Question

My husband and I have been married for over 40 years. In the beginning, I tried to change him, and ultimately discovered that I can only change myself. I realize that his life’s experiences are a part of who he is, and as we have different opinions regarding many things, we have agreed that on some topics, we will just disagree. He is a good husband and father.

My problem is that my husband has become very overweight. Even some of our children have mentioned their concern about his weight to me. He doesn’t like to exercise, is always tired, and hasn’t been to a doctor in over 10 years. In the past I have voiced my concern to him that he stops breathing for short periods of time at night, but now I just don’t say anything. His family has a history of diabetes and cancer, but these diseases don’t seem to be a concern to him. 

My problem is that being sexually intimate with him is not appealing to me. What can I do to voice my concerns to him without him feeling he is being criticized? Is there anything I can do or say that can help him want to be healthier? What can I do to change my own thoughts about him being overweight?

Answer

Even though your husband’s personal health is his responsibility, you’re right that it has an impact on others in the family. It’s a tricky balance to respect his way of living his life while honoring the effect it has on you and your relationship with him. However, don’t let this balancing act keep you from addressing what you need to address. Because your response to him involves your inability to sexually connect with him, it’s in the best interest of your marriage to address this block.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Dual Control Model for sexual arousal. It’s a model that explains how to improve sexual responsiveness by highlighting the reality that we all have sexual brakes and accelerators. These brakes and accelerators aren’t always conscious, and, in fact, we don’t even get to choose them. Your husband’s poor health, weight, and lack of discipline appear to be a few of the brakes that are keeping you from feeling attracted to him. You likely have accelerators in your relationship with him that move you close to him. However, as you know, trying to drive a car forward with one foot on the brake and one on the gas doesn’t work very well!

Instead of beating yourself up (or your husband, for that matter), this is a great opportunity to let him know that you want to get closer to him, but you need his help getting your foot off the brake. If he knows that you want him but have these brakes that keep you from moving forward, you can join each other as a team to move things forward.

This won’t be a comfortable conversation for either of you, but it won’t be any more uncomfortable than living with the distance. In preparation for the conversation, it’s helpful for you to identify both the brakes and the accelerators. This isn’t a criticism of him, but it’s identifying what’s in the way of you getting closer to him. This might seem like you’re being nitpicky, but these things are legitimately in the way. I’m guessing you’ve already tried to let these things go and not care, but there are reasons these are strong blocks for you.

I’ve observed that many spouses are less repulsed by the actual weight, but more impacted by other related factors. For example, they might feel like the unhealthy spouse won’t protect them by putting their own health in jeopardy. Or, the lack of discipline can create feelings of mistrust about keeping their word. These deeper emotional and relational issues are likely at the core of why it’s difficult for you to feel a desire to be close to him. Instead of fixating on an external goal of losing weight or lowering his cholesterol, it’s more helpful to identify the emotional and relational longings that he can care about immediately. It will take time to make the necessary health adjustments, but my guess is that when you see him respond to your distress call, you’ll start feeling a desire to move closer to him.

Of course, he’ll struggle to hear this as a bid for closeness. He likely already has his own guilt and shame about his weight and poor health. However, I encourage you to stay the course and emphasize that you want these things out of the way so you can allow your body, mind, and spirit to respond to him. Make it clear that you want to work together to activate your specific accelerators so you can move forward with him.

Make sure that you have your heart right before you talk with him about these things. Dr. Wally Goddard, once told me that he didn’t feel permission to correct anyone he didn’t love. He said the great surprise was that once he truly felt love for them, he modified the way he approached them. He shared that the motivation came from a place of love instead of irritation. Since you’ve got difficult things to discuss with him, it’s wise to check your motives and make sure you’re approaching him from a place of love, compassion, and a true desire to connect to him.

I have received feedback from loved ones over the years on a variety of topics. The difference between how I received the feedback from them usually came down the strength of our relationship and how I believed they saw me as a person. When I’ve been able to feel their deep love and concern for me, it’s been much easier to hear.

The fact that he’s ignoring his health could signal an underlying depression, unresolved trauma, untreated addiction, or some other issue. Individuals who struggle with these conditions usually have no idea what kind of impact they’re having on their loved ones and live in a deep state of denial to keep them from their painful reality. Part of the conversation may include seeking additional therapeutic resources or even marriage counseling to help you work together as a team.

Even though you recognize he gets to oversee his own body, you can still let him know that you would like to be taken seriously and understood. This isn’t criticism about how he should live his life. This is you describing your fears and concerns about the stability and longevity of your most important relationship. This is you taking initiative to build deeper intimacy. Building a relationship strong enough to hear our partner’s deepest fears and worries takes courage and patience.

These experiences can be jolting to both you and him as you start to discuss the real issue of him numbing and avoiding dealing with difficult emotions or stressors. Remember to double-check your motives so you can stay with him in love. Your desire to see him thrive and connect with you and his family has to be motivated by your loyalty and commitment him.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  

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About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.