People don't change. Or do they?
December 9, 2012 9:09 AM   Subscribe

When we first met, my boyfriend was overweight and drank too much (by his own account). Four months into our relationship, he's changed quite a bit: he goes running, eats healthier, and drinks way less. He says I make him want to be healthier -- which is great. But I'm worried that this is just new-relationship energy, and that he'll slide back into old patterns once we're more used to each other.

I'm not a super health-nut, but I've always tried to stay active and watch what I eat. My boyfriend, despite being diabetic, was pretty lax about his diet and his exercise regimen. (Possibly relevant info: he's 34; I'm a woman, and I'm 31). When we first met, he was drinking most nights of the week -- either out with friends, or just having a six-pack alone while looking at the internet on a weeknight.

Early on, I told him that the drinking and the lax attitude about his health bothered me. He agreed that they were problems, and said that he just hadn't had much of a reason to change his life until now. Since then, he hasn't changed completely, but he's definitely altered his life in some moderate-to-large ways. He exercises a few days a week and drinks twice a week, if that. He talks a lot about how much better he feels, and was proud of himself that a recent stressful incident at work didn't drive him to rely on his old bad habits. Meanwhile, I'm making a concerted effort not to be a nag about any of this stuff, but instead to talk about it in a larger sense (ie., not "why are you having another beer?!" but instead "do you think it's a problem that you drink alone?").

In some ways, it feels foolish to even write this question, because so far, everything seems great. He is happier and healthier and we get along great. It's inspiring and encouraging that we can talk about these things openly, and that he doesn't get upset or defensive. I just LIKE our relationship. But I can't shake the nagging feeling that he's just changing temporarily based on new-relationship energy, and that a couple years from now I'll wake up to find that he's not taking care of his health and drinking half the day away again. And I know you should love people for who they are, not for some aspirational version of themselves -- but I'm old enough that I don't want to get deep into a relationship with someone who doesn't take care of himself.

My questions: Do people really make major lifestyle changes (that stick!) because of relationships? Are our differing habits until now a sign of fundamental lifestyle incompatibilities? Is he just eventually going to resent me for trying to change him? Am I eventually going to resent him for putting me in the role of "lifestyle coach"?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know that anyone from the internet can answer those questions, because only he knows what his motivations are.

However, if you won't love him if he slips back into old habits, you have to think about whether this is the type of unconditional love that sustains relationships, or if you just took him on as a "fixer upper" who may not live up to your "improve my partner" expectations.
posted by xingcat at 9:12 AM on December 9, 2012 [17 favorites]

Major changes like monogamy, cohabitation, or popping out babies? (Not that any of those require a relationship or are required for a relationship).

People make huge changes just as the entry fee. Keep supporting him and even join in on his new healthy habits. You have no way of knowing if he will go back to his old ways until/if he does. So, enjoy the new him.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:14 AM on December 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

We have no way of knowing if he'll lapse back into bad habits but honestly, I'd be surprised if he went back to his old ways after having a taste of how good healthy living feels. Time wil tell. Enjoy what you have now.
posted by futureisunwritten at 9:15 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know of no sane relationships that are not parent and child relationships that are built on unconditional love. I would lay down my life for my partner but I don't love him unconditionally: if he hits me, I'm out the door.

Anyway, "settling down" is a trope because it's a very shared experience. One of the things people generally get in exchange is a healthy partnership. The odds are reasonably in your favour on this one, IMHO.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:18 AM on December 9, 2012 [12 favorites]

love isn't really ever unconditional (from obvious things like partner's going on homicide sprees or kitten crushing, or just can't be convinced to stop leaving his socks everywhere in the house). Enjoy your relationship while it's good, and know how to spot the signs that would make it not good.
posted by garlic at 9:23 AM on December 9, 2012

The drinking half the day away thing worries me. If that was his habit until 34, and his method of coping with stress, how will he cope when your relationship is going through rough times?

Man, I don't know. I feel like the whole "you make me want to be a better person" thing has a nasty flip side, the whole "it's your fault I'm drinking again" thing. That might be why you're worried.

I might be reading this wrong, I'm not really certain based on what you've written that this is a worry.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:26 AM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

It'll depend on whether or not he decides he wants to do that for himself, regardless of what you think about it. If he's only doing it for you, then it ends when the relationship does. If he decides he likes the healthier lifestyle, then it'll all be fine.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:27 AM on December 9, 2012

As others have said, we don't know if his new behavior will stick or not. I think that when people make changes in their lives that stick, it's out of self-interest; by that logic, you're worried that he's doing this for you, not for himself.

It's not unreasonable to imagine, however, that getting involved with you has caused him to re-evaluate his own life and change his priorities, so he might really be doing this for himself, not just for you. Maybe. We don't know. You could ask him.
posted by adamrice at 9:35 AM on December 9, 2012

Don't borrow trouble. Things are great now, if that changes in the future deal with it then.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:43 AM on December 9, 2012 [30 favorites]

I don't know what's going to happen with him and his changes. Neither does anyone else in this thread. Neither do you. Most importantly, and scarily, he doesn't know either.

