Dear Captain Awkward,
My husband and I have been together for four years, married for two. We generally have an awesome relationship, but there’s this one thing that’s getting on my nerves.
He doesn’t look after his health.
It’s nothing extreme like alcoholism or drugs, but he doesn’t eat a very good diet, and he hasn’t exercised regularly in many years. I’m concerned about this for a couple of reasons.He gets frequent bouts of insomnia, and I can’t help feeling that some exercise might help with that. Also, and I am trying not to be sizeist about this, he has a lot of fat on his body in general, mainly his belly. It doesn’t bother me appearance-wise; he’s had this body as long as I’ve known him, and I’ve always found him attractive. But I am concerned that it’s not good for his heart (he has a family history of high blood pressure), or that he could get Type 2 diabetes. I know, I know, Health At Every Size, but his lifestyle isn’t particularly healthy so I am not inclined to assume that he is.
He has said many times that he wants to lose weight, and he’s made some improvements to his diet lately. He also agrees that he should exercise. We have a treadmill, which he used to use a lot when he was at college; he finally ran on it a couple of months ago, but was very wheezy for quite a while afterwards (he tends to wheeze after doing anything physical, or in damp weather). That was kind of worrying, so he said that he didn’t want to exercise again until he’d seen the doctor and maybe gotten an asthma inhaler in case the wheezing got worse. I agreed that this was a good idea (that shit is scary).
Two months later, he still has not gone to the doctor. Money isn’t a problem, the doctor is ten minutes away, and the surgery has walk-in hours most evenings after my husband gets home from work. This would not be hard to sort out if he wanted to, but he keeps coming up with excuses: he’s too tired, he’s too stressed, he doesn’t feel like it, it’s too cold out. It’s pretty obvious that he doesn’t want to do this – and I don’t even know if it’s JUST about seeing the doctor, or if he doesn’t want to exercise at all. I am frustrated and irritated, because he won’t explain his reasons for this, and he gets annoyed and shuts down every time I try to talk to him about it. I’m also worried, because I love him, and I don’t want him to get sick, and I want us to grow old together.
I don’t know what I can do about this, or what I should do. I want to get mad and yell at him, but I am not the yelling type, and also that would be mean. (Also also, we live with housemates, which means there isn’t a lot of privacy for difficult conversations or arguments.)
So, any advice?
This is a complicated question with a simple answer: you can’t make your husband healthy. The end. He is an adult human with autonomy over his body, even if his choices pain you, and any conversation you have with him (or with us advice-givers!) has to start from that fact. The only person’s behavior you can control is your own — I think you know that, but you’re also intensely frustrated that your husband is not behaving the way you imagine you’d behave if the tables were turned. Everyone who’s been in a close relationship (romantic or otherwise) has felt that at some point! But you have to remember to let go of the part of your mind that imagines *you* strolling into the doctor’s office and dancing on the treadmill.
So let’s talk about why your dude might not want to go to the doctor.
Possible Reason #1: As I’m sure you know, many many fat people have been emotionally terrorized by doctors and received inadequate health care simply because they are fat. (For a roll call of horror stories, see First, Do No Harm.) Have you asked your husband about his previous experience with doctors? It may be a difficult conversation, but it’s possible he has history that you don’t know about that makes going to the doctor a psychologically fraught prospect. Add in the fact that he may have exercise-induced asthma or other stereotypically “fat guy” problems, and the potential for a shaming experience is high. I’m trusting that you have done some research and/or had experience with the doctor you recommend, and that you think your husband will not be berated or told “just lose weight” when he goes.
Possible Reason #2: He might be scared. Not necessarily of the doctor, but of what the doctor will find. Unfortunately, lots of people put off seeing a doctor precisely because they *know* something is wrong, and getting a diagnosis will make their fears a reality. This is really incredibly awful for everyone involved — the potentially sick person who’s terrified, the family members who are biting their tongues about how worried they are, the friends who want to know what they can do to help but don’t have any information. I’ve been through this with family members, and it was heartbreaking. Your husband may not realize how much you worry about him — our culture puts so much shame on fat bodies in the guise of “concern for your health” that it may be hard for him to truly believe that your fear about his wheezing is really a fear about his wheezing and not about his belly. Maybe he needs to hear that your fear is not “I will have a fat husband forever” but “I will call 911 because your airway has closed and I don’t know what to do.”
Possible Reason #3: I might get into trouble for this one, but I’m diving in anyway: he is a dude. You don’t say how old you are, but if you’re on the younger side of things, your dude hasn’t had to start the round of regular “you are aging now” checkups that older dudes need. He also doesn’t need to get his ladybits scraped regularly, or his birth control prescription renewed, or his vaccines boosted, or any of the other things that force some of us to hit the doctor’s office every year or so. Now, obviously this is not true of every individual, but as a culture at large, women are expected to be caregivers; from a young age, we are inculcated with the idea that we will someday be in charge of someone else (i.e., all those babies Rick Santorum so desperately wants us to have), and that there are some things that adults do that we will need to learn, like how to make a doctor’s appointment and follow up on it. Some men just have not really had to learn how to do that stuff, so when he says “Sure, I should see the doctor,” he does not actually mean “Therefore, I will call one today to make an appointment.” Again: not saying this is true for all dudes — or that it’s only true for dudes — just that there may be a gender dynamic at play here.
Now. All that said, you probably already know that I think you need to sit down and have an honest discussion with your husband (not in earshot of your housemates), in which you ask some questions and listen to the answers without giving any orders or advice. You want him to see the doctor (hell, I want him to see the doctor!), but he does not want to, and so far he hasn’t felt comfortable articulating why. Your goal in this conversation, and in any that follow, should be to make it easier for him to go to the doctor: there should be no yelling, no guilt-tripping, no shame. Remember — for him and for yourself — that the reason you are worried is not because he is fat but because he is wheezing. If a slim, athletic person began wheezing after exercise, they should have a checkup too, right? Your husband’s maybe health problem is not that he is fat: it’s that he’s not sure what’s going on with his lungs. You must remember that, and you must separate it from anything about “healthy diet” or “recommended amount of exercise” or whatever potentially loaded phrases have come up in your conversations before.
If, upon having this conversation, your husband agrees that he really does want to get a checkup, here are some things you can do to make it a less daunting experience for him:
- Offer to make the call and set up the appointment (with him by your side to approve the time slot, of course). I don’t know about you, but I haaaaaaate making phone calls, and that alone would make me put off an appointment for a while.
- Offer to go with him for moral support. This could mean going in the actual exam room with him and being part of the conversation if he wants, or it could mean you hanging out in the waiting room so you can give him a friendly face. This is not something he has to do all by his lonesome.
- Going to the doctor is tiring, physically and emotionally. Especially since he hasn’t been in some time, they are probably going to want to ask him a lot of questions and listen to him breathe and run some tests. My friend and Awkward Army semi-lurker Elysia and I have a policy that any day you have to go to the doctor is a day in which you get to do something fun or indulgent later. Maybe plan to see a movie, or get ice cream, or play a video game together, or whatever is your most relaxing and comforting evening scenario.
In conclusion: your husband’s body is your husband’s body. Fat isn’t the problem; wheezing is the maybe problem. “Healthy” means different things for different bodies. Talk about why he is reluctant to go to the doctor and what might be helpful for him surrounding that. Your unconditional love will be a much more effective use of your energy than yelling, even in your head. Bodies are weird and wonderful but occasionally scary, and the point of seeing a doctor is to take the unknown (“is something wrong”) and turn it into a known, whatever that may be.
Good luck, and much love to you and your husband.