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When You're Mothering Your Spouse

When You’re Mothering Your Spouse

By Amalah

Hi, Amalah!

I asked you question about a year ago about taking a job and having to quit school, etc. I took the job, learned a lot from a great boss, and did good work for almost a year when I landed a closer-to-my-dream job that I really enjoy. Thanks!

Advice Smackdown ArchivesNew question: How do I encourage my husband to take care of his health issues without nagging? Or do I ignore them until he realizes he needs to take care of them?

I love my husband very much, and he has been there for me through several serious issues (major depression and obesity). I’ve worked hard to overcome my depression and have recently changed my lifestyle and am losing weight, getting fit, etc. My husband has always been supportive of my issues and has never nagged me about them–I eventually just made the choice myself to get healthy, and I sought out the resources I needed.

My husband struggles with several health problems, and I have tried to be supportive since we’ve been together, but, as I’ve gotten healthier, I admit I’ve started to nag him more. I want us to be together for a long time and be able to do active things like traveling. He has seen doctors for his issues and is on medication, but he also sabotages himself by smoking, drinking a gallon of coffee a day, eating fast food almost daily, not doing his physical therapy, not exercising, etc. He recently quit smoking but started up again without telling me–I only figured it out by the smell. I was angry. He accused me of being controlling. Now I am at a loss.

He is in pretty constant pain and is only in his early thirties. I worry about where he will be in ten, twenty, thirty years. I know he has to want to change for himself, but I also know I can’t watch him continue to get sicker and sicker. We’re in therapy for other issues, but he says I have no room to talk about his health in therapy since I am still overweight (he didn’t say this quite so bluntly). My mother is the queen of nagging, so I don’t feel like I can ask her. My husband would be mortified if I asked any of my friends as he is embarrassed about his problems. So I’m asking you because I know you’ll be honest if I am way out of line here.


Here’s the thing: You’re his wife. Not his mother. Likewise, he is not a child. He is a grown man who very likely knows the problems/consequences involved with the choices he is making, but they are, no doubt about it, his choices to make.

Nagging will not help. I’m sure you can probably already see that it does not. It will not change his mind or his behavior, but WILL have a negative impact on your relationship. He’ll continue to hide behaviors that he knows you disapprove of (smoking, fast food) and possibly amp it up to straight-out deception (deliberately blowing his diet when you’re not around, lying about taking medication, using “I was at the gym” as a get-out-of-jail-free-style lie for whatever else he wants to do to himself, health be damned.).

You mention your mother is the “queen of nagging,” so…think about how the nagging habit has negatively impacted her relationship with you and others. You don’t even want to bring your problems UP to her. You don’t view her as a viable emotional support system. The next time you feel the urge to nag bubbling up (and we ALL get it, trust me), picture your mom, or your husband picturing YOU as your mom, and swallow the words back down and…go do something else. Go for a run. Practice some kickboxing. Clean a closet, whatever.

We all want our partners to love us in spite of our flaws — physical, personality-wise, etc. That’s likely where he is right now. He’s frustrated because quitting smoking isn’t easy, eating the fast food makes him feel better, but then he relapsed and let you down and you’re angry and he’s grouchy and doesn’t want to see the doctor for issue X, Y or Z until he quits cigarettes for real and loses 10 pounds and he’s in constant pain in his thirties and there you are on the other side of Health Breakthrough Land leaving him behind and why can’t you just be happy with him the way he is, etc.? Coffee? She’s judging me about freaking COFFEE? God. And as the tension escalates and he feels judged and mothered and defensive, he lashes out with the charming accusations that YOU are controlling and YOU are overweight and thus NOT PERFECT EITHER, LAY OFF.

We also all want our partners to listen to our concerns and recognize when we we ARE concerned about them and their choices. We all want our partners to respect themselves and our lives/future together enough to take basic care of themselves. It can be hard to know where the line is between being a supportive/concerned partner who wants to share our concerns and worries because we LOVE them..and being a nagging mother-figure who IS coming across as controlling because DID YOU TAKE YOUR MEDICINE YET? WHAT DID YOU EAT FOR LUNCH? TSK! HERE, I MADE SALADS THAT I KNOW YOU HATE. DO I SMELL SMOKE? WHERE ARE YOU GOING? WHO ARE YOU SEEING? WHEN WILL YOU BE HOME? CALL ME WHEN YOU GET THERE.

