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Love Me Slender
Medical professionals have been working hard to spread this simple message, and for good reason: the formula works. A healthier lifestyle really does reduce the overall incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease in adults. Maintaining a healthy weight really is one of the best ways to prevent all kinds of cancers, second only to quitting smoking. The federal government, on the hook for covering the rapidly escalating costs of treating these diseases, is also eager for us to change our ways. With her national Let’s Move campaign, First Lady Michelle Obama aims to get us on our feet, and she tends a kitchen garden in the hopes that we will do the same. The decades-old food pyramid has been overhauled to encourage us to eat more fruits and vegetables, and fewer processed carbohydrates and proteins. Public-service ads echo these ideas, billboards tell us what to put on our plates, and the steady drumbeat of research findings, news reports, and healthy-cooking shows tells us exactly what we need to know and do to take better care of ourselves.
The message is coming through loud and clear. Many of us want exactly what the formula promises. Surveys show that we would be willing to give up shopping and watching television, our computers and cell phones, and even sex, wealth, and years of our lives in exchange for slimmer and trimmer bodies. This is more than idle chatter. In the United States, 33 percent of men and 46 percent of women are actively trying to lose weight at any given moment. We spend $60 billion a year on health clubs, diet foods, and dietary supplements in the hope of managing our weight better. We spend more than $6 billion each year on medical treatments like bariatric surgeries that reduce the size of our stomach and help us to feel fuller faster. Our commitment to weight loss and good health is genuine. We want to weigh less, we are willing to make personal sacrifices to be healthier, and we put a lot of our hard-earned cash into our fervent quest to firm up and trim down.
Yet, for all this concern and effort, Americans are no healthier, no slimmer. Some people certainly benefit from the investment, but the vast majority of us aren’t getting any real traction, and the changes we want to make aren’t sticking. If we are dieting now, chances are this is not our first time. Our national health is actually deteriorating and our waistlines are expanding. Two in every three Americans are currently overweight or worse, and experts at Johns Hopkins University estimate that more than 85 percent of us might be in the same state by 2030 if these trends continue.
How bad is it? Even as most people say they want better diets, caloric intake from fast-food consumption is at an all-time high, and consumption of fruits and vegetables has declined. Consider the following:
• The average American consumes twenty-two teaspoons of sugar per day, much of it through the fifty gallons of soda and other sweetened beverages that the average American drinks each year.
• 86 percent of us fail to eat the recommended two pieces of fruit and three servings of vegetables per day.
• 30 percent or more of our total daily calories come from fast food—and about half of all the money we spend on food is spent in fast-food restaurants.
• 90 percent of us consume too much salt every day.
• 80 percent of us fail to meet the recommended Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic activity and muscle strengthening.
• 70 percent of us engage in vigorous exercise two days or fewer per week.
• 50 percent of us are almost completely sedentary.
In the end, all the government-sponsored billboards, diet pyramids, and public-service advertisements seem less like sensible calls to good health and more like lightning rods for the frustration and anxiety so many of us feel. Think about it: When was the last time you talked to someone—anyone!—who felt really terrific about his or her weight, eating habits, and general health?
Something is wrong. Having a clear, scientifically proven formula is not enough. Government warnings are not enough. Even the threats of diabetes, cancer, and early death are not enough. Somewhere between knowing the formula for good health and weight management and actually being healthy and fit, there is a huge disconnect. What will it take to fill the gap? Another diet that promises magical results? A cool app for our smartphones? Some kind of cream or supplement or boot camp? Some fancy piece of exercise equipment that promises to jiggle and shake us into shape? Unlikely. The same old methods are not getting the job done. Simply turning up the volume on the “eat right, move more” message will not work. A fundamentally different approach is required. And developing that approach requires us to ask: What are we missing? Why, in the midst of all this concern, are we failing to improve our health?
For starters, what’s missing is the recognition that putting our desire to be healthy into practice is extremely difficult. We live complex lives, with more stress than we care to acknowledge and less time than we need to do all the things that matter to us the most. We inhabit environments that discourage activity, reward screen time, and tempt us with inexpensive but unhealthy meals. And let’s face it: we aren’t perfect. We give in to the stress and the temptations. Our willpower is rock solid on January 2 but paper-thin by the time the Super Bowl rolls around a month later. Our vow to eat three square meals a day falls by the wayside as demands pile up at work, leading us to eat calorie-laden snacks in the afternoon. Our new running shoes sit idly by when our knees begin to ache or the fatigue of a long week takes its toll. Stuck in stressful lives and “obesogenic” environments, our imperfections become magnified and we easily lose sight of the good habits that we know will benefit us.
