Goals like getting up for morning jogs, hitting the gym after work, or sticking to healthy meals can be tough. And when someone we care about doesn't support us, those goals become even more difficult. But should you leave your significant other simply because he or she doesn't get your yoga obsession? The truth is, conflicting health habits are often manageable, but occasionally they can be the sign of a much deeper problem.
It's science: Romantic partners who exercise together stick with their relationships and their exercise plans for longer than those whose routines diverge. Plus, sharing an exercise high can make partners feel closer, increase a woman's sex drive, and even lead you to burn more calories. The roles of testosterone and alpha-amylase in exercise-induced sexual arousal in women. Hamilton LD, Fogle EA, Meston CM. The journal of sexual medicine, 2008, Jan.;5(4):1743-6109. But not all duos are each other's best allies when it comes to staying healthy. One survey of gym-goers in Boston and Washington, D.C. found nearly half of them have partners who think their gym sessions are unnecessary.
The survey also found a partner's lack of support was a huge barrier in sticking to fitness goals. (Think: "You're going to the gym now? But I really wanted to grab a drink tonight.") Face it: Any situation involving healthy habits and love could get complicated.
But should that added complication be a dealbreaker? Not necessarily. “Different lifestyles or exercise habits don't matter when you have a strong emotional connection with your partner,” says Jamie Turndorf, Ph.D., couples therapist and author of Make Up, Don't Break Up.
According to Turndorf, conflicts over divergent health habits are a sign that something's off in the relationship. Getting pissed at a partner for being too health-conscious may be a way of saying "I don't feel important enough" or "I'm worried you'll leave me." On the flip side, sometimes the healthier partner can guilt the other for binge-eating fries or skipping the treadmill. Turndof says complaints like, "Why don't you work out more? " or "Couldn't you eat a little healthier? " might be subtle ways of saying, "I'm not satisfied with who you are." Ouch.
In other cases, one partner might make fun of the other's heath regimen because he or she feels intimidated. "Negative attitudes towards a partner's eating and exercise habits can also be self-protection strategies," says William J. Doherty, Ph.D., a therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota. Translation: You tease your partner about a gym routine because it makes you feel less bad about never showing up to spin class.
Your Action Plan
In any romance, it's important to discuss differences in health habits to avoid conflict. Food choices among newly married couples: convergence, conflict, individualism, and projects. Bove CF, Sobal J, Rauschenbach BS. Appetite, 2003, Oct.;40(1):0195-6663. Pick a neutral time when you're both calm (e.g., not 6:30 a.m. when your partner just bailed on your gym session for the umpteenth time or after a frustrating work day). Here are some talking points to help.
If you're pissed your partner can't keep up with your fitness and health routine, gently tell him or her you're feeling held back. Try: "When you don't join me at the gym, it makes me feel like you don't care about health." Express your emotions and then listen. If your partner is amenable, make constructive suggestions: Suggest they join you once a week for an early workout or help cook a healthier meal on the weekends.
On the other hand, if a partner's health or fitness goals make you feel bad, be honest. Tell him or her you're feeling left out or self-conscious. Try: "I feel guilty for not going to the gym as often as you do."
If a partner pressures you to change your lifestyle, calmly tell your partner what you will and will not compromise on (For instance: midnight weight-lifting sessions, yes; morning workouts, no. Or, pizza every night, yes; pizza once a week, no.).
Whatever the scenario, don't automatically blame yourself. Doherty says sometimes it's really not you, it's them. If your partner actually puts you down for not following his or her gym schedule, they may be the ones with the bigger problem.
Don't let anyone stop you from enjoying your healthy lifestyle, Turndorf says. And don't let a partner intimidate you on your own journey to getting healthier. If you think you may be using a certain activity to push your partner away, explore why—either with your partner, a friend, family member, or a therapist.
If no one is willing to budge or even discuss lifestyle conflicts, it may be time to call it quits. But if both partners are willing to honestly examine their attitudes, they may be able to establish an even stronger bond.
Originally published September 2012. Updated January 2016.