Usually, the answer here is “couples’ counseling.” Preferably before you get to the ultimatum/super-tough-love realm of things where you’re essentially threatening him to sack up and deal with his health problems and bad habits…or else you head to your mother’s/contact a divorce attorney/whatever. You get a neutral third party involved in helping you figure out YOUR role in his problems (which still probably isn’t going to be a big one, honestly) and helping him realize the toll his choices (and his defensiveness about those choices) are taking on the relationship…and him, and you.

And lo and behold, you guys are already IN couples’ counseling! And yet…he’s trying to dictate what you have the “right” or the “place” to bring up at said couples’ counseling. Which is…missing the point entirely, because that’s just not how therapy works. I don’t care if you two are there for other issues or reasons…this is an issue. An issue that would benefit from being talked through in the presence of a professional, instead of at home where the conversation tends to devolve into nagging from you and accusations of “controlling” from him. The fact that he brought YOUR WEIGHT into things as a reason why you shouldn’t bring up a topic that clearly has you worried and frustrated…well, I don’t care how “not as bluntly” he put it, that’s a straight-up jerk move. And it speaks volumes about the level you both are communicating with each other at. Your genuine, loving worry about the health and longevity of the person you love is reduced to pointless nagging about things that are simply not in your power to change, he’s defensively and not-so-subtly reminding you of YOUR imperfections that he’s accepted and not even tried to change, and round and round the back tires spin into the mud, going nowhere.

Talk to your therapist. With him or without him or both.

If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Jasmine

    March 14, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Yes to everything Amalah said. Sometimes the best of our intentions just don’t get through, and other times the good intentions just seem holier-than-thou on the other end where everything seems like it’s crumbling. Head to a counsellor. 

  • Lisa M

    March 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Please also think about the not too distant past, when you hadn’t made these significant (and wonderful…congrats) changes. How receptive to criticism were you before you made the choice to change? And you say your husband was supportive during those times…lay-off. Not forever, because you do care, but right now your response needs to be more along the lines of not encouraging the health stressers, but not actively trying to change him. For example, he shouldn’t be allowed to smoke in the house, because that unfairly puts your health at risk; but you are not telling him he can’t smoke. That also makes him actively choose the “bad behavior” instead of passively. He’ll have to make the decision to get up and walk out the door to smoke rather than lighting up where he is. It becomes way less convenient, but your not controlling his behavior, only your own environment.

    I know it’s hard to watch a partner struggle, but you’ve been there, too. You know he needs support to make those changes, not nagging.

    Good luck, and congrats again on the positive impact you’ve had on yourself. Keep on being a good example; eventually he’ll want to change just to keep up with you!

  • rkmama

    March 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    I know this is going to sound lame- but can you write him a letter? He does need to make the choice to seek help for himself and no amount of nagging is going to get him there. Like Amalah said- sounds like it will probably just drive him to increase the negative behaviors even more. Often times the most well of intended comments escalates into an argument and accusations of controlling/nagging before you can get your intended point across so maybe you can write how you feel about him and the reasons you are worried about him down. Tell him to read it on his own time and that you can talk about it if he wants but you don’t have to. That way? He knows how you feel and where your coming from and maybe after reading how genuinely concerned you are he would agree to breach the topic in counseling. And maybe not, but at least you know he knows your position. My only suggestion would be to write it from a place of love and leave all damning, shaming and guilt-inducing language out of it. Good luck.

  • Amy

    March 14, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Here’s what I do when I find I’ve been nagging. I tell my husband that I’m sorry I’ve been on his case, it just comes from me worrying about him and I will try to do better in the future. Then I move on and do my best. My husband has a medical condition that requires medication. Sometimes he forgets to take it and it makes me want to scream! But in the end it is his health and his body. Once in a while I will voice my concerns but I do it briefly, in a caring way, and then I drop it.
    It is difficult to watch someone else make a mistake, jeopardize their health, etc.One thing that helps me is remembering that if I am constantly nagging someone and reminding them to do this or not do that I am not trusting them to make the right decisions for themselves and I am undermining their ability to choose the right thing. I heard this somewhere years ago and it really resonated with me.
    Good luck to you and your husband, I wish you the best!