The obstacles we face in changing our unhealthy habits shouldn’t come as a surprise, and neither should the dismal failure of most diets. Scholars and public-health educators have searched high and low to explain why it is so hard for us to eat right, and they provide us with several important insights. Biologically, we are not really designed for dieting. Our bodies fight back hard against rapid weight loss, responding to the threat of starvation with a barrage of cravings. From a psychological standpoint, we are not well equipped to keep a healthy lifestyle on track. We start diets and exercise programs with unrealistically high expectations, while overlooking how much self-control and discipline we will need to stay on track. To make matters worse, we consistently underestimate the dangers of consuming high-calorie treats like Snickers and we consistently overestimate the benefits of eating healthier foods like wheat bread. Sociologists and urban planners tell us that the rapid pace of modern life, coupled with the need for two wage earners in the family, saddles us with long commutes while wreaking havoc on our ability to purchase and prepare—much less enjoy—the foods we know to be good for us.
Eat right and move more? Yes, according to the latest science, improving our health requires that we abide by this simple formula. But for many of us, simply hearing the formula is not enough. What’s missing is an approach that acknowledges from the outset how hard it is for us to maintain our health. We need solutions that can be custom-built around who we are and the realities of our daily lives. All the challenges to eating right and moving more can seem daunting. With so many forces aligned against us, we begin to think that our goals for a healthier lifestyle are unattainable. We need new strategies that enable us to take advantage of assets that already surround us, especially if they can guide us around, or through, the obstacles that we are certain to face. Making the real changes that lead to a lifetime of healthy eating and exercise requires that we develop every tool in our arsenal. But what if the “tools” we need aren’t necessarily supplements, or diet books, or exercise DVDs? What if they are the people in our lives?
What we eat, how we eat, and whether or not we exercise are all profoundly influenced by our social connections. When a stressed-out coworker orders an unhealthy dessert after lunch, we are tempted to do the same. Conversations with a slimmed-down neighbor get us thinking about what we are cooking for dinner in our own home. Knowing that one of our friends has started to take yoga lessons might encourage us to tag along and make an entirely new set of friends—and then invite other friends to join. Seeing a brother or sister pack on the pounds can force us to take a cold, hard look at our own sedentary lifestyle. The weekly call to our aging parents cannot help but prompt us to question whether we are on the right track for a healthy retirement.
The concern expressed by scientists, government officials, media personalities, and medical professionals is valuable because it alerts us to serious repercussions of ignoring our health. (As if we didn’t know already!) But it is the tremendous influence our closest social relationships have on us that fuels the consistent support and inspiration we need to stay on the path to well-being, and then motivates us to keep pushing forward. Eating right and moving more—especially if we want to do these things on a regular basis and over a long span of time—are easier when we are inspired, cajoled, praised, and supported by the people who matter the most to us in our daily lives.
Alas, most advice about dieting, fitness, and health is not packaged this way. On the contrary, doctors and fitness gurus alike assume that we enact our health behaviors in isolation, as if our relationships were purely incidental to the program. Diet and exercise books are written for individuals, as though one’s friends and family members are not centrally involved—and have no stake in the outcome. Weight-loss companies and gyms, too, market almost exclusively to individuals, overlooking the possibility that someone close to us might feel threatened by the changes we are trying to make. Doctors tell each of us to eat better and exercise more, not knowing whether our coworkers or best friends will support or undermine the recommendation. Workplace wellness programs focus primarily on the employee, not on the spouse baking delicious desserts at home.
Make no mistake: there are plenty of really good diet and exercise books, fantastic weight-loss systems, great gyms, intelligent doctors, and well-crafted workplace wellness programs. We would all be wise to incorporate this information and these activities into our daily lives. But national trends indicate that these strategies are not enough, for most of us, most of the time. Health and fitness are woven deeply and inextricably into our intimate relationships, but nowhere is this simple, powerful fact reflected in the multibillion-dollar industry influencing our decisions about health and wellness. It’s little wonder that so many of us are not collaborating with those around us as much as we might, or as effectively as we might, when it comes to eating the right foods and keeping our bodies moving.
