angry-stubborn-manI come from a long line of tough guys who were too stubborn to make the changes that would allow them to live a longer, healthier life. Smoking, overeating, alcoholism and sedentary living gave way to cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.

By the time my grandfather was 74, he lived with oxygen tubes taped to his face, but still made space for a few cigarettes every day. The man simply had no give in him. He loved smoking more than he loved the possibility of living 10-20 years longer.

One by one, they fell. I can count at least 12 men in my family, including my father, who died a painful, willful, stubborn death caused by a consciously negligent lifestyle.

Interestingly, they were married to women who participated in their demise.

In each case, the wives complied with their husbands’ demands for cigarettes, booze and piles of food, even after being warned by doctors about the dangers of continuing on the current path. Dutifully, they bought the smokes, brought home the booze and prepared the bowls of ice cream. These men never had to get out of the easy chair to fetch their own poison.

People in my family didn’t talk about interpersonal stuff, so I will never know what really went on in everyone’s mind, but as a counselor (I am the oddball in the family) I have witnessed a similar dynamic dozens of times: Impossibly stubborn and rigid men who insist upon living in unhealthy ways on the one side, and women caretakers who indulge them on the other.

The dynamic changes, however, when a caretaker gets fed up and stops indulging the counterpart.

It’s tough. As soon as a devoted caretaker refuses to fetch the beer, bake the cake, buy the cigarettes or sit around and watch TV all night, the relationship becomes strained. Seriously strained. Moreover, some caretakers are 100% financially dependent upon a stubbornly unhealthy soul and simply do not have the courage to rock the boat.

When it comes down to it, if the relationship is already lacking commitment and emotional connection, rocking the boat is incredibly uncomfortable. In most cases the caretaker needs to figure out ahead of time how he or she will deal with the worst-case scenario, which would mean the end of the relationship, before committing to a corrective course of action. This is no easy choice.

However, if there is genuine love and connection in the mix, there is a significant amount of leverage.

I won’t help you die any longer…

One woman in an otherwise healthy and committed marriage came to me wondering how to draw the line with her husband. He insisted on fatty, deep-fried meals, and beer or wine nightly. For years, she’d made him meals separate from her own, avoiding the incessant criticism and complaining she had to endure when she refused to cook what he wanted.

Finally, through our work, she realized she loved him too much to continue to indulge his unhealthy desires. She vowed to stop. Her message to him was:

I love you and will no longer help you die sooner than you have to. So, if you want fried food, alcohol and dessert, you can go get it or make it for yourself. I won’t help you eat that stuff any longer. And if you bring it home, I won’t eat in the same room as you. If you order it in a restaurant when I am with you, I’ll sit at a different table. I’m simply not going to participate any longer. You are too important to me. Now, do what you want, but I’d love to cook healthy meals and eat them with you.

She wept in her resolve to stop indulging this man. She really did love him and stuck to her guns. Eventually, he came around. What man can resist love like that?

Actually, a lot of men can resist it. Many men spew forth criticisms and abuse when they stop getting what they want. They retaliate in a variety of passive aggressive ways. Some even threaten suicide. There really are people more stubborn than death. The statistics prove it. Millions would rather die than give up their unhealthy addictions.

Yet, that still leaves the caretaker with the choice of whether or not to participate in their partner’s demise. Isn’t it better to offer healthy choices and refuse to comply with a death wish?

Some contend that by merely raising this issue I am suggesting it is the caretaker’s responsibility to create change. This is not true. If you are a caretaker of a stubborn soul who refuses to change, you merely have the choice whether or not to indulge bad behavior. By refusing to indulge, you invite change. That is all you can do.

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