6 Things People With Diabetes Can Do To Have a More Supportive Partner

People with diabetes who are married to a supportive partner have a secret weapon in helping to better manage their disease. For instance, in one 2015 study of 129 people with type 2 diabetes, researchers from the University of California, Irvine, found that having a supportive spouse helped keep blood sugar from soaring to unhealthy levels in those whose diabetes was most affected by stress. 

And in a 2001 study from the State University of New York Upstate Medical Center of 78 people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, those who were the happiest with their marriage were also the most satisfied with the way they were handling their diabetes.

But too often, tension, misunderstandings—and even unintentional sabotage—get in the way, even when your spouse wants the best for you. These strategies can help you get the support you need from your spouse, so you can work as a team to stay healthy:

#1. Share a goal that’s bigger than diabetes. When 30 couples, each with a spouse with diabetes, talked about the role of marriage in encouraging regular exercise for a 2009 Pennsylvania State University study, shared motivation emerged as an important factor. “I have one goal in life and that is to have our 50th wedding anniversary,” one volunteer said, noting that the goal kept both partners exercising regularly. “So I do not care what happens in between, but we have to get to that goal.”  Another noted “Sometimes when I get discouraged and I do not feel like paying attention to my diet and exercise. Then I think of things like I want be here to see my first grandchild. I got to dance at my daughter's wedding and I hope to dance at my son's wedding.” 

#2: Talk about diabetes together – and gather the information you both need.  Good communication and useful information emerged as important tools for a marriage that supports the emotional and physical health of a person with diabetes and their spouse, according to Pennsylvania State University researchers who conducted extensive interviews with 30 couples in which one or both partners had diabetes. Share your hopes and your worries. As one woman with diabetes told the researchers, “I go to a diabetes support group . . . I have a place where I can go and talk. But I am concerned he has nobody to talk to except me and he is not coming to me with his fears.”

#3. Ask for what you need. The nonprofit Behavioral Diabetes Institute of San Diego, CA, recommends that people with diabetes talk honestly with their spouse about what will support them the most – and what crosses the line into nagging. You might want help keeping certain foods out of the house, an exercise buddy, someone to talk with about your feelings, a cheerleader as you stick with healthy portion sizes or even help remembering your medications.  Just as important, talk frankly about what doesn’t help.

nagging partner#4. Dis-arm the “Diabetes Cop” and deflate diabetes distress. Nagging and control aren’t really supportive. But your spouse may not realize he or she has crossed the line and become the “Diabetes Police.” Explain politely that taking care of your diabetes is your responsibility. And that comments about what you eat, when you check your blood sugar or whether you’re working out are just making both of you feel stressed-out. That can lead to feelings of “diabetes distress” for you, your spouse or both of you— a situation that can actually make it harder for you to take steps like following a healthy diet, an eye-opening, 2015 University of Alberta study found, as well as keep blood sugar under control, research shows.

#5 Voice your appreciation. Your spouse isn’t perfect, but he or she has your best interests at heart. In addition to talking honestly about what really helps you, acknowledging your partner’s concern—and frustration when you aren’t following your plan perfectly—shows you understand their feelings. In one University of California, Irvine study of 191 spouses without diabetes, researchers found that when their attempts to help didn’t work out, a partner’s diabetes felt more like a burden.  As one woman with diabetes told the Penn State researchers, “I have to give my husband the credit for walking with me every night. I found that if I walk at night before I go to bed that is when it really matters.”  

#6 Watch out for sabotage – even if it’s unintended. Thirty percent of volunteers in a 2013 University of California study of 129 older adults with type 2 diabetes said their spouse had at times tempted them with “forbidden” foods. As a result, they had a tougher time sticking with healthy eating. And, their blood sugar levels were twice as likely to be slightly higher than a healthy level, compared to people whose spouses weren’t tempting them. The researchers point out that food “sabotage” like this may stem from good intentions, like trying to include a spouse with diabetes in a family get-together or to cheer them up.

"For situations like this, let your spouse know that while you appreciate him or her wanting you to enjoy the tasty treat, it's difficult for you to stop at just one bite," suggests DiabeticLifestyle Editorial Board Advisory Member Amy Hess-Fischl, MS, RD, LDN, BC-ADM, CDE of the Kovler Diabetes Center in Chicago. "Or, if you are going to split dessert, ask the waiter to split the dessert before bringing it to the table. This way you stick with your pre-planned serving size, which may be half or two bites per the "two-bite" rule."

Updated on: February 7, 2019
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