Carolyn Hax: Readers advise on spouses’ self-destructive behavior

While I’m away, readers give the advice.

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

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.

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?

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.