A new way of thinking about health starts with the premise that coworkers, friends, and family members all affect what we eat and how much we move—and that we can’t make progress until we acknowledge their huge influence on us. The best thing we can do to jumpstart changes to our lives is to take advantage of this influence, to use it to our benefit. But whom do we look to first?
Love Me Slender is rooted in the belief that the relationships we have with other people offer us a fundamentally new set of solutions to the way we consume and burn calories. But one person in particular holds the key to the most promising solutions: your spouse or partner. Among the many people in our lives, no one affects our health more than our intimate partner—and no one in our lives can help us more. Many of us fantasize about how much better our health would be if we had a coach, a personal trainer, an on-call masseuse, and a health-conscious chef. But isn’t it possible that each and every day you are waking up next to the person who is all of these things, all at once?
Millions of us have a loved one, right by our sides, who can encourage us to make great choices about the foods we consume and the exercise we get. Our boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, and partners have the potential to make the pursuit of health far easier than it would be without their support.
Take eating as an example. Eating right takes willpower that ebbs and flows for most of us, but our partners can give us the push that moves us past the pastries and toward the whole grains. Eating right can be discouraging, but our partner can be our cheerleader, celebrating with us when we meet our goals, and spurring us on when the numbers on the scale aren’t quite what we hoped they would be. Eating right may mean giving up pleasures we dearly love (good-bye, Boston cream doughnuts!), but our partner is there to make healthy meals fun, to help us keep the menu fresh, and to distract us from temptation with their welcome presence. Eating right takes extra energy and time, but our partner can share and ease the burden of shopping, preparing, cooking, and cleaning that healthy eating sometimes requires. Think about all the ways this could work: The buffet at the Super Bowl party is mighty tempting, but our partner can remind us on the drive over about how great we have been about keeping to our New Year’s resolutions. Knowing that a heavy work schedule might cause us to skip lunch and succumb to the siren song of the vending machine, our partner can slip some fresh fruit and a healthy salad into our bag in the morning. Fatigue and achy joints can derail our workout routine, but our partner senses the difference between a legitimate excuse and a lame one, and knows when to push, when to hold back, and when to offer us the Advil.
In short, what looks like an impossible task for us as individuals may be far more accessible when we team up with our closest partner.
Deciding to take action about our health and weight necessitates changing the life we share with our partner. If our partner is hesitating to make the same changes we are, the challenges of maintaining healthier behaviors are even greater. Eating right is hard, but it’s far harder with a partner who continues to buy, cook, or eat unhealthy foods—and harder still with a partner who may actually doubt or resent our desire to take better care of ourselves. If you and your partner are not teaming up to promote each other’s health, then you are failing to take advantage of one of the most powerful resources you have in your lives for eating right and moving more.
Chances are good that you and your partner are already working on some challenging long-term projects together. Paying a mortgage or sharing the monthly rent? Sharing chores? Holding down jobs? Raising children? Caring for aging parents? Then you know instinctively that teaming up enables two people to achieve much more together than either can on his or her own, often with much less stress and far greater efficiency. Okay, so teaming up may not make parenting easy, exactly, but having a partner can make the task substantially easier, and that connection can make all the difference.
The same idea applies to health and fitness. When we acknowledge how difficult it can be to eat right and move more, our very next thoughts should be, How can we team up to make this easier? If I want you to be healthy, and you want me to be healthy, how can we join forces and make sure we are pulling in the same direction? How can we work together to tailor and adapt the “eat right, move more” mantra to our unique needs, complexities, and imperfections?
Buried deep within each of us is a hard-wired need for close connection. Psychologists call this attachment, and this need to bond is a potent force in our lives. When this visceral need is left unfulfilled, we feel lonely and isolated, and life’s hardships fall squarely on our shoulders and ours alone. If you have seen someone in this state, or if you yourself have been in this state, then you already have a sense of what scientific literature reveals about the physical health of socially isolated people: compared with people who have solid social connections, people who feel isolated and lonely get more of their calories from high-fat foods, their hearts work harder to circulate blood throughout narrowing arteries, the quality of their sleep deteriorates, they are less inclined to engage in vigorous exercise, and their immune systems go on high alert, secreting more hormones like epinephrine and cortisol to combat the stress and inflammation that their bodies are confronting. In fact, so robust is the link between social connection and health that people with fewer and emotionally distant relationships have measurably thicker coronary arteries, and they experience more rapid progression toward heart disease, compared with people who have more support and greater social capital.
