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A popular insurance commercial shows a man standing in front of an open fridge staring at its contents. His wife comes along and pokes him in the belly, telling him she wishes they could’ve saved as much on his unused gym membership as they did on their insurance. Sarcastically, he says, “Hilarious,” and then looks down at his midsection with an insecure look on his face.

The wife’s behavior was more threatening than it was helpful because she wasn’t offering her husband any substantial suggestions. Instead, she was goading him while pretending to tease him. But when it comes to weight loss, studies reveal that you can be a true friend to your spouse’s desire to lose weight, or you can be an antagonist. It all comes down to whether you truly come alongside them or whether you get in the way of their progress.

Yet, even though roasting her husband was not the best tactic for the woman in the commercial, it may still have had some effect toward positive change if there was a high enough level of satisfaction and trust in their relationship. Therefore, the strength of the relationship really is the most critical element in whether one spouse can help another in the journey toward weight loss. If trust has been destroyed, or even if the negative coaching thrown at the one who needs to lose weight is constant, the struggling one will become more withdrawn, and the effort to help will backfire.

Like the man in the commercial, Ollie wondered whether his wife was joking the day she laughingly called him a slob as she walked through the living room. Ollie was watching his favorite team on the big screen, and he had a bag of his favorite chips on his left and a cold drink to his right. In front of him was a double-decker sandwich with all the “fixings.”

After Monica walked into the kitchen, Ollie looked down at his rotund, shirtless belly. He wondered, If I still had six-pack abs, would she have said anything?

Monica used the same tactic as the woman in the commercial. Unfortunately, Monica witnessed the result of her bad approach, poor timing, and insufficient goodwill in the relationship when Ollie got up and grabbed a bag of cookies even though he knew he’d be stuffed before he finished them.

This demonstrates that controlling tactics, even in the guise of kidding, can backfire. In fact, the more overweight a person is, the more he or she may resent the intrusive attempts to control, and the more they may react by making choices that are even more unhealthy.

Ava experienced a different kind of control, which seems to go a little better than the passive-aggressive teasing or open control tactic—but not by much. Her husband, Ben, would never come right out and say, “Hey, you’ve gained weight.” Instead, he’d wait until she did lose a few pounds or started exercising again, and he’d really praise her, “Wow, you fit in those jeans again? I’m so proud of all your hard work. Good for you for meeting your goals.”

While she appreciated that Ben didn’t deride her or call her fat, something about his words felt manipulating. Ava just wasn’t sure why. Certainly, he would never say, “Are you sure you want that second piece of cake?” or, “You look as dowdy as the old lady next door.” Nevertheless, his seemingly kind words of affirmation sunk like lead into her gut, making her feel inadequate. When she tried to explain this to Ben, he felt hurt and said he felt unappreciated for his attempt to be supportive.

People who try to influence someone to lose weight the way Ben tried to “help” Ava may use compliments or positive affirmation, but they leave the person feeling controlled because the weight loss journey is still the focus. They will feel that their progress is being judged or monitored by the other person, even if it is a less abrupt approach. Again, the level of goodwill in the relationship and how much a person needs to lose weight affects the outcome of this approach.

Still, studies show that there are better ways spouses can encourage each other toward more healthful behavior. The most effective way is when a person encourages the one who needs to lose weight. For example, a husband can leave work and come home early to be with the kids so his wife can go to the gym or meet friends for a game of basketball. Or the one trying to help can cook healthy meals for the other while also refraining from putting unhealthy food on the table for himself or herself.

For example, a person should avoid feeling entitled to say or think, “Well! I’m not the fat one, so I can have ice cream, and you can’t.” Rather, the healthier person should avoid bringing junk food into the house at all. Again, the power of this most effective approach lies in the use of a good example to motivate. A spouse can help plan meals and shop for nutritious food or invite a friend over for some fun form of exercise, such as playing tag with the kids outside. Live and promote positive choices lovingly!

Isla tried the positive example approach with her husband, Harley. As the more health conscious of the newlywed pair, she asked Harley to spend time with her making the salad. He was so happy to see her loving smile and be by her side that he forgot all about his iPhone. After dinner, she asked if he would go for a short walk with her around the neighborhood, “just to keep her safe.” Harley didn’t even know that his wife’s loving care could be classified as a type of loving social influence. After all, they were newlyweds.

In another case, a woman who’s been married for several years has come to not only recognize but also appreciate her husband’s intervention. Emma is married to a man whose loving invitations have helped keep her fit into her 50s, and she knows well the power of a spouse’s care. She says, “I hate exercise! I’d rather read a book! But when he offers to walk with me and hold my hand, I can’t resist.” The years of building love and trust have rewarded both partners with goodwill, love, and closeness. This husband and wife share a deeper intimacy that allows them to gently influence and invite each other into making healthy choices through companionship rather than control.

People whose spouses are overweight and perhaps obese will be more helpful if they avoid using monitoring control strategies, as these attempts can be counterproductive and potentially harmful. No approach should undermine well-being or relationship satisfaction. This means that if a person is overweight or obese, controlling strategies rather than the natural influence of a good, supportive example may do more harm than good. In fact, researchers have noted that the overweight or obese person will have the added burden of finding a way to get their spouse to stop the harmful prodding so they can make progress on their weight-loss journey.

Thankfully the Bible offers a lot of freedom in these words: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). Notice that the text says to offer your body, not that of your family member or friend. It’s enough for you to worry about your personal health journey. This verse frees each of us from the responsibility of fixing or prescribing for anyone else—because we can’t even fix ourselves. Only Jesus can help us. If we get the proverbial log out of our own eye before trying to help someone else (Matthew 7:3–5), we may discover we have much to learn about being a living sacrifice.

Finally, in 1 Corinthians 13:4, we read that love is patient and kind, not proud and boastful. While a spouse who grabs fast food and loads up on chips or sweets may provoke us, God can help us to avoid snatching that food away in anger or deriding our partners for their choices. Instead, we have the privilege of living as loving examples. And when we do this, we extend encouragement mingled with grace—backed by God’s Word and the science of relationships.

Helping Your Mate Lose Weight

by Joy Wendt
From the February 2020 Signs