Q&A With Dr. Nagpal:Worried about Husband's Health

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 01/29/2013 - 19:18

Lisa writes:

I am terribly upset about my husband who is overweight and drinks too much alcohol. He becomes very defensive and touchy whenever I mention the idea of exercise or cutting down on portion sizes. He refuses to cut down on alcohol also. In fact, the more I mention it, the more defensive he gets. I am very worried about my husband's health but feel at a loss because he simply accuses me of being a nag. Is there anything different I can do?

Dear Lisa: I am glad you reached out to ask for help with this difficult and worrisome situation. Clearly it bothers you a great deal that your husband is not taking care of his health and you are not sure what to do about it. The more you try to “help” the more defensive he gets.

This is a situation that many people will be able to relate to, because many of us have experienced a similar challenge, just in a different form. You have the classic situation of what to do when someone you love does not want to change behaviors that are detrimental to self or others, hurting the family, irresponsible etc. A simple and sincere answer in that situation is to remember this  – you can’t change someone else. Only your husband can control if, when, and how, he chooses to change his unhealthy behaviors.

There are plenty of reasons why people are unwilling to make changes in their behavior, even when it is very clear that the changes will be to their benefit. I can’t be sure what these reasons are for your husband, but some of the common ones I have encountered are - not realizing the extent of negative effect a behavior is having, not being attuned to self-care in general (sometimes even highly functional people don’t have a clue how to take care of themselves), having a deeper issue (e.g. food or alcohol addiction) that gets in the way of change, or simply not being ready to make a change. Change is hard, particularly if it means doing something you have done a certain way for a long time. Change takes self-awareness, a decision to change, and a plan to make it happen. Perhaps your husband is not yet seeing the need, or for some other reason is just not ready to make the changes that you see as important for his health.

One thing is for sure, nagging will not help. In fact, it could possibly make him dig in his heels a little deeper. A different approach is definitely called for. My suggestion is to stop the nagging, and start doing something else. This will immediately stop the energy drain you are recurrently experiencing when your nagging does not pay off. It could also very well give your husband some space to think about, and perhaps gain a greater awareness of the health impact of his current habits. Furthermore, I suggest spending some of your saved energy focusing on something you can control, for instance, your own health, or a work situation that where making a change would feel better to you. This will of course not change your husband’s behavior, but remember, he is the only one who can change that. In the meantime, you will be doing something proactive.

If and when you do talk with him about the things that bother you, do keep the focus on how his unhealthy habits affect you, and work toward mitigating that harm, rather than simply continuing to ask him to change for his own sake. For instance, is he at risk for a debilitating disease or dying sooner than later if he keeps this up? How would that affect you and your family? Don’t hesitate to ask for or do things that would minimize harm to your family in the event of his disability or untimely demise – for instance taking out good disability insurance and a significant life insurance policy.   

A good therapist could be of support to you, since it is often hard to stop a pattern of communication that has been going on for so long. It could also be challenging to know how to communicate in a different way, how to focus on something more productive, and how to keep doing the things you can control. Establishing an ongoing relationship with a therapist, who understands you and your situation more fully, could help you stay on track with any changes you decide to make. Most importantly, do not give up hope that your husband can change. But do stop spending your time and energy on motivating him, when he is clearly not ready to change. 

Disclaimer: My responses in this column are for educational purposes only and do not imply a professional relationship. Any contact you have with me through this column does not constitute a client-therapist relationship. It is not possible  for me to know your personal situation from the question/s you ask, and therefore the information provided by me should not be considered psychotherapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions  you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in Q&A with Dr. Nagpal. Neither myself nor Still Waters Counseling, LLC, or any other entity involved in the creation, support, maintenance, or provision of this column will be liable for any incidental, consequential, or punitive damages arising out of your access to, or use of, this column.

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About Me & this Column

I am the co-owner and Director of Programs Development at Still Waters Counseling. I hold independent licenses in both Psychology and Counseling, which means that I can not only practice independently but also supervise others in the field. My 3 passions are writing, teaching, and learning, not necessarily in that order every day. I have been practicing the art of counseling for over 14 years, a venue that often helps me combine all three of my passions. Additionally, I have worked as adjunct faculty at EasternMichiganUniversity& the Universityof Toledo, have been published in a professional journal, and am in the process of writing a series of children’s books. I am also very active in the community where I live, serving on Saline Alive! (community group addressing mental health issues in the schools), running for School Board, serving on the Saline Area Schools Strategic Planning Committee & the City of Saline’s Environmental Commission. I am married, have 1 child of my own and 3 step-children, but it would take a book to sum up my varied personal experiences. I will refer to these experiences from time to time when answering your questions.

I will respond to questions once a week. I cannot promise to answer every question asked, but I will do my best. At times I may combine questions, if they are similar or overlapping. If you wish to reach me outside of this column, you can contact me at [email protected]. I will return emails as soon as I am able. Please do not use this email for a mental health emergency.