What to do when you've lost weight and gotten healthy and he hasn't

Paul Oakley

This is how weight loss is supposed to work: You lose a lot of pounds, you feel amazing, and your partner is more enamored of you than ever. But what really happens is much different if your guy is still eating and drinking whatever he wants and hasn't been to the gym in months. In that case, ending the tug-of-war between your new healthy lifestyle and his not-so-healthy one is complicated.

I know this because I lived through it several years ago. After I worked hard to lose 80 pounds, my relationship with my boyfriend, Pete, started to get weirdly tense. One night, a chocolate tart he brought home sparked a fight between us that had been brewing for a while.

I had tried to refuse a piece of the tart nicely. "Why can't you share dessert with me?" Pete asked, annoyed, as we glared at each other. My weight maintenance did include the occasional dessert, of course, but I'd been eating too many of them recently, and frankly, I could live without chocolate tart. (If you can't, try these Healthy Chocolate Dessert Recipes.) It had taken a long time to train myself out of the habit of eating something I didn't want just to be polite or because it was there.

But Pete wasn't content with a "no, thanks." In his view, he'd done something thoughtful, and I was spurning it. We both went to bed angry. And that was just one of the many things we clashed over. Though he'd been a college athlete, Pete had stopped working out, something I did religiously five mornings a week. It became more and more of a struggle for me to exercise because Pete was always trying to convince me to stay in bed for a few more minutes. He also chose to eat as if he were still burning calories like a college athlete-potatoes were his favorite vegetable, and he slathered butter on everything. Obviously, I couldn't eat that way, and it was tough to be tempted constantly.

Relationship problems that erupt after one partner loses weight and the other sticks to his or her bad habits are far more common than most people realize, researchers say. In fact, a 2014 study at North Carolina State University found that when one partner lost at least 30 pounds, many couples experienced negative consequences, including arguments over food, nagging about diet and exercise, and annoyance about the time consumed by workouts and food prep. (We've got 10 No-Sweat Meal Prep Tips from Pros to help make it easier.)

This is such a contentious issue because even small disruptions in a relationship's routine force us to adjust our expectations and sometimes our behavior, experts say. "Every relationship is a closed system," explains study coauthor Lynsey Kluever Romo, Ph.D., an assistant professor of communication at North Carolina State. "We have a certain understanding of how things will be. When one element changes, it throws everything off and can create conflict. People think, I signed up for wings and beer, not for this."

Of course, compromise is a given in any romantic relationship. Couples have to resolve plenty of issues, such as moves and job changes; weight loss is just another one to tackle. Here's how to work things out with your guy without sacrificing your new lifestyle.

Tell It Like It Is

First and most important, make sure he understands why you lost the weight. He may be secretly worried that you're ready to ditch him for another man now that you're slimmer and more gorgeous than ever. Make it clear to him that your new habits are about your own well-being, not about dissatisfaction with your relationship. "You lost the weight to get healthier, feel good, and live longer, and those are some of the most important reasons there are, period," says Charlotte Markey, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, who is studying weight loss in couples. Tell him that, and it should set his mind at ease. (Not in a relationship? Here's When to Talk About Weight Loss While Dating.)

Keep Your Eyes On the Prize

As much as you might want to turn your guy into your exercise buddy, you can't do that unless he's open to it. "Trying to force someone to be healthier almost never works," says Judith S. Beck, Ph.D., the president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy and the author of The Beck Diet Solution. "He knows he should exercise and eat less. He doesn't want to, or he would have done it already." Better for you to accept him the way he is, Beck says, and focus on your own goals. With any luck, he'll eventually be inspired by your achievements and decide to join you.

Don't Assume He's Trying to Sabotage You

He brought home ice cream again. It might seem like he's out to tempt you, but in fact, he may have no hidden agenda. After all, he hasn't been on a diet thinking about weight loss 24/7, as you have, so he's not used to carefully considering every food he buys. If he did do it on purpose, accusing him of that makes it tough to have an honest conversation because he'll be on the defensive and you'll be looking for evidence that you're right instead of really listening to what he has to say, Romo explains. (See also: 5 People Who Are Jealous of Your Weight Loss.)

Instead of demanding "Are you trying to make me fat again?" go with "I noticed you've been bringing home ice cream a lot lately. You know I'm trying not to eat that, and having it in the house makes it really hard for me to stick to my diet. Can we talk about this?" Then ask him why he's buying the treat. If he says he simply wants ice cream, suggest that he choose a single-serving size from now on. But if he admits that he's doing it in the hope that you'll eat it with him, Romo advises asking him how he really feels about your weight loss. Say something like "I get the sense that you aren't a fan of my losing weight. Is there any truth to that?" He may be feeling left out or neglected because you're spending a lot of time at the gym. Remind him of your reasons for slimming down and take the opportunity to brainstorm foods you can eat together and both enjoy.

Compromise a Little...

If you ask him to keep chips out of the house, reciprocate by letting him choose what's for dinner. He wants pizza? Fine. Keep your portion healthy by adding a salad and sticking to one or two small slices. If he says he wants to see a movie, great; just tell him that you need to do your workout first, and then the two of you can hit the multiplex. Pete and I declared a truce by agreeing that we would have dessert in restaurants only, so it wouldn't be around the house. If I decided I didn't want any, I would order tea so he wouldn't have to eat alone. It's all about meeting in the middle.

...But Know When to Stand Your Ground

That said, when negotiating with your partner, whether it's about carving out time on Saturday to fit in a workout or deciding what restaurant to go to, be sure to keep your own interests foremost in mind, Beck says. "In order to avoid a fight, women will sometimes think, He's upset; I guess I'd better do things that will make him happy," she explains. But if you approach it that way, it means you'll eat his french fries when he pushes them on you and stay home watching the game when you really want to be out running, and you'll resent him for it. Instead, if you tell yourself, "This is incredibly important to me; I know he's unhappy, but he'll get over it, and this is part of the give and take of a relationship," then you'll be more likely to do what's right for you, Beck says. "Aim for a solution that allows you to stick with your new habits-hopefully one that he can get behind, too."

Realize That Sometimes You Can't Work It Out

If he continues to be difficult, it may be time to consider whether you really want to be with a man who needs to control you. Know, too, that you're not alone: Some couples in the North Carolina State study split up because of weight-loss issues. "Why would you want to be in a relationship in which you're not supported and encouraged to be healthy? If he's annoyed that you're taking care of yourself, what does that say about him and how much he cares about you?" says therapist Karen Koenig, the author of Nice Girls Finish Fat.

If you come to the conclusion that he's just not going to be there for you, walking away may be preferable, as hard as that is to do. "If he can't get on board or at least be supportive of you, I think there's a really deep-seated problem in the relationship," Markey says. "In that case, you need to do what's smartest and healthiest for you." (And know you're not alone. These real women have been in the same situation.)