Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: I’m dating a guy who has extremely unhealthy habits. He has Type 2 Diabetes yet still orders and eats foods he knows he can’t digest (he starts every morning with a donut and a sugary beverage). When I’ve tried talking to him about it, he says he knows and he’ll improve, but he never takes steps to. How can I help him care about himself as much as I care about him? Or, if that’s not possible, should I just leave? —DM
A: First, I want to acknowledge that it is very painful to watch someone you love continue with unhealthy and, in the long run, life-threatening habits. Second, I want to commend you for expressing your concern to him and addressing this issue here. You obviously care about him and his welfare. Third, I want to say that there is a delicate balance between acceptance and change.
Carl Rogers, a great 20th Century American psychologist, taught us about acceptance and change. He said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
It is only when your boyfriend accepts himself just as he is that he can change. And it is only when he feels accepted by you just as he is that he can change. The message that you want to convey to him then is something akin to, “I love you. I accept you as you are. I don’t want you to change. But, for God’s sake, will you change?”
You say that your boyfriend says that he knows that his behavior is unhealthy and that he’ll improve, but never takes steps to do so. That is because information and knowledge are not enough to bring about change. We all know that driving over 65 miles per hour increases the risk of having a fatal accident, but most of us continue to do so unless we have a close call.
Your boyfriend may truly know that his eating habits are unhealthy and dangerous, but he has not yet developed sufficient desire to change. He may be in what we call the stage of contemplation, where he is thinking about change, but not yet moving to action.
What moves people to action? Normally, it is when they see that the costs of their current behavior outweigh the benefits and they find a desire within them for something better. You can help that process by expressing concern and support and asking your boyfriend opened-ended questions that invite him to tell his story and to discover his desire for a healthier life.
Here are some open questions you could ask him.
- How can I help you with your eating habits?
- Help me understand this. Is there a story behind your eating habits?
- How would you like things to be different?
- What are the good things about your current eating habits and what are the less good things about it?
- What do you think you will lose if you give up your current eating habits?
- What have you tried before to make a change?
- What do you want to do next?
These are the kinds of questions that a therapist or a nutritionist might ask him, but they might be even more powerful and effective coming from you because you’re in a loving relationship. The more truly curious and nonjudgmental you can be, the more effective your conversation will be.
The last part of your question was, “If that’s not possible, should I just leave?” I cannot tell you if you should leave. What I can ask you is this: Can you accept him just as he is? Can you see yourself happy in a relationship with him if he does not change? How painful would it be for you to see his health continue to decline because of his own behavior?
If there is no change, the answers to these questions may help you decide what you want to do.
More from Asking for a Friend here.