Staying with him is a gamble and risk, from your " I've always tried to stay active and watch what I eat" point of view and that's worth keeping in mind. Everything is great now, but it won't always be, of course. If this is really an important issue to you, the best you can do is examine whether it's truly important to you in the long run. You say everything is great now and you really like the guy. If he slips, can you deal with that? Can you talk to him about your feelings in this area? Do you think both of you, in this sort of crisis, can resolve the matter in a way that feels good and right to both of you? These are the questions you should be considering.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:54 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

my man stopped drinking because of me, and when I ask myself (and him) whether it will stick, I feel confident that it will, because he feels healthier and fundamentally feels that it is a better lifestyle choice for him- i.e., the foundation isn't making me happy (even though that probably motivated him to make the change).

i several times have told him that he can keep drinking but he prefers life this way it seems. It's been about two years since he stopped and he seems happy and hasn't indicated any desire to revert.
posted by saraindc at 10:11 AM on December 9, 2012

so my point is that you should ask yourself, and him, whether this is just about you or whether he likes his new self.
posted by saraindc at 10:12 AM on December 9, 2012

There is a certain couple I can think of. People who know that couple expect a breakup in the coming months because one of the partners is partying like crazy (as he was when they met). He's not displaying much/enough efforts to change.

Your boyfriend is displaying proof of love by changing his lifestyle. That's great. Who knows ? He may even replace the pleasure he found in drinking by the hormons associated to exercising and be "addicted" to sport.
posted by Baud at 10:13 AM on December 9, 2012

He's the age where a lot of people decide to scale down the drinking and partying, because of work and having families or just noticing they are not teflon any more. A lot of these people succeed, and there is a good chance he is one of them.

Now a lot of people backslide with diets and fitness, so if that is really important to you, yes, you may wind up seeing him backslide.
posted by BibiRose at 10:15 AM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

To answer your last two questions - your role as "lifestyle coach" is very likely going to cause some problems. Firstly because it seems as if it's self-appointed and secondly because his tolerance of it is probably a part of that "new relationship energy." You're not responsible for making sure he continues healthy habits, and I can't see this as being an ok thing in the near future. It's never a good sign when you want to change your partner right out of the gate.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:28 AM on December 9, 2012 [11 favorites]

My ex made me lose weight at the beginning of our relationship. It was sneaky at first, and I thought the lifestyle changes were great. After losing half the weight I wanted, he started pushing harder and wanted me to lose weight faster. He told me he would stop having sex with me if I wasn't willing to try for him. I was still dieting and exercising as I had been, but it sucked the wind out of my sails.

I lost the rest of the weight but now I have an eating disorder and am really messed up about food.

Be careful. Don't get into a relationship with someone who you can't respect. He can make his own decisions. He is an adult.
posted by sockermom at 10:42 AM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

The guy's circumstances have changed and his habits have changed accordingly. Whether, and much, it persists only time can tell. The red flag for me is that you are looking for imaginary things to worry about and already seem to be developing tendencies to nag. If you don't like him for who he is then break up and move on but don't kid yourself: from what you've said, the problem is you.
posted by epo at 10:51 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a former fat-&-out-of-shape guy who has lost a bunch of flab and muscled up a bit, feeling strong and healthy and looking more appealing nekkind in the mirror is profound motivation in and of itself. The fact that my wife also likes the results (and reminds me often of this fact) is bonus points.

Either of you could drop dead of an aneurysm 5 minutes from now. Don't worry about what might/could happen and focus on what's happening now. Because that way, a year from now you could look up and notice that now is "Wow, my BF has been taking of hisself for a year and wow, doesn't that look yummy?"

Don't ponder the beans, enjoy the feast. :D
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:51 AM on December 9, 2012

First, you have to stop worrying about what happens in the future. He might start drinking a six-pack a night again. He might start smoking crack. He might start sleeping with 17 year olds or get possessed by a demon. Just relax for now.

Second, as reassurance, relationships can motivate people to change. Long-term, sustainable changes. From personal experience, though, it needs to be framed as a benefit and responsibility to the relationship rather than as a way to gain and keep a partner's approval and validation.

My partner and I find ourselves making healthy changes for the sake of the relationship. We both have watched our mothers deal with enormous stress because of our fathers' unhealthy habits. My partner stopped smoking, I'm losing weight and we are both exercising. Not out of fear of losing each other--I'd still be with him if he smoked 3 packs a day*--but we view it as a responsibility to the relationship in preventing long term health problems and uneeded stress and worry.

*Caveat: smoking is not a dealbreaker for me. So I didn't need or even desire for him to quit. You need to determine your dealbreakers. If drinking and being overweight are, I'd have to question your motivation for getting into a relationship with him in the first place.
posted by peacrow at 11:06 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Am I eventually going to resent him for putting me in the role of "lifestyle coach"?
It sounds like you are putting yourself there.

My experience is that if he's motivated on his own to change, keep changing, maintain that change... he's less likely to backslide. However, he may never change "enough" for you -- without knowing whether he's on the same page or timetable of change as you are, there's no way to know how much more he will continue to change or how much will stick.