Happily, the flip side is also true. When our need for intimate connection is met, we stand a much greater chance of eating right and exercising regularly, we feel better, we are energized, we recover more quickly from disease and medical procedures, and, in the long run, our health benefits. A startling realization follows when we acknowledge the tight interconnections that exist among our relationships, our physiology, and our health. Our weight and waistline, our cholesterol and triglyceride levels, our energy levels and our cravings—all of these, of course, are characteristics of who we are as individuals. Yet the forces that govern them are very much rooted in our intimate relationships. Your cholesterol level is all your own, but the fact that your partner loves to eat fish certainly helps your cause. Your lung capacity is located entirely within your own body, but the fact that you and your partner love to take long walks together is certainly to your advantage. The social connection we get from our relationships can be very good medicine indeed.
But not all relationships provide the right medicine in the right dosage. Simply being in a relationship provides no guarantee that we will gain these great rewards. The health of some people is really enhanced by their relationships, but for others there are no such benefits to be had. Why might this be? First, it helps to know that two partners in a relationship tend to be highly similar to each other when it comes to their health. Coupled-up partners typically reap the same rewards, and bear the same burdens, from their relationship. Several large, nationally representative studies now show that husbands and wives are remarkably similar on various dimensions of cardiovascular health, such as their body mass index (BMI), their waist circumference, and the percent of their calories that come from fats. Even though we share no genes with our partner, health-wise each of us is far more like our partner than a person chosen at random.
Some of this similarity comes from the fact that, from the start, people choose partners who are like themselves on a number of dimensions. But for many couples, parallels in health come from the fact that, knowingly or not, they are constantly making decisions that directly affect the calories they will both consume and burn. Both partners’ actions and choices create a shared environment that will make it either easier or harder for them to stay fit. When you get a new pair of walking shoes at the outlet mall, you might pick up a pair for your partner too. The family-size bag of tortilla chips that you decide to leave on the shelf at Costco can’t tempt your partner when he opens the kitchen pantry. But when you bring home cupcakes from an office birthday party, you force your partner to resist the urge to nibble one. For better and for worse, then, our health and our ability to manage our health is a package deal, bundled with the health and habits of our partner.
This bundling means that when one partner improves his or her health, or lapses into bad habits, then the other partner changes in a corresponding manner. Studies are clear on this point. When one partner starts to walk more, or cuts back on sweets, or gets a flu shot, then the other partner is much more likely to do the same. And when one partner starts spending more time on the couch, drinking a bit more, or delaying the routine checkup, the mate is likely to follow suit. In one particularly dramatic illustration of this point, a study conducted over a span of three decades shows that when a husband becomes obese, his wife’s chances of becoming obese increase by 44 percent; when a wife becomes obese, her husband’s chances of becoming obese go up by 37 percent. Remarkably, then—and whether or not they intend it—relationship partners take on each other’s health habits and characteristics—so much so that some medical professionals now recommend screening the healthy, symptom-free partner whenever that person’s mate suffers a major illness like heart disease or cancer.
If relationships are good medicine, what is the active ingredient? What, specifically, could we be doing in our relationships to galvanize our desire to improve our health and then transform that desire into a lifetime of smart habits? A number of nutritionists, dietitians, physicians, public health officials, and psychologists are placing their bets squarely on the concept of social support. Whereas social relationships can take diverse forms—including friendship, marriage, committed partnerships, and parent-child relationships—social support is that quality of connection and understanding that exists between two people in a relationship. In a word, social support is responsiveness—social support arises when one person is responsive to the needs of another person—and psychologists believe that this responsiveness works because it conveys concern and caring, validates something significant about another person’s identity or stresses and feelings, and bolsters that person’s ability to deal with problems. Social support activates and fulfills the powerful need for attachment that we all have.
Defined in this way, it is easy to imagine how social support can be the active ingredient in our relationships that drives us toward better health. What’s not to like? All this responsiveness to our needs sounds like a job posting for the coach-trainer-partner-chef of our dreams! Fortunately, we, along with our partners, can fulfill these roles for each other all by ourselves. Knowing little more than just the basics of good health, two partners who manage to support each other’s efforts to eat right and move more stand a much greater chance of getting the eat-right move-more formula to work for them than do two partners who have not teamed up to achieve their health goals.
Volumes of excellent research justify the wager on social support. Take a look at a few examples:
• Partners observed talking to each other in warm and supportive ways heal more quickly from small experimentally created blister wounds, probably because supportive communication promotes secretion of peptide hormones—like oxytocin and vasopressin—that speed biological repair processes.