  • Olivia

    March 14, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    As the spouse more in your husband’s shoes in my relationship, lay off for sure. I think it’s fare to bring it up in therapy maybe, but mostly I think it will just make him defensive otherwise. 

  • Amy

    March 14, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    See, this is why I can’t have an online advice column, because my advice would’ve been:

    Take out an obscenely huge life insurance policy on him. I mean really, really huge – 7 or 8 figures – the best you can afford. Then leave the paperwork out where he can see it. And if he chooses not to change, fine. At least you’ll be able to retire at 40 when he croaks, and you have something to look forward to. Or maybe he’ll take the not-so-subtle hint.

    I swear, if I get any more evil I’m going to sprout horns and a tail. >:)

  • Keely

    March 14, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    I am in the exact same boat, although for different issues (financial and personal responsibility, for example).  And yes, we are in counselling.  One of the things that has helped a lot has been going to some sessions separately.  You might consider floating the idea to your husband and your therapist – your husband might feel better about exploring the true reasons he is “sabotaging” himself, or may benefit from an objective party explaining the long-term health issues.  Because it doesn’t matter how loving or concerned we are, all they hear is nag-nag-nag. 

  • andrea

    March 15, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Except that sometimes it’s okay to say no you need to change. Sometimes we need that too.. someone that won’t let it go. My husband was a smoker for 20 years. He tried and failed to quit many times. But when we decided to have a child I made him promise me he’d quit. And when i found out he cheated I let him have it. He broke a promise and I made him feel really badly about it. He became committed to quitting and he did successfully quit right before our baby was born. And now he wishes he did it sooner. Sometimes you have to be a hard ass.. sometimes we need that too.

  • Christina

    March 15, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Two things, both from experience:

    1) It is possible that he is anxious about your new lifestyle choices. My partner previous to my husband was extremly concerned when I started losing weight. He was really sure I was going to get hot, sexy and leave him. He was wrong we broke up because of totally different reasons. I saw it in a lot of other couples after making some connections with folks who were in the same boat.

    2) When I met my husband he used various tobacco products, he drank more than he should have and he was really overweight. Early in our relationship I told him in no uncertain terms that I loved him very much but would not tolerate the drinking. It stopped. I never said anything about the various tobacco products, those happened to go as well although when stressed he struggles with that and I work to be supportive. The second time, years later, I approached him about some of his habits and he accused me of nagging. I told him, also as clearly and calmly as possible, that I was communicating my expectations of him and I was not his mother and was not nagging him. I also told him that if he ever accused me of nagging him again he could leave since I have a right to communicate my expectations. In the last year he up and decided all on his own to lose weight. He has told me that his decision and interest stems entirely from me modeling good behavior and from us having conversations about getting pregnant. Basically, he realized he wanted to be around forever. I will admit that it probably also has to do with the fact that his own parents had horrible, similar lifestyle habits and one recently died and the other is in a nursing home at far too young an age.

    I urge you, from my experience, to model good behavior and have calm clear conversations about communicating your expectations in your partner. Hope this helps and isn’t assvice.

  • Jessica

    March 17, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    You’re asking your husband to make MAJOR life changes all at once…and not even really asking but demanding. Think about how resentful you would have been if your husband had nagged you to lose weight. Men know better. My dad is overweight and has horrible eating habits and no exercising habits. My mom was constantly trying to get him to get healthy…but it took me asking him as my christmas present for him to stop eating fast food. Just one thing. And a genuine heart to heart with him about how I wanted him to be around to give my kids something I never had: a grandfather. Try having a serious heart to heart with your husband…sans judgement and nagging about what he’s willing to give up for you. Fast food, smoking, start exericising? Just ask for one thing. Guaranteed he’ll feel better and things will eventually snowball. Health is a lifestyle CHOICE. It can’t be forced.

  • Jennifer

    September 13, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Yikes… just stumbled upon this and that last paragraph is all too real. Thank you for showing me what its like through his eyes but phew thats so wrong. Therapy may be the only way.