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. We're used to these folks, they're used to us – we don't even think about it. But the home environment has a strong influence on behavior, so it’s important to widen the lens when someone in the household 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! But it isn’t that simple. The crackers are someone else’s and they’re here to stay. In such a situation, one client took the matter into her own hands in a different way by taping 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 does. Even if this comes from a place of love and concern, it can be problematic. Making lasting changes 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 – and this is extremely important – each of us needs to be clear that, as adults, we are responsible for our own health and others are responsible for theirs. 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 openly and regularly? Even if nothing changes, family members can deepen their understanding of one another, learn new ways of supporting each other and reinforce their commitment to their relationship by sharing their thoughts and feelings about something as important to everyone as their health. Try it, and see what happens!

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