How to talk to your partner about their unhealthy habits

When you’re in a relationship with someone, there are some things you know right away, almost without even realizing that you know them. And there are some things that you don’t discover until later on, as your relationship progresses and takes hold. Little quirks, daily or weekly routines, and habits (good and bad) tend to reveal themselves with time. Often, these personal idiosyncrasies can seem endearing. They’re part of what you love about the other person — or, at least, they’re not slightly annoying yet — but what about the habits that maybe aren’t so healthy?

At first, you might love and appreciate the gifts they buy for you or the the surprise trips they bring you on, but over time you may realize that it’s a bad habit because they’re living beyond their means. Or maybe you like how fun, carefree, and affectionate they are when you both have gone out and had a few drinks, but after a little while, you start to worry that maybe the number of drinks and frequency of outings is getting too high. It can be tough to talk to those you care about regarding sticky situations. Conversations about habits they have that you worry could be unhealthy are difficult, but there are some things you can keep in mind to make them a little bit easier and, ideally, more successful.

Smoking

Smoking is an addiction. Nicotine use is hard to quit. Whether your partner has recently taken up smoking, or it’s something that didn’t bother you before but worries you now, it can be really difficult to start the conversation about quitting if he or she doesn’t bring up the subject first. Quitting smoking requires a lot of support. If you’re going to talk to your partner about their smoking habit, it’s of the utmost importance that you approach the topic with understanding, empathy, and support. As smokefree.gov notes, if they mention they’re even slightly considering quitting, make sure you respond positively and without any sort of judgment. You can also bring up the topic by asking if they’ve ever thought about quitting or mentioning information you’ve recently seen, heard, or read about smoking. Make sure they know that you’re there for them, ask questions, and listen more than you speak during the conversation — their quitting and the challenge it will pose is about their experience, and their feelings are valid and legitimate.

Drinking

Like smoking, alcoholism is an addiction. While you may feel like you need to talk to your partner about their drinking habits even if you don’t think (or aren’t sure) that they’re addicted, keep that fact in mind before proceeding. As Sarah A Benton, MS, LMHC, LPC, wrote in Psychology Today, many who are in relationships with high-functioning alcoholics feel that it’s difficult at times to connect with their partner emotionally. It’s absolutely essential that any conversation with your partner about his or her drinking habits should take place when everyone is sober (though having the conversation while your partner is hungover is OK — in fact, Benton wrote that it can be especially effective because your partner may be feeling slightly guilty or ashamed, which, while you don’t want to pile on to those feelings, can help the conversation resonate better).

When having conversations about other potentially unhealthy habits, it can be important to keep the conversation focused on your partner. However, in this case, emphasizing how their drinking habits worry you or make you feel can prevent them from getting as defensive as they may otherwise. It’s natural for them to feel a bit defensive, but sometimes when someone feels defensive, it can be hard to really hear what the other person is trying to tell you. Don’t lecture. It usually doesn’t help.

Unhealthy eating

You eat lean proteins, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and healthy whole grains. Your partner prefers anything once it’s been fried. You cook after work. Your partner’s more likely to hit the drive thru line on the way home. Whether or not you feel like your partner’s eating habits warrant a serious conversation, the longer you’re in a relationship, the more likely you are to have serious or not-so-serious conversations about food and what you’re going to eat. According to a 2003 study published in the journal Appetite, married couples’ eating preferences and habits often converge and meld as their relationship goes along. For couples who didn’t adapt, there were often “food conflicts.”

Talking about unhealthy eating or weight gain can be a really sensitive conversation. It’s important to remember that your partner may have associations with eating specific foods or gaining weight that are more complicated or upsetting than you may initially understand. Staying calm and trying to be sensitive are good places to start. An article from Greatist recommends that you make suggestions, such as cooking a healthy meal together, as a way to begin the conversation. Perhaps you can let them choose a meal, and the two of you can try to make whatever it is a bit healthier. It’s a start. Compromise and be patient. Neither of you have to change your eating habits entirely to mesh with the other’s. It’s all about balance, and figuring out what that balance is for the two of you can take time. A 2006 study illustrates this idea: compromise and accommodation techniques can lessen the impact of conflict over time.

Poor finances

Talking about money — budgets, debt, salaries, savings, and investments — can be a bit awkward. What if you have debt and a low credit score, while your partner has robust savings? Or, perhaps even more uncomfortably, what if you’re the one who’s managing things OK, while your partner is making financial decisions that seem to be, well, not the wisest choices? According to a love and money survey conducted by Ally Bank, 76 percent of people say that finding someone who’s like-minded when it comes to finances is of “high or moderate importance.” So, naturally, if you’re concerned about your partner’s unhealthy financial habits, it can be really important to bring up the topic in conversation.

Suze Orman, who wrote an article about couples and finances for Oprah magazine, says blame doesn’t help anything. When you have a conversation about money, debt, and finances, don’t simply point the finger at every way you think your partner has fallen short. No one is perfect. Instead, consider talking about things you both can do that can make your financial habits healthier. Some people, for instance, swear by using certain apps, such as Mint, that help you budget, keep track of your spending, and simplify the process of bill paying. Others like direct deposits into a savings account that they never touch. These tools can help you better manage your finances and maybe change a few of those not-so-great financial habits.

