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August 9, 2018 4:46 PM   Subscribe

Am I bad at being supportive of my partner?

My partner has been struggling with eating healthy. She'll make poor impulse choices with food and would always express regret over it. There have been many times where she'll experience depression and feel sadness over her recent weight gain and would vow to never eat anything unhealthy. She would stay on track for a couple of days but then would fall off the wagon.

This has happened a bunch of times and I've always been understanding. I love her and I want to help her stay on track because I hate seeing her upset and depressed. The most recent time she fell off the wagon, I expressed that she had said to me the day before that she was upset and wanted to eat healthy again. She immediately felt like I was guilting her and said she regretted opening up to me.

I felt that I had messed up.

How do I become more supportive of someone who experiences a lot of setbacks? It almost feels like a vicious cycle. I always feel like I want to tell her that but I don't think that would be fair at all.

Thank you
posted by morning_television to Human Relations (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Have you asked her how she wants you to support her? Everyone is different and wants/needs different things. Next time she says something to you about eating, perhaps you can say "Is there anything you'd like me to do or say to support you?"
posted by mcduff at 4:58 PM on August 9 [23 favorites]


Yeah, the thing with stuff like this (in my experience) is the supportiveness needs to be quiet. People don't like to be reminded of the vows they made the previous day unless they expressly ask to be reminded. The road to behavioral change is slow and has to be voluntary. My partner has occasionally asked me (as the former household head cook) to ramp down caloric content, and I've done that by making smaller pasta portions with more sauce so it's not glaring, stop buying delicious chips, I don't need to pick up Double Stuff Oreos, give high calorie beer a rest and exchange it for wine, etc. But the subtlety part--not drawing attention to it--is important. Nobody likes to feel policed or deprived or reminded of their failures*. If you personally like to buy pints of ice cream, for example, for yourself? that's the sort of thing that you can stop doing -- little behavioral tweaks.

You sound like a sensitive partner and it is indeed a delicate walk.

*I mean, there are people who like that for behavioral change, but they will actively tell you, it won't be left to the imagination
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:01 PM on August 9 [31 favorites]


I think right after someone messes up is not the time to remind them of their better intentions. So I'd apologize for that. But I do think when it's not that moment, you should have a conversation in which you ask if there's a way you can help. She may just want a safe space to vent. (And then you get to decide how much of that you want to do.) She may want to have help with meal planning or removing tempting food from the house. Again, figure out what can make this work for both of you.
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:05 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


The very last thing I want to hear when I feel ashamed of my failures is someone saying, "Hey, yesterday you said you weren't going to fail any more!"

This is, often, especially difficult territory for women when it comes to gaining weight. More than one female friend who's gained weight after getting into a serious relationship has told me they felt as though they'd been dishonest with their partner or somehow tricked them into the relationship by being thinner/more attractive[1] at the beginning.

If you think your partner might be feeling something similar, showing her with actions that she's super sexy and that you love her like whoa no matter what she's eating (because that's true, right?) is probably the best course of action.

[1] I do not endorse the idea that thinner = more attractive.
posted by jesourie at 5:22 PM on August 9 [19 favorites]


Your response wasn't supportive, but it does seem like one of those feedback situations where she's repeatedly making you a participant in her fail cycle and making you party to the penitence stage, so I think it's okay to bring it up - outside the immediate cycle - and talk about what she wants from you as a reaction because she is clearly asking for a reaction, and after a certain point one has to accept the reaction they get whether they like it or not.

Beating oneself up is not healthy, and I think it is something women are socialized to perform in a way that can become habitual and a form of self-harm, and it's not great for relationships either to have to bear this thing over and over again. It sounds like it's actually causing you some anxiety and maybe you are having to bear the brunt of her moods when the beating-up occurs. So it IS within your purview to say "hey, so, how do we as a loving couple tackle this situation better, and also how can I be best supportive of you? I think it would be healthier to accept a little setback without the flagellation and dust off and just plan to do better (not perfect, since that's doomed to fail, so maybe let's aim for just pretty good), is there a way I can help support that too?"
posted by Lyn Never at 5:26 PM on August 9 [8 favorites]


Women’s bodies are generally more sensitive to starvation signals and produce more hunger hormones. So you might be thinking “c’mon lady, you JUST SAID you wouldn’t eat the cookie” but she’s really fighting a lot of things here.

