Carolyn Hax: Wife’s self-neglect and refusal to change lead to husband’s growing bitterness

Carolyn Hax
Columnist December 21, 2013

While I’m away, readers give the advice.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

On begging, pleading, nagging a mate to adopt healthier habits:

Over the years, I have also come to the conclusion you have: My wife has chosen a path that I cannot force her from. In my situation I believe that any suggestions, hints or offers only strengthen her will to resist.


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

The main point I want to make is this: It is clear that a lack of activity and poor diet will shorten and/or reduce one’s quality of life. As I approach retirement age, I’m nagged by my thoughts that we’ll be living something less than we could have because my better half is home sick or an invalid when we might have had some quality years. Take care of her when and if she gets to that point? I will. And consider that commitment: doctor/hospital visits, rehab, special care needs, not to mention the financial costs and stress.

I will have to try not to let bitterness enter. But it will be harder to get over these feelings when I think of what might have been when all she had to do was get off of the couch. — M.

Married people have obligations to each other. It’s the fundamental premise of marriage. If you want absolute personal autonomy, don’t get married. There are limits, of course: Marital obligations don’t eradicate autonomy, they only limit its extent. Tyranny isn’t allowed and self-abnegation isn’t required.

Among the most basic and important of marital obligations is a duty always to be mutually supportive. Contrary to common misunderstanding of the concept, however, being your supportive spouse doesn’t mean being an uncritical cheerleader no matter what you do. On the contrary, a supportive spouse is one who does whatever is required to help you live the best, most fulfilling life you can, whether that means learning from you or teaching you, thanking you or forgiving you, celebrating how wonderful you are or telling you when you’re screwing up and demanding that you do better. Nobody likes to be confronted about their failures, but who’s the more valuable friend, the one who buys you another drink when you’re already staggering, or the one who takes your car keys and won’t give them back no matter how angry you get?

Being supportive definitely does not include standing silently by watching you make a lifestyle of self-destructive behavior, in order to avoid hurting your feelings. A habit of total physical inactivity is unquestionably self-destructive, and it’s a spouse’s duty and right to address it, because the consequences, actual or potential, affect him or her profoundly. Someone may be widowed prematurely, in the meantime having had to care for a chronically ill and perhaps disabled spouse. Apart from his understandable selfish desire to avoid that, who would want a life of chronic illness and disability for someone he loves, especially if better lifestyle choices now might avert it?

People often assert that the “real” complaint isn’t worry about health but rather of being less sexually attracted to a spouse who has gained weight, with the implication that, if so, it’s a discreditable concern. It doesn’t have to be all one or the other. If sexual appeal is an issue, why shouldn’t it be? Sure, a wife doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of gratifying a husband, but marriage is usually understood to entail a mutual commitment to sexual exclusivity, which implies a corresponding duty to make reasonable efforts to meet each other’s sexual needs. It’s a basic biological drive, after all, and a most powerful one. Of course, no one can be expected to look at 50 just as they did at 20 or 30. The inevitable effects of time, genes, and life’s vicissitudes are one thing, though, and utter indifference to whether your spouse finds you attractive, and a total lack of effort to make yourself so — if strict sexual fidelity continues to be insisted upon — is quite another, and violates the principle of reciprocal obligations that is the foundation of marriage. Would anyone expect her to “love him as he is” if he decided that an annual bath constituted adequate personal hygiene?

Exercise and weight loss aren’t synonymous terms, except in the popular mind, and there are much more important goals and results of physical activity than changes in body composition and shape. But when one spouse tells the other repeatedly that physical activity and good nutrition are important — offering to initiate walks and participate in them, for example, not just ordering the other to go — and the other consistently refuses, it is a blow-off to respond with casual, insincere throw-away responses like “next week.” The disrespectful message is, “I don’t care about you, your concerns, or the marriage — leave me alone.” A spouse just might do it, too. — C.P.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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