Avoiding the gym

For most people, there are days here and there when the last place they want to be is in the gym. That’s entirely understandable. Some days, the motivation just isn’t there. If you’re frustrated about your partner’s expert avoiding tactics, it can be difficult to know exactly how to bring it up. You don’t want to make them feel bad about themselves or their body (especially if that’s not something you’re concerned about). It might help if you two make some compromises to figure out a way to work out together.

According to a study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, couples who work out together are more likely to stick to their routine and be successful. If one of you likes to get up and work out at 5 a.m. and the other prefers late night exercise (and then one or the other of you regularly skips their workout), maybe there’s a better time on which the two of you can settle. Additionally, as William J. Doherty, Ph.D., a therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota, told Greatist, your focus on your partner’s gym habits (or lack thereof) may be a way to avoid fixating on your own less than stellar habits regarding exercise. Doing a little self-reflection before initiating a conversation can help save the both of you from unnecessary or misplaced conflict. Once you start the conversation, be gentle and kind, above all. Tell your partner how their habits make you feel, and then let them speak. Don’t make the entire conversation about how you feel. Listen carefully and earnestly, and remember: no lecturing.

Stress

People who are stressed out are sometimes difficult to reason with. They’re like a rubber band, ready to snap, which means you don’t really want to strike up a conversation about how stressed out they are. It’s necessary to have the conversation, though. Stressing yourself out or letting your stress consume you is a bad habit (and one I have, so I can say that).

According to an article from Psych Central, recognizing what your partner looks like when he or she is stressed is a first step. If you don’t recognize that it’s probably stress, you might think there’s something else wrong. Being kind and understanding is of the utmost importance when you ask if things are OK. After you ask an initial question, stop and listen. Then, the article explains, it’s extremely important to remember to comfort your partner, instead of simply skipping directly to the problem solving stage. Also, ask how they think you can help, rather than simply deciding what you’re going to do yourself. Whatever it is that you come up with may not actually be what’s most helpful. Above all, emphasize love and support and remain calm.

Porn use and infidelity

Like it or not, there’s a correlation between the use of porn and incidences of infidelity. If your partner has a porn habit (or addiction) that concerns you, it can be difficult to know how to approach a conversation about it. According to CBS News, the Nielson Company reported that 21 million Americans accessed porn at work in March 2010. And Cambridge University researchers found that brain scans of people who use porn are similar to those of people addicted to drugs. It’s also clear that porn use can affect romantic relationships.

If you feel like it’s time to sit down and talk about it, leave the judgment at the door. It can be easy to shame or judge your partner for a habit that you view as unhealthy or detrimental to your relationship, but it doesn’t help. According to an article in Verily for which the writer spoke with Dawn Hawkins, vice president and executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation — it’s also important to let your partner explain. Listen to what he or she has to say calmly and respectfully. Then, share your feelings. Tell him or her that you believe that the habit can negatively affect the relationship and, again, stay calm. A conversation like that can get emotional, but try your best to speak calmly and articulately. Hawkins also advises that you double back and follow up with your partner about things periodically. When you do so, being sensitive and non-judgmental is just as important as in the initial conversation. Be patient. Anything that’s a habit can take time to change.

Difficult conversations are just that — difficult

It can be hard to know how to begin a conversation about your partner’s unhealthy habits, but one thing’s for sure: you’re going to have to be a little brave and a whole lot supportive and patient. According to an article from the Harvard Medical School, knowing which habits you want to change and what little steps it’ll take to get there can help you break a bad habit. You can support your partner through the arduous process of lifestyle changes, in part, by initiating a conversation about them while still being sensitive, understanding, and respectful. Keeping track of things that may trigger your partner to fall back into their bad habits and helping avoid those things or work through them when they arise is another way that you can help, according to Allina Health. Telling the truth and being open, honest, and vulnerable can make the initial conversation go more smoothly. Don’t underestimate the importance of your approach.

In the end, it just might be worth it

Ultimately, though, there’s only so much you can do. If your partner is unwilling to make changes or even acknowledge that they might have an unhealthy habit in the first place, your impact (at least in the short term) will be relatively limited. Depending on the severity of the habit and the stability of the relationship, it could actually bring the relationship to an end. It’s never easy to bring up a subject that you know could potentially end the relationship. However, if you’re really concerned, at some point it will no longer be something that you feel you can simply ignore. The payoffs of being honest, candid, and supportive with your partner are worth the potential risk for conflict. Your relationship really can come out of these conversations stronger. Coming from a place of love, humility, and vulnerability let’s your partner know it’s OK for them to be that way, as well. Not only that, but forcing yourself to be brave and have the conversation could do more than just alleviate your concern — it could also make your partner healthier or safer. And who knows, maybe one day, they’ll thank you for your honesty and courage.

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