• Patients with serious heart problems live longer lives if their partners talk with them in warm, supportive tones about their health. They recover more quickly if the partner expresses how “we” are going to manage the disease and how doing so is “our” responsibility, rather than telling “you” what you need to do to get better.
• Partners in a relationship are much more successful at encouraging exercise if they are like-minded in their ideas and goals about exercise. When partners are different in their inclinations to exercise, their efforts to support each other fall flat.
• People who are trying to eat better are more likely to succeed at cutting fat from their diets twelve and even twenty-four months later if they had partners who consistently supported their efforts.
The list of studies goes on and on, but the conclusion is surprisingly uniform: pick some habit that goes along with a healthy lifestyle—quitting smoking, sticking to a diet, regular exercise, oral hygiene, self-exams, annual checkups, using sunscreen, adherence to any number of medical treatments—and chances are high that there is a study showing that simply being in a relationship and, beyond that, teaming up with a supportive partner, makes that habit, and better health, much more likely.
Aiming to capitalize on the strong natural effects of supportive relationships on health, several research teams have conducted rigorous formal experiments to evaluate whether partner support affects the success of weight loss and healthy-lifestyle programs. In some instances, just as we might expect, people with involved, cooperative spouses lose more weight than partners treated alone, and they also sustain the weight loss for longer periods of time. But other studies show no differences in weight loss regardless of whether or not a partner is involved—and some studies even show that health improvements are greater when the partner is explicitly and purposefully uninvolved in the program. And, to deepen the mystery, men and women sometimes report different effects of partner support even within the same study. A large 2013 study by researchers from the University of Connecticut shows, for example, that one group of overweight women lost about eighteen pounds after eighteen months if they had partners supporting them, but another group of women lost only half that amount—about nine pounds—if they were on their own in the weight-loss program. Overweight men, in contrast, followed the opposite pattern. They tended to lose twice as much weight when they were treated alone (twenty-two pounds) as when the experiment called for their partners to be involved (about ten pounds).
When it comes to pinpointing the one key feature of our relationships that would go furthest in promoting health, mobilizing social support is a really good place to start. Study after study shows that the quality of the support exchanged by relationship partners has a potent effect on their health habits and even on the underlying physiology that sustains their health. And yet, trying to harness that power sometimes works perfectly well and at other times backfires completely. There is a mystery to be solved here, and we believe this mystery comes down to one deceptively simple question: What are the best ways for two people to work together to support each other’s health? As informative as they were, prior studies intending to change health habits with a supportive partner failed to produce consistent benefits, because researchers did not have a complete understanding of how partners naturally boost each other’s health.
With data we have been collecting in our studies over the past twenty years, we believe we can now offer a solution to this mystery that has direct, practical relevance to people in relationships who want to improve their health. By videotaping more than 2,000 couples having conversations in our laboratories and in their homes, we have been able to hear all the different ways partners try to improve their health, the ways they work out good solutions, and the ways they frustrate and stymie each other. We have been able to observe the rich and emotionally engaging debates couples have when discussing health and weight and, with the luxury of a well-worn rewind button, we have been able to identify the specific things people say and do that seem to throw their conversations off track. We believe that our close analysis of these intimate conversations gives us unique insights into how social support works, and fails to work, when partners turn to each other in their quest to shape up and feel better.
Our videotapes surprised us in several ways. Yes, in a good number of couples the partners really did inspire each other toward better health. Studying their conversations clued us in to exactly how they accomplished this impressive feat. But, for many couples, pursuing health effectively as a team was a challenge. Even when partners were willing and eager to manage their weight together, they found themselves unprepared for the obstacles involved in communicating effectively about diet and exercise. But we also discovered that when couples did struggle in their discussions about health, they often struggled in fairly predictably ways, over and over again. In spite of all the different kinds of relationships, the partners’ different styles and personalities, and their different needs and goals, we discovered that couples tend to get stuck in the same places. We learned that we could recognize these common traps, and we began to identify a few simple, workable solutions that virtually any couple could put to use.
In our work, we ask couples to discuss the improvements that they most wish to make in their lives. Free to choose any topic they feel comfortable discussing, more than half of these mostly young, mostly healthy people elect to talk about their desire to take better care of themselves. Some want to diet or lose weight, others want to be more active, and quite a few want to do both. A great many of them understand that being healthy requires real effort, and that they need their partner’s help to sustain it. Long before arriving in our research rooms, they have discovered that these are changes they cannot make alone.
