Kathy Whelan

Posted on August 13, 2019

When we think about our health, it’s easy to overlook the fact that our habits are intertwined with the habits of those we live with. The home environment is a strong influence, so it’s important to widen the lens when someone in the family wants to change.

In one version of a health coaching scenario I often encounter, a client wants to eliminate pre-dinner snacking, which may be contributing to a recent weight gain. But on each well-intentioned trip to the pantry for oil or vinegar, the same thing happens. Almost unconsciously, they reach for a brightly-colored box of greasy crackers. Before realizing it, they’ve eaten a handful. Easy answer, you say: get rid of the box and all other newly-designated contraband. But it isn’t that simple. The crackers are someone else’s and they’re here to stay. In such a situation, one client found it helpful to tape a “DANGER” sign to the pantry door.

Sometimes the domestic issue presents differently. I may suspect that another family member wants to change my client’s health habit more than my client wants to change it. Even if this comes from a place of love and concern, it can be problematic. Making changes that last takes commitment and regular repetition of new behaviors over time. We are unlikely to succeed, or to succeed only briefly, if changing in a certain way is more someone else’s goal than our own. The same is true if we share the goal but are not yet ready to tackle it. Looking at such issues early on avoids wasted time and misspent energy.

Couples can be comfortable in very dissimilar health worlds. Or they may feel fine about having well-aligned health goals but completely different timetables for achieving them. Their differences, though, may take on new meaning when a child is involved. Each parent may want to serve as a positive role model for their child but doing so means one thing to one of them and something else to the other when it comes to health.

All these situations, and others, can be tricky and can sometimes lead to tension. But they can also lead to growth if they are handled well. To begin with, each of us needs to be clear that, as adults, we are responsible for our own health and others are responsible for theirs. This doesn’t mean we aren’t impacted by the health habits of our family members. Clearly, we are. But taking ownership of our health and respectfully allowing others to do the same lays the groundwork for handling differences in a productive way.

Open and honest communication, with an attitude of compassion, patience and non-judgment, is key. Perhaps a husband who stubbornly refuses to change is fearful of being unsuccessful, a failure in his own eyes and those of his family. Maybe a wife is resistant to change because she feels judged instead of loved. With thoughtful communication, insights like these can come to light and be dealt with.

Why wait for a disagreement to arise or a health crisis to occur? Health is truly a family matter, so why not discuss it regularly? Even if no one’s health habits change, family members can deepen their understanding of one another and reinforce their commitment to their relationship by sharing their thoughts and feelings about something as important to everyone as their health.

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