There are no guarantees that the relationship is going to work out, based on either his/your habits or any other factors, but the fact that at four months in you're both working on changing him now and worrying about two years from now, doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for success in my mind.
posted by sm1tten at 12:29 PM on December 9, 2012

Maybe the issue is: "I haven't had much of a reason to change my life until now." It sounds like you're worried he lacks self-direction or purpose in his life. Or he doesn't have aspirations? I don't think you should stay in a crappy relationship because of vague promises of eventual change, but it is reasonable to want to be with someone who has aspirations for himself.

I think it's possible for you to be the catalyst for change without being the purpose for it. If your relationship is one where you tell him what the problems are, and then he goes off and fixes them for you, that's a red flag. But if he's finding things he wants to work on that you've never talked about, or using his new-found confidence to pursue his own goals, those are positive signs.

Also, having conditions for being in a relationship is unrelated to having conditions for love.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:33 PM on December 9, 2012

Do people really make major lifestyle changes (that stick!) because of relationships?

Yes, all the time.

Is he just eventually going to resent me for trying to change him?

Unless there's a lot more to the story than you told us, he's trying to change himself.
posted by escabeche at 12:34 PM on December 9, 2012

From what I've read (and I make no claims as to the scientific veracity of this) it takes about two months to fully acquire a new habit, to the point that it's something you do without thinking. How long has your boyfriend been living healthily?

I know that I often backslide on 'healthy living' issues - I start going to the gym regularly and then drop it after two weeks, or I buy a ton of healthy food and then forget to eat or replenish it - but if your boyfriend keeps this up to the point that it's more a habit than something he does deliberately, there's probably a better chance that he'll keep on doing it.
posted by littlegreen at 12:53 PM on December 9, 2012

Even if you were the prize he used to motivate himself to make these changes, he has made these changes for himself. If he feels better and is happier, he probably feels quite good about himself and deservedly so.

I think your worry about this whole situation comes from the fact that you think that you were somehow the impetus for him to change. To give up the worry and anxiety, you need to also let go of the pride and the control rush you might be feeling knowing or believing that he did this because of, or for you.

If it was only the relationship, and his desire to change for you, that brought him here, and he doesn't actually want to be this person, then yeah -- he might 'slide back' to where he was before. If he was happy there, and is not happy where he is, that could happen. But there's no point in worrying about it because you don't have any control over that!

Of course you know this objectively, but you should meditate on this to get it through to yourself all the way at your emotional core: You aren't in control of him, and the changes he's made in his life are much more likely to have been because he was inspired by you (and likely other healthier people in his life), not desperate to keep you or somehow 'be worthy' of you.

Sometimes we might put a 'prize' as a goal on a lifestyle change to push us toward something. I promised myself an extravagant gift when I lost 40 pounds. That helped push me there but once the weight was off I didn't think of it as something that I got because of the weight loss.

Trust that he is happy as he is and that he can keep it up himself without your anxiety or concern to motivate him from backsliding. Your trust and belief in him will push him farther than your fretting he will fall back to an unhealthy place. If he does - it's not on you; it has nothing to do with you.

You're lucky to be in a relationship with a person who is capable and able to change! You are worthy of that kind of adult and healthy person without having to be some sort of positive force for change in his life. Feel good about that, not the great life coach role you played for him. Sounds to me like you have a relationship with someone whom you can walk alongside, not ahead of or behind. Just be grateful and enjoy it. :)
posted by pazazygeek at 1:11 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I not only changed dramatically because of a relationship, but I liked the changes so much I've kept at them even after my S/O broke up with me. People don't always change for their partners: sometimes they change because their partners show them a new way of looking at things.

I also agree with some commentors upthread that if you're worrying about future possibilities that you have no empirical evidence will happen, you may have a problem of your own that bears examination.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 3:54 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I kind of think you're borrowing trouble here.

Support but don't nag. Enjoy what you've got in the here and now. Solve problems as they come up. It's that simple.
posted by Salamander at 6:20 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

To phrase what other posters are saying another way, no, people don't make sustained major lifestyle changes because of new relationship energy, or because they have a heart attack, or because they get inspired by a story, or because they've finally just decided they can't live this way anymore.

They start making changes in their lives for those reasons. The changes stick because they find that the changes are valuable and meaningful to them.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:16 PM on December 9, 2012

If he was miserable making the change I would say most certainly it won't stick, but it sounds like he is happier for it. That seems encouraging but life is full of surprises and I doubt there is anything you can do beyond being supportive of positive change.
posted by dgran at 8:06 AM on December 10, 2012

Well, did he put you in the role of lifestyle coach, or did you appoint yourself? Because your question makes it seem like he was not motivated to make changes until you expressed concern about his health.

You say you are "trying to change him". Instead you should be supporting him while he works to improve his physical and mental health.

I am wondering why you began a relationship with someone that you knew had a lifestyle that was incompatible with yours. If you see the future of your relationship resting on whether or not your boyfriend can maintain these changes, which is something you cannot control, I can see that being a source of anxiety for you.
posted by inertia at 9:43 AM on December 10, 2012

You can't control other people. There is no way to guarantee this, at all. It is true for every human being, too.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:27 AM on December 10, 2012

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