What would be most helpful to me is if you were genuinely interested in my efforts and could listen to me talk about it and respond in reasonably informed ways. (But I’m not her, so ask her!)

I put on weight after college and started dieting soon after my boyfriend lost some weight. I would tell him things like “you know it’s natural to feel shitty while dieting” and “women’s bodies don’t respond the same way to hunger” and “slightly overweight women are healthier than normal weight women” but he would kind of freeze up about this, I guess because it’s shameful to lose weight for reasons of pure vanity, whether that’s good or bad. But my point is that even though we both successfully lost weight, we had verrrryyyy different viewpoints on weight loss. So I’d listen and be useful if possible but try not to think “she’s lazy” or “she’s not rational” because her experience with her body and mental impulses is different than yours.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:32 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


My boyfriend (who is the most supportive guy but was also out of ideas when I was in a rough spot) offered to get me a gym membership. Love that guy but man.... The big deal is what Lyn Never said, she's wrapping you up in it (I have been this person) and you may need to straight up talk to her about that issue outside of her other issues. Something like "Sweets, I love being supportive of you but you're being harder on yourself than I would be. I love you no matter what. How can I be helpful and supportive here?" and then try to follow her lead.

I also try to just stay positive so instead of "Hey yesterday you said no more ice cream" say something like "OK, well it's just some ice cream and tomorrow we'll get back on that horse!" We do a lot of pep talk stuff. Not everyone likes the pep talk, but more YES HEALTHY EATING and less BOO BAD EATING. Ultimately that sort fo stuff has to come from within, if you're already doing the regular stuff (supporting her, keeping snacks out of the house, not being a judgey weirdo) just keep adjusting a little. It's good that you're trying to help. It can be really hard for women.
posted by jessamyn at 5:41 PM on August 9 [11 favorites]


When I'm trying to straighten out my eating habits, what works is self-praise for the things I do right. I went through years of believing I was weak and useless if I went off the eating plan. INow if I eat a pint of ice cream I tell myself, "There's another meal coming up in a few hours so I'll have another chance." Maybe when your wife starts beating herself up, ask her what she's done today that's GOOD for her health and well-being. Or some way in which she's done better than what she normally did when she didn't give a damn.

It is okay to tell her that you don't want to participate in her self-criticism or even hear it at all -- that you won't accept that role. And also say that you'll be more than happy to support her good efforts, even very small ones like eating a piece of fruit, drinking water, putting on sunscreen. I know sunscreen has nothing to do with eating, but I count all self-care as something to be pleased about.
posted by wryly at 6:13 PM on August 9 [7 favorites]


Are you willing to match healthy choices with her, even if you don’t ‘have to’ to maintain your own health goals?

Because in my world view, a great value of coupling is eating mostly the same stuff (where applicable, ymmv)
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:25 PM on August 9 [6 favorites]


I also try to just stay positive so instead of "Hey yesterday you said no more ice cream" say something like "OK, well it's just some ice cream and tomorrow we'll get back on that horse!" We do a lot of pep talk stuff. Not everyone likes the pep talk, but more YES HEALTHY EATING and less BOO BAD EATING.

Quoted for truth.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:10 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


You’re trying to fix the wrong part of the problem. By which I mean, you are trying to do logistical support when your wife needs *emotional* support. Especially when depression is in the mix, eating can be extremely supportive and a way to deal with hard emotions. You’re approaching her with reproof when what she needs is comfort and empathy.

Try this - next time she’s falling off the wagon, so to speak, ask her what need she has that’s not being met. Ask her what’s stressing her out. Approach with love and softness. Don’t bring up the healthy eating. Help by making healthy meals. Help by doing grocery shopping and not buying snacks. Take the work out of eating healthy. Make it easier than junk food.

I support asking her! I also know that I don’t always have a great answer for what would feel supportive, so hopefully this helps.
posted by stoneweaver at 8:52 PM on August 9 [7 favorites]


Definitely ask her how she wants to be supported! But yeah, I know you didn't mean it, but reminding her how she has failed is not the way to go.

For me, part of the reason I eat crappy is I'm stressed, I'm tired, and I don't have time to make or purchase healthy food. My husband is supportive of me by doing the shopping and cooking. He also will take on an evening chore like doing the dishes so I have a few extra minutes to make lunch for the next day. These are just examples of how I like to be supported. Ask her!
posted by radioamy at 8:52 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


the only thing you can say to a partner worse than "I told you so" is "you told you so"

I want to help her stay on track because I hate seeing her upset and depressed.

