Say you want to change your diet because of diabetes. What if your partner or spouse doesn’t want to change? What if she or he is the one who does the food shopping and cooking?
Or what if your partner wants you to eat healthier, but you don’t want to change, or you disagree about what’s healthy? Partners’ not being on the same page about food can turn diabetes into more of a struggle than it needs to be. It can hurt glucose control; it can also damage your marriage.
Recognizing this problem, Paula M. Trief, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University, has devoted her career to helping couples cope with diabetes. The goal, she says, is “to strive toward opening up communication about how they can help each other.”
Dr. Trief and colleagues have conducted a new study of 280 couples, published in the July 2016 issue of Diabetes Care. In the study, providers used telephone calls to educate and support patients. One group was assigned to include their significant others in the calls. The other groups had individual calls.
People who got the couples calls lost more weight and, for those with a starting HbA1c level from 8.3% to 9.2%, experienced a significant drop in HbA1c that was maintained after a year. Those receiving the couples calls also scored more improvement on psychosocial factors such as depression, diabetes self-efficacy, and distress.
Dr. Trief has written articles for us about the issues diabetes brings to a marriage. Her research shows that the number one thing people with diabetes want help with is their meal planning and cooking.
People with diabetes need healthy foods, prepared in healthy but attractive ways, cooked and served at times that fit with their medications. This is hard to do on your own and often even harder if it means fitting in with other people’s preferences, knowledge, and schedules.
That’s why good communication with partners about the issues of living with diabetes is so important. The essence of good communication is what Dr. Trief calls “nondirective support,” in which “the person with diabetes is the one in charge of their own life.” The partner helps but does not take responsibility for their loved one’s life.
If a partner tries “directive support,” she will “take responsibility for tasks that are really her husband’s, and she often tells him what to do, feel, or choose.” The results are resistance and hard feelings all around.
So, how do you use nondirective support and good communication when it comes to meals?
What to buy?
The first thing is to have a good talk about what might change in your kitchen. Are there foods you want to cut down on, and others you want more of? Are there new things you’re willing to try?
It might be super-helpful to talk with a diabetes educator, your doctor, or a friend you can trust as you have this conversation. It could also help to read a diabetes book together, or go to a support group together to learn about eating with diabetes.
Then you can make a shopping list based on your menu. You might need to learn where you can buy the foods you want, and maybe where you can afford them.
It might be helpful to go shopping as a couple a few times. Learn what’s out there. Pay attention to labels to find out what might look healthy but really isn’t.
If you can make meal planning and shopping more of a family event or more of an adventure, you might even have fun with it. It might bring you closer as a couple, instead of being a source of aggravation for the person doing it.
Changing your food requires a lot of effort, so give it time. Your family will need more than one talk, especially if there are children involved. Be patient in working out the difficulties. Remember you don’t have to get it all right at once.
If there are foods you really want to stop, but your family likes them, can you keep them in the house without tempting you too much, like maybe in a separate room?
If one partner has diabetes, and the other one does all the cooking, there could be a setup for communication problems. Some people (OK, some men) never learned to cook or think it’s not their job.
Well, cooking is an activity basic to living, and couples who share cooking may wind up healthier and happier. If you are not going to share cooking, find out how you can help the cook do a better job.
If you are taking insulin, a sulfonylurea, or a glinide drug, remember that meals need to be served on time. Otherwise your sugar might go too low, and hypos are another major source of family stress. Both partners should be aware of the importance of meal timing.
All of these discussions and changes test your communication skills. Learning to listen with an open mind and learning to say what you really mean will make your married life with diabetes better. Learn more about communication skills for couples at the relationship site Two of Us.
Sharing feelings is also important to making successful changes. It’s normal to be angry, sad, or scared about diabetes changing your life and your partner’s life. Sharing those feelings respectfully will help you deal with them and strengthen your connection.