himself around and keep his eyes and heart focused on the wife of his youth .
I agree with the comment from Julinda. And if that is really the writer’s motivation, then “taking over the nutritional needs” could backfire and be perceived as him trying to control his wife’s behavior. Personally, if she’s overwhelmed with care-giver activities, maybe she’s depressed! Depression would lead to sleeplessness and a lack of concern about one’s appearance. I’d like to suggest that he consider taking some of those caregiver responsibilities off her shoulders and let her have some “me” time on a regular basis. Of course, I don’t know that he does not already do that – I’m simply basing this comment on the way his request was communicated in this article.
This is my take as well! Instead of trying to take control of her eating so she won’t be fat and ugly anymore (which is what this comes off as complaining about), how about helping your sick daughter and letting your wife get some chill time? Jeez.
Frustrated Spouse indicates his wife cares “less and less about her physical appearance” but I wonder if that is an assumption or if indeed she has stated she doesn’t care about her weight. Weight gain and loss can be a complex and emotionally charged issue with a variety of causes – not just poor eating habits. A discussion about how his wife feels about her weight, what she feels is a healthy weight, and what might be causing unwanted weight gain (if she indeed feels she has a weight issue) might be more appropriate than trying to exert control over her by taking on all the food decisions within the home.
Appointing yourself the “nutritional gatekeeper” is a double-edged sword. It can turn into nutritional dictatorship, in effect imposing your own ideas about food on your spouse. It can make the spouse feel powerless and incompetent and aggravate underlying problems. It could deal with symptoms rather than address the real issue. Why is the wife not taking care of herself? If it is simply a question of time, yes, taking over the kitchen can help. But if the wife eats to relieve some emotional distress, it won’t. Does she need help dealing with her daughter? Does she need some time for herself? Does she need someone to talk to and share the emotional burden?
I feel that the response is not necessarily helping him out as it would be easy for the spouse to refuse help on being the gatekeeper for the house meals. Are there other ways to influence someone we care about in a situation where it has proven difficult to share one’s point of view?
Instead of addressing her weight gain (she already knows she has gained weight), address the stress & sleep deprivation which are more likely to have caused the weight gain. Taking the load off her by becoming the nutritional gate keeper would be very helpful. She may be aware her eating is out of control but feels helpless and maybe too exhausted to take the steps she needs to take. Building her self esteem and making sure she feels loved will want her to take better care of herself. In my opinion, the stress she is enduring as a care-taker, working different shifts and losing sleep are just as dangerous as health risks than the pounds she has gained. That is the reason I would approach her with your concerns about her health rather than pointing out the weight gain.
Very good advice Emily!! And I wholeheartedly disagree with those who are being tough on Frustrated Spouse for mentioning her weight/appearance. Weight is simply the external symptom of what could be serious internal health issues that if not addressed will impact the entire family.
The mention of a daughter with a serious illness made me think this could all be much more complex than his wife no longer making herself a priority. It sounds like she could be suffering from codependent behavior. Codependence is often associated with people who love alcoholics, but caretakers for those with serious health issues can also suffer from this pattern of behavior. Studies show that a shocking percentage of codependents are overweight, largely in part because of their behavioral patterns of caring for others and neglecting their own needs. I can understand why this would be painful for both the wife and the husband. I could be completely off the mark here, but just his description of her behavior sounds very familiar to me. Here’s a great book to help both of them understand the complexities of codependency and how to regain some control: http://www.amazon.com/Codependent-No-More-Controlling-Yourself/dp/0894864025
The wife’s statement “You don’t love me any more!” is what jumped out at me. As a compulsive over eater, I know the food-as-drugs phenomenon well. Emotional (and/or sexual) abandonment by a spouse is devastating. I’d say the husband needs to explore why she feels he doesn’t love her any more. Is he still warm for her form? He’s getting older, too … Bioidentical HRT could help both of them. ALSO, the pamphlet or book THE FIVE LOVE LANGUAGES may be of help. He could be saying “I love you” until he’s blue in the face but if her love language is quality time, acts of service, gifts … she won’t FEEL loved. GREAT BOOK, helpful in all familial and friendship relationships. One last suggestion: “Retrouvaille”. I hope she has some vacation time and a provider of respite care, because they need the time. I’m afraid she wants to die inside, but knows she can’t because of her daughter.
The emotional weight accumulates just like physical weight. No matter how much she loves her daughter and husband the emotional toll of caring for a continuously sick child is enormous. My guess is she is depressed, feels the situation is hopeless and is depressed. I believe she needs to talk to a psychologist. A crucial conversation is needed. However, you guys may think I am telling myself a story. My prayers go out to you.
Taking over the role of “gatekeeper” of anything doesn’t seem like a good idea in this situation, just as many have already mentioned. This is a very complex problem – emotionally, physically, relationally, work-load-wise, etc. While relieving the workload and other stress by the husband for his wife’s sake seems like an excellent idea, it would be much better for them to work together to come to their own conclusions about what would make her feel more loved and less over-worked and over-stressed. Some people really find joy in planning, shopping for and preparing meals, so that to simply take it out of their hands without deep agreement would be unkind and show an even lower value of the person one is trying to help. I agree with those in the comments who see this problem in a more holistic light and would recommend exploring loving ways to make this woman’s life more fulfilling before focusing in on a way to make her look more attractive, even if that is also healthier as well.
I know the pain this man is undergoing. My mom had surgery on her leg. Her doctor has told her that she needs to move. She says it hurts and just props it up every day. In short, she gets up, goes to her chair, gets out of her chair and then goes to bed. The only reason she leaves the chair is to go to bed. Her weight is ballooning. She refused PT and told the therapist that he/she just didn’t get how badly it hurts. The dr. has shown no skills in addressing the situation My dad, who loves her dearly and has macular degeneration, is terrified. He is afraid that he is going to lose her. I’m amazed at the slings and arrows in the comments towards the writer. I feel his fear. My parents live too far away from me for me to help. He never mentions appearance but has conveyed his desire for them to be together for a long time. He has suggested going to parks, or starting with a few steps around the house, but she refuses to move. I’ve wondered about whether she is depressed, but privacy act issues make it tough for me to talk to the dr.
Please be careful in judging this man or his wife.