I think your idea of the antecedent and the consequent is confused. it is good that you wish to see her less upset and depressed but perhaps you do not correctly apprehend the reason why this occurs. for example, perhaps she is upset and depressed not because she ate a Bad Food but because her self-worth is tied to her alimentation. this is not to say you should tell her she is wrong to do that, either. that never helps. but I would hesitate to chastise a person for failures even if they asked me to, for accountability purposes, as that is a dynamic I classify as "fucked." if you have not been explicitly asked to do so, multiply that by a billion.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:59 PM on August 9 [7 favorites]


Everyone is different. I'm a recovering disordered eater/yo-yo dieter who luckily has found food peace (for the time being at least!)

What my partner does that is the MOST supportive and helpful is to say *nothing*. Nothing about my weight, nothing about my food intake. This goes for when I'm eating healthy and when I'm dining on Ben & Jerry's. And it's not like he bites his tongue, either -- it's just, he's not monitoring my food intake or my exercise regimen. That's on me.

I definitely agree with others above who are saying the reminding/chiding/"Didn't you say you weren't going to eat cookies?" behavior is harmful. But in my own experience the "encouraging words" are tough too. Because if someone has an unhealthy relationship with food, praising them for weight loss/eating "right" comes back to bite them when they have an inevitable backslide or down day/week/year. Don't add to their already overpowering inner monologue about food. Be the person whose love and support is not concerned with their journey with food.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 10:01 PM on August 9 [30 favorites]


I agree completely with rogerroger.
I also think you sound like a good hearted young guy and that the other side of rogerroger's wisdom is that from the position that you matter too in the relationship, that there is really nothing you *can* do to help someone else's private struggle with appetite, food, and all the many reasons people eat when, what, and how much they eat. It's not possible for you to be responsible for saying the exact right thing that will make your partner feel better about food and her body, that will make it easier for her to eat in the way she consciously decided she wanted to, or any of it. You have to also let yourself off the hook, not because you aren't a supportive partner but because this is an issue that predates you (both for her as an individual and as a woman in our society) and there really are limits to how support works. Just be a good, loving partner in general as rogerroger suggests, bow out of your partner's struggle between herself and eating, and realize that sometimes there is nothing you can say or not say -- and that this limit this matters for your own sense of comfort in the relationship as much as hers. Don't set yourself up as her 'helper" with food.
posted by nantucket at 11:27 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


It's not possible for you to be responsible for saying the exact right thing that will make your partner feel better about food and her body, that will make it easier for her to eat in the way she consciously decided she wanted to, or any of it.

This is completely true.

The reason it's completely true is because eating in the way we consciously decide we want to requires overriding the body's food intake habits with a particularly relentless kind of focused effort that eventually just wears people out. If it were simply a matter of having the right mindset or having heard somebody else say the right things, lots fewer of us would stay fat.

With the prevalence of fat-shaming in all the English-speaking cultures, it takes years to accept this and just let it be what it is and just do the best we can with what we have. Until that's happened, the tendency to beat ourselves up every time we fail to stick with some plan or other can get pretty overwhelming.
posted by flabdablet at 1:07 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


It's not a vicious cycle. She'll stop eventually if she keeps trying. She only needs to stop for long enough that the internal shrieking for sugar stops. It takes about a week or maybe two. Meanwhile, she doesn't have to descend into recrimination every time she eats a cookie. Or all the cookies. Or a tube of cookie dough. In my 20s I ate like a child but in my 30s I got my act together and began to eat sensibly. I maintained a reasonable weight for years and years. The I got a fantastic new boyfriend who would make popcorn upon request or go out and buy oreos--just whatever passing fancy crossed one's mind! AND he was happy to be the one to get up and go get the free refill of the giant tub of movie popcorn, an indulgence I remembered fondly after my years of sensible eating. This situation was great, obviously, so I went with it, and I gained forty pounds over the course of three years. For nearly the entirety of the last of these three years, I made a shitload of noise about how I was going to stop eating like a drunk at a carnival. I did not make any very noticeable effort to stop, though. Neither I nor the boyfriend did any guilt yacking about this. It's always been celebratory: WOOO, POPCORN! Finally and because of a looming important occasion for which I was going to have to dress up, I went without popcorn and its merry friends for long enough (a week. it's really just a week of struggle) that popcorn & co. ceased to rule my life. That was, like... three months ago? I think? I've lost half the weight and now can fit into way more of my clothes plus have fewer aches and pains plus have more energy. But I look back upon the various "WOO, POPCORN!" phases of my life with great affection; I may Jabba out again at some point in the future, because it's fun.

