Surviving as a Couple When Your Eating Plans Don’t Match

One of my most recent posts was about the power of having (and being) a partner when pursuing health goals. Yes, having to “go it alone” on a weight loss plan or healthy lifestyle routine can be a drag, but what might be worse is dealing with a spouse or significant other who doesn’t share your healthy eating plan. Why does this seem to be such a hot-button issue, and what can we do to tame the turmoil that so often occurs in this scenario? Here are some things I’ve learned from my own experience with this problem (and yes, we are still happily married!), and a few tips that might help you, too.

Roasted Cauliflower Steaks
A big hot button issue with partners can be commitment to different nutrition goals. Low-carb options like Roasted Cauliflower Steaks might be perfect for one partner, but not for the family as a whole.

Beware food coming between you.

Whether it’s a New Year’s resolution, an upcoming milestone birthday or even a “doctor’s orders” type thing, the minute one half of a couple starts changing the couples’ familiar eating routine, the opportunity for conflict arises. Why? There are likely lots of reasons, but here are some: First, we all eat—we have to, so it’s not like one partner can just avoid the whole thing for the sake of the other. It’s also something that couples share—coming together around food is part of the human (and couple) experience. And of course, food is a personal thing—we are ALL in an intimate relationship with our bodies and the ways in which we nourish them. Every one of us has preferences, opinions, traditions, habits and yes, judgments that revolve around food.

Talk about it ahead of time.

Changing the food part of a relationship can change the dynamic of that relationship in ways that can be problematic. What’s more, nobody likes having things sprung on them at the last minute—especially when that thing will impact life for the two of you every single day. Talk about your plan with your partner in advance, and let him or her know not only the “what” you’re planning to do, but also the “why” behind it. If you’re looking to improve yourself, you already know the “why.” It might be some serious health reason, but it could also be a goal that reflects the desire to be more fit or able to do things with your partner or family, such as hiking “like we used to” or being able to keep up with your kid in a fun run come summer. Reflect on your “why” before your conversation. Also, be on the lookout for signs that your partner is threatened by this plan of yours. Sometimes people feel that once a partner gets in shape he or she will start looking for someone “better.” Be reassuring and be real.

Ask for you partner’s input and ideas.

Even if you are the one doing “all the work” of making your plan happen, in reality, your partner will be altering his or her lifestyle to some degree to help or accommodate you. Your “other half” can be your biggest champion and the base of your support system, so it’s a good idea to recognize the potential impact of your new lifestyle change and make plans to deal with any issues that may arise. One way to do this is to acknowledge the impact on his or her life, and ask for your partner’s ideas about how to handle different situations. For example, if your vacation is coming up and you will still be following your plan, think ahead and discuss how you might handle things like dinners out, alcoholic beverages, exercise time, etc. You can come to a better place by compromising and working together on these issues than if you simply try to dictate how it’s going to be. Nobody wants to have his or her feelings run over by you and your new lifestyle.

Don’t try to “convert” your partner.

It’s one thing to be so gung-ho about your new eating plan that your enthusiasm is contagious (in fact, research shows that the adoption of new healthy lifestyle habits is motivating for partners in co-habitating couples). However, it’s quite another to put pressure on your partner to join you—no matter how subtle you think you are being. Getting your partner to join you should not be your goal—your original goal was about you, after all. It’s not your job to “fix” your partner’s lifestyle. If it happens that you naturally move into a more healthful lifestyle together, that’s great, but don’t be a health bully.

Accept that meals will be different than they used to be.

This was a hard one for me to get used to because I always treasured family meals and their importance for connecting and demonstrating healthy eating habits. In the past I tried to make what I was making for dinner “fit” my husband’s eating plan, but it was hard trying to juggle kids’ likes and dislikes with what he could have and with what I had time to prepare, etc. There were lots of feelings that had to be communicated around this topic (tactfully), but we were able to work it out: he eats with the rest of us a few times a week and by himself, later (after the gym) on the rest of the nights. It felt awkward at first, I must admit. We both learned to be okay with this arrangement and not sweat it. One tip: he fends for himself when he isn’t going to make our regular dinnertime. It’s less work for me and less “guilt” for him. Planning ahead helps, too.

Be a good cheerleader for your partner.

Sometimes people on new eating plans can be a little over-the-top about the details of their progress. It can be annoying, but for that person who is working so hard, celebrating each day’s accomplishments might be really important to his or her success. If you are the partner, don’t feel obligated to throw a parade, but do show some support. A smile and “how awesome” or “I’m so proud of your effort” or “you’re doing great, honey” goes a long way. (And by the way, not everyone wants the same kind of support—if you don’t know what your partner needs from you in this department, ask!) And of course, comments like “I don’t see much difference in you,” or “Are you sure you should be eating that?” are hurtful to the relationship and won’t help your partner do better on the journey. Nobody likes a nag. And anyway, chances are, if something is not going well, your partner already knows it and will soon be looking for real support from you. Be there.