Researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto examined the response of significant others to their partners’ dietary changes. They also compared significant others’ reporting of their response to the “changing” partner’s perception of that response.
The researchers conducted interviews with 21 people making dietary changes–most in response to a medical diagnosis–and with their partners or significant others. ‘By examining the perspectives of significant others, we hoped to deepen understanding of the social nature of dietary change,’ Dr. Paisley explains. The partners’ emotional responses varied widely: from co-operation and encouragement to skepticism and anger. In most cases, the significant others described themselves as playing a positive, supportive role. Some facilitated the change by joining in the new diet, or by changing their shopping or cooking habits. Others helped by monitoring the dietary change, finding and sharing information, or providing motivation … However, in some cases, the person trying to make a change felt their partner had a negative impact on their efforts — for example, by eating ‘forbidden’ foods in front of them. In these cases, the significant others did not view their response as negative. In only one case did both partners agree that the significant other played a neutral role.
Not surprisingly, they found that significant others’ “emotional and behavioral responses to the dietary change appeared to reflect the general dynamics of the relationship.” (Guess that’s a good tip to consider when you’re thinking about diet or any other kind of life change.) The researchers added that responses significant others thought offered indirect support “like not complaining about dietary changes” wasn’t perceived as “meaningful” by their partners compared with direct shows of support like verbal encouragement.
Though the study yielded few, if any, surprises, the research underscores how influential and sometimes nuanced social support (especially within a primary partnership) can be for those who wish to change their diets. Though we certainly can’t control the responses of those we’re close to, it’s unlikely we can just ignore those responses if they prove unhelpful. Inevitably, we key in on their reactions, for better or worse, and then we may not even be getting the signals that our partners think they’re sending. Talk about a potential recipe for conflict….
Maybe the lesson here is to anticipate what kind of support you feel you’ll need and to realistically assess what you think your partner can/will offer. As the researchers say, the general dynamics of the relationship can pretty well help you guess what his/her response will be. It might be helpful to talk with your partner about the changes you’ll be making and the reasoning behind them. If you allow him/her to see the excitement, commitment and interest you have, they’re probably more likely to offer more support or at least less resistance. Work out the details of food shopping, menu planning and cooking ahead of time. Your partner may be wondering (and even skeptical about) how your change will affect him or her if you’re used to eating together. (Tip: You can always show them some MDA recipe ideas and see if they’re interested in partaking with you. Sometimes an appealing picture is worth a thousand words.)
Finally, explore others means of support for your dietary change, even if your partner is totally on board (friends, family members, online boards, cooking groups, etc.). Not only will “diversifying” your support base put less pressure on your relationship, you’ll benefit from the affirmation and perspectives of others who are making changes themselves.
Do your dietary choices dovetail with your partners’/families’? If not, how have you made it work for everyone in your household?
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