So you want to scale back on eating meat or stick to a new budget? It doesn’t have to rock your relationship. Here are expert tips to nicely find a way to reach common ground with your partner.

By Daphne de Marneffe, Ph.D
July 10, 2020
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Joanne and Michael, parents of two young boys, were therapy clients of mine who had met while hiking in the Rockies, and the outdoors had always been a big part of their life. Increasingly alarmed by climate change, Joanne had decided they should ride bikes to school every morning and cook more vegetarian meals. Michael liked the biking idea, but he was the dinner chef, and red meat was a staple of the Italian cooking he’d grown up with. “Cooking is such a huge pleasure for me at the end of the day,” he told me. “And I grew up around committed carnivores! I care about the environment, but preparing pork sausages and meat lasagna taps into my whole idea of home.”

Joanne wanted to shake up how the family did things, but Michael was ambivalent. I see a lot of similar situations in my work with couples. Out of enthusiasm or genuine concern, one partner might try to persuade the other to join in a new project or practice. It might be to promote well-being (meditation, yoga), introduce a new home-related activity (budgeting, gardening), or become a better global citizen (biking to work, political activism).

Your goal is likely to promote greater health and happiness—for yourself, your family, your community, and maybe all three—so you don’t want your efforts to cause friction and negativity. How can you most effectively motivate your partner? It helps to start with a respect for the fact that involvement takes time, prioritizing, and making sacrifices. Here are five issues to consider.

Ask yourself: Why do I want my partner on board?

Perhaps you want to set a good example together for your kids, or you want a buddy to help provide motivation and share the experience. Clarifying your own goals can help you take the right approach when you’re communicating with your partner. My client Diana, a busy working mom, felt her “type A personality” was getting her into trouble, so she took up yoga and meditation. It made a huge difference—she was more patient with the kids and less triggered by her difficult colleagues. Her husband, Nick, struggled with anxiety, and she thought meditation could help him too. But whenever she brought it up with him, their conversation fell apart. We talked about it, and she realized her forceful delivery had given him the impression that her goal was to change him. We practiced a more loving alternative: letting him know how meditation was helping her and wondering aloud if it might help him too. He wasn’t quite ready to join her yet, but he listened and appreciated her input.

Know each other’s emotional style.

You might be a person who gets super-excited about a new idea and uses passion to fuel change. Your partner might be more likely to consider all the angles and make decisions in a methodical fashion. Family life benefits from both approaches, so be openminded about your partner’s perspective. Try not to equate your partner’s enthusiasm with impulsiveness or mistake his thoughtfulness for stubbornness. Listen, be curious, and avoid leaping to conclusions about your partner’s point of view. If you encounter resistance, take it slower. At a calm moment on a walk or while relaxing at home, try to share with your partner in a heartfelt way why this lifestyle change feels important to you right now. Say, “I want to try this, but it’s also really important to me that it feels right for everyone.” Working with your differences rather than battling them can go a long way toward finding a potential compromise.

Share your research.

Your partner will be more likely to join you if you suggest a specific road map for change based on solid information. One couple, Kurt and Terri, struggled mightily with going to bed before midnight. Once the kids were asleep, they were on their laptops for hours, and it wreaked havoc on their moods (not to mention their sex life). Kurt kept urging a change, but Terri’s answer was, “When am I supposed to get all this stuff done?” Kurt educated himself on the costs of sleep deprivation, reading the book Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, then suggested to Terri that they commit to a healthier sleep schedule based on the book’s findings. When Terri listened to the book on her way to work, she was convinced by the research and began to make an effort to get to bed earlier.

Start with one small change.

Basements and garages are littered with the castaways of forgotten hobbies and good intentions. (Exhibit A: the zoodle maker gathering dust in your kitchen.) Change is hard and slow, and it often happens in fits and starts. Long-term commitment to any new lifestyle can’t be promised at the outset, even by an enthusiastic change agent. Dip a toe in and see how it goes. Take some time to test how committed you can be to the new behavior you want to promote. Couples get into trouble when one partner sees herself as carrying the banner for change and casts the other partner as a stick-in-the-mud. Agree to a small change, then check in with each other about how it’s going. Humor and flexibility can make it fun, while perfectionism and rigidity are a downer.

Work as a team, but be willing to go it alone.

If you find your partner doesn’t want to join you, that’s not the end of the story. One of the most powerful ways to influence is to lead by example, and he or she may come around. Sometimes, though, your partner will give you a hard no. This may hurt or make you mad, but don’t let it prevent you from following through on your own beliefs. For Joanne, her differences with Michael were frustrating at first, but they spurred her to change her own shopping and food preparation to make sure that breakfasts and lunches had no meat. Michael was fully on board with trying to lower the family’s carbon footprint and explored ways to drive less. In the long run, demonstrating a respect for differences in a relationship is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children. Committing to a lifestyle change alone, or in a smaller way than you’d like, also teaches you a lot about what matters to you, and that will ultimately benefit your relationship too.

Daphne de Marneffe, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the author of Maternal Desire and The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together. Visit her at daphnedemarneffe.com.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's August 2020 issue as “Bring Your Partner on Board for a Lifestyle Change.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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