Knowing that these happy partners were eager to help each other become healthier, we expected the vast majority of their conversations to be positive, encouraging, and maybe even heartwarming. We could not have been more wrong. Though many couples agreed that eating right or getting in shape was a major issue in their lives, figuring out how to team up in their pursuit of these goals proved difficult for them. These young couples loved each other—they told us as much in their individual interviews and with their responses on standardized research questionnaires—and they genuinely wanted to help each other. We could see them trying. Yet many had little idea how to do so. Time after time, well-intentioned couples fell into traps that left both partners feeling criticized, defensive, misunderstood, and paradoxically less able to achieve their goals.
Why are discussions about diet and exercise in relationships so perilous? For one thing, admitting to wanting to be healthier, and turning to a partner for guidance, can make us feel a bit inadequate and vulnerable. People who are successful in every other domain of their lives can come up short when it comes to managing their appetite or getting the exercise they know they need. In conversations that are overtly about wanting to lose those extra few pounds, for example, partners are also expressing insecurity about their attractiveness and desirability, doubts about their self-esteem and willpower, fears about aging—sometimes even uncertainty about their mate’s commitment to a future together. Couples who can easily resolve disputes about household chores or whether or not to have a second child can find themselves floundering as they try to articulate these emotions. Many partners talk past each other, imagining they are simply discussing their diet or fitness when they are in fact talking about (and, just as often, failing to talk about) fundamental issues in the relationship.
We came to believe that these ineffective conversations were one important reason why so many of our couples, despite explicit desires to lose weight and get in shape, gained weight anyway and, with each passing year, found themselves more frustrated by their eating and exercise habits. We came to believe we had discovered a unique vantage point for understanding why so many people struggle with health and fitness, and we began to interpret all the dismal national health statistics in a new light. Suspecting that real solutions to our poor health habits might well be located in our closest relationships, we dug deeper into these conversations and learned more about how they were breaking down. An example will help illustrate what we mean.
“BUT I’M NOT HAPPY WITH MY WEIGHT!”
Sara, a website designer, and Brian, a dentist, are typical of the couples we have observed. When they first visited our research rooms, they were in their late twenties and had been married for three months. Asked to identify something she would most like to change about herself, Sara told us that she wanted to lose weight by exercising more. After agreeing that this issue was not a source of tension within the marriage, Sara and Brian were instructed to have a private ten-minute conversation about Sara’s desire to change her exercise habits, just as they would if this topic were to come up at home. Then the couple was left alone to conduct their conversation. Here’s how they started:
Sara: Okay, you already know about my issue, we have talked about this issue before.
Brian: Yes, so, what’s the deal?
Sara: Now, we did make some kind of resolution before where we were going to go walking together and maybe do some other things. I don’t think we talked about eating habits or anything. But that resolution didn’t go anywhere. I don’t even think we did it even once.
Brian: Okay, here is the resolution before we even start talking about it: You make a diet for us, you feed me the diet, you will eat the diet, you talk me into going walking and maybe ten percent of the time I will go . . .
Sara: Ten percent of the time!
Brian: . . . and we will be healthy and fit in six months.
Sara sets the stage here by reminding Brian of their unsuccessful efforts to develop an exercise routine together. Brian might have responded in a number of ways: he could have joined her in reviewing what went wrong; he could have helped her generate ideas about how to implement a new plan; or he could simply have praised her for recognizing the importance of exercise to their well-being. But from the very start, Sara and Brian are heading in different directions. Before Sara can even finish describing her feelings, Brian is already ribbing her. He is not overtly hostile, and Sara even smiles at him. But Brian’s sarcastic joking sends a clear message: he does not take her goals seriously. His joking continues throughout their conversation.
Sara: I know that when you get home from work and I am there, you want me to sit down and watch TV and you don’t want me to leave . . . If I say I want to go for a walk, you say, “No, no, no—stay here with me and watch TV.” Which makes it really hard because, I mean, it is already hard enough for me to get myself started and say, “Okay, I am going to do it!” but then if you try to get me not to do it . . . .
Brian: Why do you have to do it at such odd hours?
Sara: Well, I mean, now I’m working every day. When else am I going to do it?
Brian: Like, the minute I get home from work you say, “Let’s go for a walk!” I don’t want to go for a walk, I just got home from work.
