While I’m away, readers give the advice.
On begging, pleading, nagging a mate to adopt healthier habits:
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.
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. Of course, no one can be expected to look at 50 like 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 is quite another, and violates the principle of reciprocal obligations that is the foundation of marriage.
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 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.