Weight is usually not an easy thing to talk about. But if you are in a relationship and one or both of you is working to lose weight, it’s best to discuss what kind of support you need, a recent study published in the Journal of Health Communication suggests. Not only will this make you more likely to reach your health goals, it will also keep your relationship strong and free of unnecessary tension.
René Dailey, PhD, professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, analyzed an online survey of 389 adults who were actively trying to lose weight and living with a partner. About 60% of these individuals’ partners were also trying to lose weight. She found the types of support that tend to work best depend on what kind of relational environment the individual has.
According to her work, the most common strategies for support are encouragement (praise, understanding and reassurances), influence (asking, pushing or reminding to make healthy choices) and coercion (using guilt, fear and rejection to elicit healthy behaviors).
But people in certain relational environments report more or less of each of these, and each is more or less effective.
Couples in synchronized environments tend to see weight loss as a team effort, even if only one person is working to slim down. That partner receives support and doesn’t have to choose between their relationship and their weight loss. All three support strategies work in this kind of relationship, though encouragement tends to be most effective.
Those who are autonomous have less of a team effort mindset but don’t tend to get in the way of each other’s goals. It’s more of a “we need to do this for ourselves” mentality, Dailey explains. Encouragement works better than influence, and both work better than coercion in these relationships.
Contentious cooperatives know weight loss is the goal for one or both partners, but they have different beliefs on how to reach that goal. For example, one may think exercise is most important while the other thinks eating is. This can lead to relationship strain. Although encouragement works here, of the four relational environments, this one finds coercion most effective and influence least effective. “Coercion isn’t negative; they have more volatility in their relationship overall and like to banter back and forth,” Dailey says.
Lastly, lone battlers have no team effort, talk less with their partners about weight loss and tend to have opposing views on what a healthy lifestyle is. They only like encouragement. “My guess is if you are a lone battler, you don’t feel your partner is on the same page in terms of weight loss, and you might feel influence is nagging,” Dailey says.
Although people in synchronized environments self-reported the most weight loss, people in the other three groups reported similar weight loss — and not significantly less than the synchronized folks. “There is no one ideal relational environment,” Dailey says.
What matters is feeling like your partner is on the same page as you and has your best interest at heart, she says. This requires a conversation, ideally before you begin your weight-loss journey.
“Don’t expect the people in your life to be mind readers. Let each person know that you wish them to be helpful and how you’d like them to support and help you,” says Patrick O’Neil, PhD, director of the Medical University of South Carolina Weight Management Center. But before you talk, “make sure you are straight with yourself about how you will react if your partner does what you request they do.”
Encouragement works across the board, so ask them to start there, Dailey suggests. “We assume our partner wants to and can support us. But how willing is your partner to provide support? And are they able to?” Dailey says. “Maybe they don’t know how. So say, ‘Here is what I want’ or ‘Let’s try this.’”
Once you have this initial chat, regularly have check-in conversations to talk about what’s working and what’s not. Thank them when they give you the support you requested. And be mindful to see if you are giving mixed messages. You may say, tell me not to eat ice cream, but do you yell when they do this? “Be appreciative when get the support you asked for,” Dailey says, and use those check-ins to talk about any adjustments.