When Sara tries to get Brian to understand that his desire to watch television together at the end of the day is getting in the way of her being more active, Brian does not apologize or empathize with her. He instead turns Sara’s disclosure against her, suggesting that her desire for his support is inconvenient and even annoying when he’s trying to relax at the end of the day. Just two minutes into the conversation, Sara and Brian are at an impasse, leading both partners to start escalating.
Sara: Maybe you don’t have to try and motivate me to exercise, but maybe if you would just cooperate with me and say “Okay, okay, I’ll get ready and go” and not draaag your feet and say, “Unhhh . . . why do we have to go tonight? How ’bout we go tomorrow?” I mean, that makes it so much easier for me to say, “Okay, we can go tomorrow.” It was already hard enough for me to get myself motivated to do it in the first place, and then if you keep putting me off, well . . . It’s just defeating my purpose.
Brian: Okay. So now this problem that’s supposed to be your problem has turned into my problem.
Sara: No, I mean it’s still my problem, but in our specific situation, I guess, it’s just that, you know, I need your help.
Brian: I don’t want to help!
A conversation that began with Sara asking Brian to get active with her now finds Sara accusing Brian of undermining her. She may be right, but the accusation does not help her, leading only to a predictable defense from Brian. Accused of being uninvolved, he withdraws further and flatly declares that he has no interest in helping his wife. Sara then tries another approach, shrewdly reminding Brian that he, too, has expressed an interest in losing weight.
Sara: You’ve also voiced your opinion that you’d like to exercise more.
Sara: So by helping me out, you know, you’re helping yourself out, too. I mean, remember that one walk we did go for? It wasn’t bad. We had fun! We followed the path all the way around the golf course, we walked up some hills . . .
Brian: But it took an hour and a half!
Sara: We don’t have to do that . . . We were just kind of walking and talking. It was just an extension of what we were doing on the couch. But instead of sitting on the couch we were walking.
Brian: I got tired. I got tired and sweaty.
Sara: Sweat’s good—sweat means you’re burning calories. Plus, when you exercise, you’re releasing endorphins in your brain, you know, and so you are in a better mood . . .
Brian: Okay, let’s see who can decrease their body weight by fifteen percent. First one to do it gets their new dining room table [pointing to her] or a new wide-screen TV [pointing to himself].
Brian fails to appreciate how much of Sara’s identity is tied to her weight, how difficult it is for her to talk about her weight—and how much she wants to be with him. He resists her reasonable requests for support, instead meeting her every suggestion of shared activities with some complaint. His final bargain, at best selfish and at worst entirely unrealistic, only reaffirms his lack of interest in his wife’s health for its own sake. For her part, Sara keeps trying to get her message across, but she misses the opportunity to motivate Brian on terms he will understand. For example, she might have said, “If losing fifteen percent of your weight would merit a TV, what would you say five percent is worth?” As her desire to enlist Brian as an ally starts to slip away, Sara tries to refocus the discussion at the simplest possible starting point.
Sara: Honey? Okay. I said that my problem was that I was not happy with my weight, and that, you know, I would like to exercise.
Brian: I think your weight’s fine.
Sara: I know, but I am saying I’m not happy with it.
Brian: So maybe you’re two or three pounds more than you should be.
Sara: More like five or ten pounds.
Faced with a partner eager to lose weight, many people do what Brian does: he tries to reassure Sara that he accepts her as she is. Some partners do this with more affection than Brian is able to muster, but all are inevitably surprised when their attempts at reassurance fail to have the desired effect. Sara does a good job expressing the problem with such assurances. She has never said she thought he was unhappy with her weight; her issue is that she is unhappy with her weight. When an attempt to reassure a partner meets resistance, that suggests a failure to recognize or grasp the partner’s feelings. The net result is not reassurance but invalidation, to the frustration and confusion of both partners.
Sara, to her credit, does not give up, although by this point a discussion that is supposed to be focused on her needs has shifted to those of someone else.
Sara: I think we need to set more realistic goals . . . .
Brian: Okay, so we’ll work out a diet when we get home.
Sara: Okay. Well, I already know basically what to do. But you like red meat. You like . . . pizza.
Brian: I like fish . . .
Sara: You like fish?! If I cook fish, you will eat it?
