When I first met my hubby Jack he weighed 50 pounds more than he does now. Most people assume I “forced” him to eat healthy and shed the pounds, but I was already an RD when we met and had worked with couples in my private practice, so I knew better than to trick, bribe, or guilt him into laying off the tacos.
Policing your partner is actually one of the worst things you can do for your relationship, and it often creates the exact opposite effect. Check out this sadly hilarious and true to life clip from my favorite Lucky Louie episode where the wife of Louis C.K.’s character becomes a food cop. The episode is called “Control” (warning: contains profanity).
This kind of food cop blowback isn’t fiction. A new University of Michigan School of Public Health study found that in focus groups of over 80 married men, most say their wives didn’t consult them when they tried to help their hubbies adopt a healthier diet. And while most of the husbands disliked the food changes, they didn’t object to avoid conflict; and some of the men admitted to secretly bingeing on unhealthy foods away from home.
This is one of my favorite topics because back in 2004 I co-wrote a book with my friend Denise Maher about couples’ food fights. Each of the 17 chapters in the book tackled a specific food/relationship conflict, from food pushing to food policing and everything in between (like disagreeing about how to feed pets or children, when one half of a couple is on a strict diet, when one has a weight issue and the other doesn’t, cultural food differences, and managing out of sync eating schedules). But when I went on tour to promote the book, living with a food cop was the topic that drew the greatest response. Men called into radio shows to tell me stories about how resentful they felt towards their wives for monitoring and criticizing everything they ate (and many admitted that they lied about what they consumed on their own). And many women called in seeking vindication for trying to save their husbands’ lives.
While it’s often a wife policing a husband, it can be the other way around too, and policing can also be an issue in same sex relationships. If you’re on either end of this battle here are some strategies that can help you and your partner find some common ground:
For the Food Cop:
Try to see things from your partner’s point of view
You’ve probably had a teacher, boss, coach, or even a family member who constantly looked over your shoulder, and even if well meaning, made you feel continually scrutinized. As adults, it’s in our nature to crave autonomy, and food is very personal. Even if it feels like you’re trying to take care of your better half, your actions may be smothering rather than motivating.
Explain where you’re coming from
As well as we know our partners, it’s not always obvious what each person’s motivations or feelings are. If you’re worried about your partner’s health, express that. In other words, don’t assume he or she knows that’s why you’re policing. But do it in a way that expresses care and concern, not judgment. Saying, “I want to grow old with you and I want us to be healthy together” sounds a lot different than “you should know better than to eat a bacon cheeseburger.”
Let go a little
The most important thing you can do if you’re in this battle is understand that your partner is responsible for his or her own behavior, and there is nothing you can do to force your companion to alter his or her eating habits. He or she may not be ready to change, may not want to change, or may not be taking the risks of not changing very seriously right now. I know it can be very difficult to ease up, but the more you push the more resistance you’ll likely receive. And softening your approach can be good for your health. It’s a big burden for one individual to be responsible for two people’s actions.
Don’t exclude your partner from decisions
Before you throw away all the junk in the house, or even decide what you’re both having for dinner, talk it out. Or add new good-for-you options before taking away the less healthy staples. I’ve had men tell me that they were angry that their wives switched to whole wheat pasta or brown rice without asking. That may seem like a simple decision, and a healthy one, but one client told me he ate fast food for lunch the next day out of spite.
Change your language
When talking about this issue, try to avoid judgmental or negative words, like “good” or “bad” “shouldn’t” or “don’t” and using a critical tone of voice. One of the things I’ve seen over and over again in my health care career is how strongly people resist being forced to do anything. When someone is scolded or aggressively told what to do (or not to do), they tend to tune out.
Focus on your health
If you want brown rice and your partner will only eat white, make both. I know it may be more work for you, but you shouldn’t sacrifice your nutrition and health goals. And when your significant other sees what you eat and how great you feel, he or she may just come around. When I look back I would have to say that the number one thing that led my husband changing his eating habits was just spending time together. I offered (but didn’t push) my healthy meals and snacks, and eventually he tried new things like hummus and quinoa. Over time, he went from not eating breakfast or grabbing fast food, to eating whole grain cereal or making smoothies in the morning. As he started experiencing more energy and shedding pounds he made more changes. Fifty pounds later he eats pretty healthy most of the time, even when I’m out of town.
For the Partner Being Policed:
Try to see things from your partner’s point of view
Most food cops really believe they’re protecting you and acting out of love. It can be hard for them to understand why their actions are backfiring because they’re typically coming from a desire to help you rather than control you.
Tell your partner what you’re willing to do
Would you like your significant other to back off altogether or are you ready to make some changes? Make it clear where you stand, and if you would like his or her support, explain exactly what you'd like that help to look like.
Be open minded
If you’re not feeling pushed into change, you may be more willing to give new things a try, but all it takes it trying. You may be really surprised how great some healthy foods taste, or how different you feel after making just a few small changes. You don’t have to commit to doing something forever, but try things, like ordering a naked burrito (no tortilla), mixing a little brown rice into the white, or tasting a fruit you’ve never had before.
This messy issue can actually turn into a real opportunity, both for your relationship, and the health of each partner, but communication and compromise are the keys.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.