Skip to content

1 Household, 2 Diets

Should a spouse ever play ‘diet cop’?

En español | Marriage is hard enough, but add the stress of one partner who needs to go on a diet and daily life can get even tougher.

“I see this tension every day, when one person has to lose weight and the other is at an OK weight or thin,” says Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and author of several books on mindful eating.

Sign up for the AARP Health Newsletter.

Couples have plenty of reasons to dread a weight-loss program. It means change, and change can rock even the most seasoned marriages.

A new diet can also lead to resentment: “Why can my wife eat whatever she wants and I can’t?” Or frustration: “We won’t be able to enjoy dinner together.” Or fear: “If my husband doesn’t lose weight, he could have a heart attack and die.”

That fear, says Albers, “is the hardest way to start a diet.”

To help you or your partner achieve a weight-loss goal without undermining your relationship, Albers and other experts offer these suggestions. Remember, Albers says, the improved health that can result from weight loss can mean a happier — and longer — marriage:

1. Take the focus off food. Leisurely brunches, romantic dinners, late-night snacks: Many couples do a lot of their bonding over food. When a doctor recommends weight loss, some couples may undergo “a bit of a grieving process, given that food may not play as central a role anymore,” says Sofia Rydin-Gray, a psychologist at Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. But as she points out, you can still bond over food, just less frequently. She suggests, for instance, the occasional restaurant dinner. Or coming up with other activities you can do together — such as a dance class. Rydin-Gray tells couples to view this change as a good thing. “It’s an opportunity to refocus on the quality of the relationship,” she says.

2. Start talking. Solid communication is key to a successful relationship, even more so when weight loss is on the table. Rather than guess at how you can support your dieting spouse, ask him or her for specific guidance, advises Rydin-Gray. Her clients find it helpful to write a letter to their spouse, explaining what they need in the way of diet support and why. (For instance, “Please don’t hide treats in the house because then I focus on finding them, which makes me feel rebellious.”)

3. Don’t play diet cop. Hungry for success, a dieter might ask his spouse to play food police; a spouse, eager to help, might willingly jump into that role. Don’t. “That never works,” says Albers of the Cleveland Clinic. Why not? “It’s a control issue,” she explains. “What goes in your body is up to you, and when someone tries to take that control away, it creates havoc.” Nor is it practical: In most relationships, a spouse isn’t physically present to monitor every morsel. Spousal support is necessary for a diet to work, but, Albers says, that support should be offered in more helpful ways, such as asking whether your spouse would like to join you on a nice, long walk.

4. Beware the green-eyed monster. The thought of a spouse losing weight — and therefore perhaps becoming more attractive and appealing — can spur thoughts of jealousy in some people, says JJ Virgin, a weight-loss coach based in Palm Desert, Calif. To curb jealous feelings, Virgin advises dieting spouses to explain why slimming down will benefit the relationship. (For instance, “When I’m not so heavy, I’ll have more energy for doing things together.”) Dieters should also reassure spouses concerned about infidelity that they are fully committed to the relationship.

 5. Be patient. When a doctor prescribes a diet, a spouse can feel urgency, even panic, if the pounds don’t disappear soon. Because successful weight loss takes time, that hurry-up attitude is neither helpful nor practical. Rather than push or criticize, be patient, especially when the dieter slips, says Kim Feingold, director of cardiac behavioral medicine at Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “Family members are the first to criticize and they ignore the 80 percent when the patient is doing a good job,” she points out. Instead, focus on and praise the healthful behavior.

6. Make it an “us” project. Even if only one person must lose weight, a more healthful eating plan can benefit the entire household. Make shopping and cooking a team effort — write the grocery list together, go shopping together, and if possible, prepare food together. “The helpful part is when everybody’s on board,” Albers says.

Also of interest: How to boost your metabolism.