It will be harder than necessary and far more painful than necessary to vanquish popcorn and co. if she's feeling miserable about herself and thinking popcorn and co. control her. No: she's in control! SHE decides. If she wants to murder a whole bag of Dove, she should do that exact thing and then celebrate her accomplishment. If she's tearing herself up and you notice, you just say, "Hey. You're alive. Life is sweet. You are sweet. You ate a cupcake because that was the most delicious thing in the room beSIDES you." Then snuggle. Don't BUY her cupcakes, obviously, and if you can not consume them in front of her, that would be helpful, but if she acquires and consumes cupcakes herself, that's fine, that's her exercising her agency. That--agency, choice, power--is what will allow her to kick the cupcakes to the curb when she chooses to.
posted by Don Pepino at 3:08 AM on August 10 [4 favorites]


Just don't comment.

I favorited a few above that said "ask her" but on reflection, and considering my own long experience with this, I think even that is too much engagement. These are demons far too big for you to slay, even with the best of intentions, and the pitfalls are too numerous and too unpredictable. There are a million ways for you to hurt her in this arena and almost none where you actually help. She'll take her fitness in hand or not. It's her thing.

If you're doing something that's obviously sabotaging - like baking cookies that she finds hard not to binge on, or turning on her favorite show right before she's scheduled to leave to go to the gym - then stop it. Otherwise just don't comment on what she eats. Do not "help her stay on track." Disengage from all of this like an electric third rail.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:19 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


Women’s bodies are generally more sensitive to starvation signals and produce more hunger hormones. So you might be thinking “c’mon lady, you JUST SAID you wouldn’t eat the cookie” but she’s really fighting a lot of things here.

This, a million times. I think as women, our bodies go through cycles and in some cycles you're going to have a really hard time losing weight. You can make progress without losing weight-- e.g. by establishing a healthy baseline of eating and activity-- and to me, there is where a partner could help. Your daily routines intersect, and if those routines could use some tweaking, discuss that together. Using myself as an example, I can't dine out much or drink alcohol much and still lose weight. I can ask my partner not to suggest those things all the time. He thinks it's all right because "no" is an okay answer to him, but having been socialized to say "yes," I just need to remove that unnecessary pressure. (And, as a women, I can do zero dining out or drinking, and basically zero of anything, and still not lose weight at any given time, but that doesn't mean I might was well not be making an effort to eat healthy.)

So I guess my suggestion would be, ask how you can remove pressure. Don't agree to add to your partner's already considerable pressure even if, in some moments, she thinks that will help.
posted by BibiRose at 7:42 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


What I would want in this situation is practical help. Help getting good food in the house and keeping food I'm trying to avoid out. Maybe ideas like "Let's make it desserts only on weekends" and then doing that with her. Possibly redierction when we are out — e.g., "Let's get ice cream!" "Maybe popsicles instead?"
posted by dame at 7:45 AM on August 10


Have you asked her how she wants you to help her?
posted by JamesBay at 10:31 AM on August 10


I went without popcorn and its merry friends for long enough (a week. it's really just a week of struggle) that popcorn & co. ceased to rule my life.

I've heard lots of people make this kind of claim. For some it's a week; for others a month or maybe two.

For some of us it just never happens at all, and it takes years before we stop beating ourselves up for "failing" at it.
posted by flabdablet at 11:10 AM on August 10 [5 favorites]


Speaking as someone who has an irrational weakness for certain foods, the thing I would really want from a supportive partner is a commitment to not keep those foods in the house, or at least not in large quantities.

For example, a pint of ice cream costs more per pound than a gallon. But I believe that it's worth paying a little extra for the sake of my health.

