Handling A Partner's Unhealthy Habit

Handling A Partner's Unhealthy Habit
Love, Self

Nagging can only go so far; ending bad habits takes compassion.

I'm seething. My husband, Jon, has snuck outside to smoke. Again. The smell is wafting in through the bedroom window. He's quit a few times, but he always starts up again—just, it seems to me, when abstaining should be getting easier. His backslides strike in the most insidious of ways: A late-night trip to the store for some pizza rolls ends with him walking in ten minutes later, pack of cigarettes in hand, looking dazed. I barely even remember buying these. But now that I have 'em, I'm sure as hell gonna smoke 'em. Or he has a stressful day, starts begging cigarettes off strangers, and next thing you know, all his good intentions go up in, well, smoke.

It's not that I'm perfect. My diet could be more wholesome. I don't get enough exercise. I have a 20-ounce-a-day Mountain Dew habit. But all that seems so minor when compared to Jon's habit of defying the Surgeon General ten to fifteen times a day. Can't he see what he's doing to his health? Doesn't he care enough about me to quit?

I'm not above using the kids against him. "Oh, Daddy's just outside turning his lungs black," I'll say, or "Ew. Do you see what's on the ground there? Daddy's cigarette butt. Isn't that disgusting?" It feels slimy, but isn't it my job to make sure he's healthy?

Actually, the answer is no. Taking on too much responsibility for somebody else's bad habit is a classic sign of codependency, an unhealthy dynamic in which one person becomes too wrapped up in the other's behavior. "It's really about ego," says Sherry Amatenstein, dating columnist and author of Love Lessons from Bad Breakups. "People think, 'There must be something wrong with me if my partner has certain behaviors.'"

Ouch. I'd like to pretend it isn't true, but I'll admit that I'm ashamed to be seen in public with Jon when he's holding a cigarette. On some subconscious level, I feel like it makes a statement about how much I value health. The irony is that I could have devoted all the time I've spent stressing out over what he's doing wrong to improving my own life. But I'm beginning to get the picture: Focusing on somebody else's bad habits is a triple-edged sword. First, it has a funny way of blinding you to your own faults and can make you so on-edge that you lose focus on your own goals and ambitions. It can cause stress and tension in a relationship—who wants to be either a nagger or a naggee? And it's usually an exercise in futility: Nobody can break a habit unless he really wants to. He Thinks Your Feedback Is Nagging

Sandra Hume, a 34-year-old mother of two in Manter, Kan., decided simply to stop feeling resentful about her husband Matt's longtime habit of chewing tobacco. "I won't let it affect our relationship," says Hume, who's been married to Matt, 40, for about five years. "If it's the worst habit he has, I'll take it." Moreover, as Amatenstein points out, your loved one probably already feels guilty about his bad habit, and constantly reminding him of his failing is going to put him under even more pressure. "You're supposed to be his support. Be sensitive—put yourself in his place," she suggests.

But a sympathetic, detached attitude isn't always easy to come by—particularly when your partner's habit has you losing sleep. For Marka Burke, a 29-year-old database engineer and mother of two in Ann Arbor, Mich., her husband Steve's overeating is more than a simple annoyance. "He's 60-plus pounds overweight," Burke says. Steve's blasé attitude toward his size infuriates and terrifies her; he's a committed dad and great partner, and she'd like to have him around for a long time. "I am pretty much resigned to being a young widow," she says, explaining that her husband, at 31, has already undergone heart surgery to correct a birth defect that was exacerbated by his weight. Burke feels that his apathy indicates a lack of respect for her and their two kids. She's also given up on having a fulfilling sex life: "His weight makes sex physically difficult for me." I'm Just Not That Into His Weight Gain

It's understandable that Burke feels personally injured by her husband's weight. "Everything your partner does affects you," says Cynthia Sass, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and coauthor of Your Diet is Driving Me Crazy. Fear over a loved one's health can lead to overwhelming—and sometimes irrational—anxiety, and can be physically and emotionally unhealthy for the worrying partner. So does that mean Burke should give her husband a nudge toward "wanting to change" by watching him and expressing displeasure every time he eats a high-calorie meal? Nope. If he's not ready to change, nagging and acting like a food cop won't work.

Women try to coax their partners into changing with any number of methods—threats, ultimatums, even withholding sex. "Bad idea," says Sass, who adds that while badgering him and "policing" his behavior is a no-no, talking with him is always a good idea. "It's important to keep telling him how you feel, but in a nonthreatening way," she says, suggesting "I" statements, like "When you overeat, I feel ___," rather than the more combative "You make me feel ___." Sass also advises that both people in the relationship come up with specific ways their partner can show support, even if it's as simple as, "I need you to not roll your eyes when I tell you how I feel about your eating." 9 Things To Say During A Fight

Modeling good health is another way we can help our partners give up their bad ways. But watch out for sabotage if your partner is threatened by your new, healthier habits. "He might feel like she's leaving him behind," Sass warns. If your partner continues to try to sabotage you, some firm boundaries may be in order.

Bottom line? While it's OK to worry about a partner when they're doing unhealthy things, detaching from their habits—while keeping the lines of communication open—is key. Of course, there are some non-negotiables. Illegal drug use, heavy drinking, addictive gambling, and anything severely self-destructive may warrant a "quit or else" attitude. But for those not dealing with extreme cases, ultimatums aren't the answer, and neither is an expectation that your partner will comply with your wishes. Instead, use your mutual respect to reach a compromise. For instance, when Sandra Hume complained that the smell of the tobacco drove her crazy while she was pregnant, her husband agreeably kept his chewing at a distance. "He avoids it around me in general," she says.

Truth be told, I've been lucky in that regard as well. Jon smokes only outside, away from me and the kids, and does his best to keep his habit from affecting us. Sure, once in a while he's got smelly nicotine breath, but when I ask him to wash up or brush, he amiably complies. And when I think of the major character flaws that I don't have to worry about, getting angry over his bad habit seems unforgivably petty. Too often, says Amatenstein, we think we can change our partners, "but you're supposed to be in love with the essence of who that person is."

She's right. The fact is that Jon's smoking is part of a combo package that includes both the good and the bad. So I'm going to try to take the experts' advice and detach myself from that which I can't control. I won't promise that I'll never again wrinkle my nose when I catch a whiff of smoke, and there's no guarantee that I'll stop worrying. But I'm going to work hard on expressing my concerns respectfully and directly—no passive-aggressive jabs.

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