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How to Support Your Spouse

By Cathryn Meurer

Updated November 14, 2008

(LifeWire) - It's natural to want to help and support your spouse after he or she has a heart attack or is diagnosed with heart disease, but policing your spouse's every bite of food, criticizing, controlling and especially nagging -- these are behaviors that rarely work.

A positive approach is more likely to get results, as Becky Witt of Lexington, Ky., has found since her husband, Donald, experienced a massive heart attack at age 50. "You've got this worry in the back of your mind, but you can't show it," says Witt.

Research is beginning to confirm what Witt learned: "social support" beats "social control." One study published in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2006 found that controlling actions by spouses were counterproductive and over time led to fewer healthy behaviors and more mental distress in the partner with heart disease.

"Massively counter-negative messages with positive encouragement," advises Deana Goldsmith, PhD, lead author of a separate study about how couples talk about lifestyle changes after a cardiac event.

Set the Stage

Expert guidance can get your spouse's lifestyle changes off to a good start and help avoid a power struggle at home. Encourage your spouse to attend a cardiac rehabilitation program, and help remove any barriers to attendance, for example, by arranging transportation. Suggest joining a heart disease support group, such as Mended Hearts.

Also get the doctor's instructions in writing. This adds force and helps avoid misunderstandings to questions, such as "can he ever mow the lawn again or eat a cup of ice cream?"

Food Fight?

Getting a spouse to eat right is a top concern. Show your full support by following the heart-healthy diet yourself.

"Make it 'our' diet, not 'your' diet," Goldsmith recommends.

It may come slowly at first, but in time, many people completely change their eating habits, according to Joanne Gorell, manager of cardiac rehabilitation at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.

The Witts have left behind a traditional fat-laden Western diet. "We Americans were brought up on a constant diet of the wrong things," says Witt.

Food strategies that may help include:

  • Going grocery shopping together
  • Trying one or two new low-fat items each week
  • Not bringing unhealthy foods in to the home
  • Preparing healthy meals if you're the cook
  • Choosing restaurants with heart-healthy options on the menu

Stay Motivated

Reward your partner regularly for eating right, exercising or losing weight with a nonfood treat, such as a play, movie, ball game, manicure or other favorite activity. Meet other support group members for dinner at a restaurant that serves healthy food.


"It's much more fun to exercise with somebody," says Gorell. "Some couples will join the 'Y' together or take up mall walking."

If there's any concern about overdoing it, double-check with the doctor to learn what type and level of activity is safe. For people who've never exercised before, riding a stationary bike while watching TV is a way to ease in to physical activity.


Patience and persistence are needed to support a partner who must quit smoking, but the health payoff is dramatic. Quitting cuts the risk of another heart attack the following year in half. Be patient, because it can take several attempts to quit for good. Spouses can:

  • Quit themselves, or at the very least go outside to smoke.
  • Learn about successful methods of quitting.
  • Review the risk of another heart event with their partner.
  • Support their partner's efforts to quit.
Resistance and Reality

If your spouse makes very little effort to follow doctor's orders, contact the doctor. Depression is not uncommon and can be treated. Seeing a counselor may help couples who are stuck in the negative cycle of nagging and resistance.

On a more positive note, take stock of your spouse's efforts so far. Praise the positive moves on the days when your spouse chooses a side salad over French fries, and tell your partner that you do realize how difficult it is for anyone to change old habits. It may simply take more time and massive amounts of encouragement.

Read more here about how to survive a heart attack.


Franks, M.M., M.A. Stephens, K.S. Rook, B.A. Franklin, S.J. Keteyian, and N.T. Artinian. "Spouses' Provision of Health-Related Support and Control to Patients Participating in Cardiac Rehabilitation." 21 Oct. 2008 Journal of Family Psychology 20:2(2006): 311-8. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16756407> (subscription)

"Frequently Asked Questions From Caregivers About Heart and Stroke Survivors." heart.org. 25 Mar. 2008. American Heart Association. 21 Oct. 2008 <http://www.heart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3040021>. 

Goldsmith, Daena J., Kristin A. Lindholm, and Jennifer J. Bute. "Dilemmas of Talking About Lifestyle Changes Among Couples Coping With a Cardiac Event." Social Science & Medicine 63:8(2006): 2079-90. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16790307>. (subscription) 

Goldsmith, Daena J. Personal interview. 22 Oct. 2006. 

Gorell, Joanne. Personal interview. 17 Oct. 2006. 

"Understanding Your Role as Caregiver." americanheart.org. 13 Dec. 2007. American Heart Association.  21 Oct. 2008. <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=349>.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Cathryn Meurer is a journalist specializing in health. Her work has appeared on cancer.org and cnn.com and she shared a Blakeslee Award from the American Heart Association with former colleagues at CNN TV.

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