Are Sara and Brian struggling to connect because they don’t love each other enough? Are they simply unaware of the basic “eat less, move more” principles of healthy weight management? No. Sara and Brian are absolutely committed to each other, and they both clearly want to lose weight. They know, too, that regular exercise is essential, and they know that substituting fish for red meat is the right idea. But it is difficult to have much confidence in their ability to make these changes. Indeed, when Sara and Brian returned to our laboratory twelve months later, they were both heavier and certainly no happier with their situation.
We believe that conversations like this one hold the key to getting more of us to eat right, move more, and live healthier lives. Whereas discussions that cultivate support and strengthen resolve between partners have unlimited potential for encouraging each of us to be healthier, discussions that stifle the desire for change help ensure that our unhealthy habits will remain in place. And if you are anything like we are, you cannot help but read Sara and Brian’s conversation and wonder about all the different ways that it might have gone differently—leaving her feeling supported, and maybe even optimistic, about getting her weight under control. What if, instead of rushing in with his hasty “Okay, here is the resolution before we even start talking about it” comment, Brian did nothing more than echo what Sara already said:
Yep. I remember. We had a plan to go walking, and we never followed through.
What if, after Sara says, “You don’t have to try and motivate me . . . just cooperate with me,” Brian merely said, “Okay. I can’t make any promises because I am just getting home from work. You know how that goes. But, I do hear what you are saying.”
And for her part, what if Sara began not by noting their prior failures but by remembering how much she appreciated one of those times in the past when they got it right:
Whenever I think about getting back to regular exercise, I always come back to that one great walk we took together through the park. We played on the swings. Do you remember that?
All of these statements are tantalizingly close at hand for Sara and Brian. There is nothing difficult here, no rocket science, no complex interpersonal gymnastics. Exchanging statements like these may not get Sara and Brian both on their feet each and every day after work, but it would give them the shared platform they badly need for having better conversations about their health in the future.
But there are limits to cataloguing all the twists and turns that our conversations might take. Our conversations go off track in far too many ways for this approach to give us the guidance we need. And the ways that Sara and Brian slip up may have little relevance to you and your relationship. Only a simpler and more personalized approach will work. After all, we do want a solution that is memorable, tailored to our unique relationships and circumstances, and that fits seamlessly into our daily lives.
If you were to read even a few dozen more transcripts of conversations like this, however, you would soon see a simpler approach. You would think less in terms of specific statements that would improve partners’ health habits, and more in terms of just a few basic principles that underlie all health-promoting partnerships. You would start to see patterns in the ways that any two partners coordinate, and fail to coordinate, their actions as they work toward their specific health goals.
We are writing Love Me Slender to share the basic principles that we have discovered from studying hundreds of couples talking about how to improve their health. We will introduce you to many couples like Sara and Brian, give you firsthand glimpses of their conversations, and then help you to see the principles that underlie the success and failure of their approaches. Once you know these basic principles and patterns, you will begin to see how you can apply them within your own relationship and build them into your daily routines. Knowing these principles, and the skills that follow from them, you and your partner will be able to take full advantage of the health-promoting potential that exists in the bond that you share.
• “Eating right and moving more” is a scientifically proven route to better health, yet many of us are not abiding by this simple formula. For the formula to work for us on a regular basis, we need to learn new, creative ways to put it into effect.
• New solutions are most likely to be effective if they recognize how and why eating right and moving more are difficult for us. New solutions are also most likely to be adopted and sustained if they build upon the assets and resources people already have in their lives for improving their health.
• Our health and our health habits are assumed to be characteristics of who we are as individuals. Nearly all health-related advice is directed at individuals, as if each person alone controls the foods he or she eats and his or her ability to exercise regularly. However, extensive research demonstrates that our social relationships deeply affect how we consume and burn calories.
• The relationship we share with our closest partner is especially likely to influence our health habits. Relationship partners are very similar in their physical health, and they have unique opportunities to influence virtually all aspects of each other’s lives. The choices and decisions that two partners make will affect each other and the environment they inhabit, the foods that are in their home, and their inclination to be active.
• Social support is the active ingredient in relationships that enables partners to be healthy and to become healthier. However, experimental studies conducted to examine the effects of partner support on health and weight loss fail about as often as they succeed. This indicates that social support is complex, that it can backfire, and that it does not come naturally when couples are discussing emotionally charged topics like health, eating, and weight loss.
• Drawing upon extensive observations of couples talking about the health-related changes they wish to make, this book introduces and illustrates the main principles that enable partners to support and improve each other’s eating and exercise habits.