And maybe you wouldn't have to do it forever, just until she gets her new eating habits established.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:38 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


I have had major weight fluctuations for my whole life. My husband has been there to witness 18 years of it. The best and only thing he did was always tell me how much he loved me and found me attractive and beautiful no matter what. His attention and compliments and actions were never a minefield and I could count on him to never say something inadvertently cruel or critical. He has always just been full of love and support. He also never tried to "help" me with reminders or transparent redirection. If I came home crying after a particularly bad trip of clothes shopping, he would tell me I'm gorgeous and that he was SO ANGRY that clothes shopping had to be so unpleasant for me. He was angry on my behalf and I felt like he was always on my side.

Managing weight for women is incredibly tough due to cultural expectations and constant messaging about your worth as a person being tied to appearance. A tremendous amount of this is internalized so that we live with an inner voice that can be very critical. It's compounded by the fact that our physiology also makes it tougher due to hormonal factors, etc.

My recommendation to you is to never mention her choices and weight loss efforts. Be a constant general supporter of hers. Make sure she knows that your love and attraction are not conditional (don't try ham-fisted positive reinforcement nonsense that shows her that you're monitoring her). If she's being particularly hard on herself after eating this or that, tell her that it's not permanent and treat her lovingly. You could invite her to refocus on an activity that's nurturing and positive and maybe silly (buy facemasks for both of you to try).

When I truly felt that my partner only wanted to love and support me and that his love and attention wasn't tied to my appearance, I was able to deal with things like emotional eating and other weight factors. He created a loving space where I had room to deal with it myself. It took a long time for me, but him making it clear that he wasn't going to try to grab the wheel and make it a group project made all the difference for me.
posted by quince at 12:38 PM on August 10 [8 favorites]


You're not going to be able to find the magic words that will click things into place in such a way that she's able to eat the way she wants to 100% of the time. Or even most of it. Or, probably, even some of it. Depending on the reasons she wants to do this and the reasons she isn't already, this can be a serious minefield and if I were you, I would just step away from it. Let this be her thing and don't engage either positively or negatively. I say this because, as someone who has similar struggles and gets similarly emotional about them, even positive affirmation makes me feel scrutinized and monitored in a way I don't like, which makes me retreat, which makes things worse. That's the true vicious cycle, not the eating itself. What I would want from a partner is assurance and support in general, like quince said above. Just affirmation that my partner loves me, cherishes me, finds me attractive, hears and supports my feelings, etc. That would take a lot of the pressure off of an already stressful situation and make it easier for me to feel like I could fail without disappointing anyone.

None of us are her, though, so maybe ask her. She's obviously sharing this with you for a reason, but it doesn't seem like that reason is accountability. Ask her what would be most helpful to her and then try to do that.
posted by Anne Shirley at 1:27 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


My recommendation to you is to never mention her choices and weight loss efforts. Be a constant general supporter of hers. Make sure she knows that your love and attraction are not conditional (don't try ham-fisted positive reinforcement nonsense that shows her that you're monitoring her). If she's being particularly hard on herself after eating this or that, tell her that it's not permanent and treat her lovingly.

I came to say this. I can tell from the way you are framing this question that you are a great partner. However, any attempt to intervene on this issue is likely to be a minefield for both of you.

Weight issues for women are incredibly fraught with so many layers of cultural pressure, internalized self-hatred, out-of-whack expectations, etc. that it is difficult for us to talk to ourselves about the subject, let alone hear anything that anyone else says clearly and at face value. Definitely avoid any direct criticism, including comments on her not living up to her own stated commitment to a certain way of eating, but also avoid any "behaviour modification" style compliments. Just be positive and focus on all the things you love about her without mentioning food or body size. Removing yourself as a source of any kind of pressure is a very kind thing.

On a practical level, keep healthy stuff you both like around the house without making a big deal about it. If there are restaurants you both enjoy that are healthier than others, suggest those more often. And, if there are activities you can do together that don't involve food, make an effort to build those into your schedule more often (without mentioning that you're doing it for any particular reason). In short, become a part of the environment that supports her choices, rather than discussing them directly with her.
posted by rpfields at 5:28 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


If your partner is someone who has always struggled with her weight, take a lot of the advice above. She has a million friends and websites to tell her to exercise more or cut out carbs, and doesn't need you for that.

But if she's someone who's always been slim, she may have a significant mental or physical health issue, and you should encourage her to have proper evaluations. Sudden and atypical weight gain or weight loss can be symptoms of real trouble.
posted by MattD at 12:10 PM on August 11


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