How to Get Your Man Healthy
The man in your life isn’t telling you something. Maybe it’s that he hasn’t been to a doctor for a physical since he played football in high school. It could be that he has a persistent throbbing in the left side of his chest. Perhaps an ache in his groin that he hoped would just fade away hasn’t—it’s gotten worse.
Men are notorious procrastinators, obfuscators, and denialists when it comes to their health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), twice as many men as women have no regular source of health care. Also illuminating is a recent survey of over 1,000 men, conducted for the American Association of Family Physicians (AAFP) by Harris Interactive, which discovered that 36 percent would not go visit a doctor unless they were extremely sick, andmore than half of men haven’t even been to see their primary care physician within the past year. Another survey of over 500 men, by Esquire magazine, showed that half of men ages 18 to 50 don’t even have a primary physician. All of these pathetic stats help illustrate why men don’t live very long—even though people in the U.S. live longer than ever before; according to the CDC, the average man’s lifespan is more than 5 years shorter than a woman’s.
You’ve probably already told your husband or boyfriend that he should go to the doctor regularly. His most likely responses were a shrug paired with a mumbled “OK,” or an indignant “I’ll get to it!” followed by some mild sulking. If that sounds like your man, don’t despair, as there are some subtle steps that you can follow to make your man a healthy man.
Education is Key
“Any attempt to help a man adopt healthy habits can run the risk of undermining his sense of manhood,” says Will Courtenay, Ph.D., L.C.S.W, author of Dying to Be Men: Psychosocial, Environmental, and Biobehavioral Directions in Promoting the Health of Men and Boys (Routledge, 2011). The typical American male has been raised to be a “real” man, which usually entails engaging in risky behavior as a way to earn respect and to prove manliness. “Dismissing their health needs is one way that men prove that they are men,” says Courtenay.
The whole key to getting your man healthy is, as silly as it sounds, to help them help themselves. It’s really that simple—getting there, though, is the challenge. You can start by helping them get educated,says Courtenay. The first step is to give him easy access to knowledge: leave articles that you think might interest him laying around; when you are watching TV together, check out some health-related TV shows; or get him a subscription to a magazine like Men’s Health. If he’s more interested in hard data, there are numerous newsletters published by leading universities and hospitals like Harvard and Johns Hopkins. “The key is high information with low pressure. Once he starts to think about changing, the chances of him actually changing are doubled,” Courtenay says.
Change the Frame
When you decide to sit down and talk about his health, “you need to be thinking about changing the frame of the conversation,” says Eli Karam, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., president-elect of the Kentucky Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and assistant professor at the University of Louisville. Men often get stuck around the idea that going to the doctor is purely a pathological measure—they’re not stepping through the door of a doctor’s office unless a limb is falling off. “When a spouse decides to talk to their man, they should frame it as a preventative thing,” says Karam. “Help them understand that it
isn’t necessarily about going just when you are sick.” Let them know that seeing a physician regularly should be built into a routine, like paying taxes or taking your child to the doctor.
Karam calls the next technique the “softened start up.” It’s all about the approach. Men know that your intentions are good and that you justwant to see them healthy and around to enjoy your life together, but when the approach seems probing and confrontational, they will often quickly rebel against the idea or take it as an insult.
When it’s time to talk to them, you can employ the soft start up by playing on their inherent manliness: Portray yourself as the weak one, the one who needs help. Framing the conversation in terms of “I’m really scared about your health” versus “You need to go now” can yield much more positive results. “Telling them that you need them to go because it would make you feel much better, or that they are such a good provider and that you need them to be around,” says Karam, “can really play on their own need to feel like the protector and an important part of your life.”
A 2009 study of over 1,000 middle-aged men found that men with more traditional beliefs of masculinity, or “macho” men, were almost half as likely to go to the doctor for preventative care. But, within those men surveyed, the lower-status, blue-collar workers were the exception. Their families depend on them to provide food and shelter, and the men depend on their bodies while working. Courtenay suggests using men’s desire to compete and perform well by speaking to them about how regular check-ups will allow them to be able to do things much better—their job, playing golf, hunting or fishing, or playing with their kids or grandkids. “They will be able to do it better if their body is well maintained—the same way they would get better mileage out of a car that is well maintained,” Courtenay says.
Find the Problem
Another approach that can also work is by attacking the issue from a monetary angle. “I had one tough guy in a therapy session who wouldn’t even take an aspirin,” Karam says. “I asked him, ‘Why spend all of this money on health care each year, if you don’teven take advantage of it?’ He was a thrifty guy and that was the tipping point for him.”
Others may be scared to go. “Your man could’ve had a bad experience with a doctor as a kid,” Karam says. Others may have formed early impressions about what it is to be a man by watching a dad who was a ‘suck-it-up-and-take-the-pain’ type of guy—ask them about their family life and try to find out why they are reluctant to go.
You can ask your man what would help motivate him to go. Perhaps he’d like you to come along. “Why not go with him next time?” Karam says. Or maybe find out what the perfect doctor for them would be. Would a younger or older doc make them more comfortable? Maybe he would feel better going to a female physician? “You need to ask these type of things to understand what it is that is holding him back,” Karam says.
Don’t Give Up
Finally, even if all of your preparation and consideration isn’t quite working, don’t stop trying. “It is important not to nag, but it is also important not to give up on them,” Courtenay says. “Keep listening for any inclination to change their offer. Maybe they’ll mention something like, ‘I’ve been worried about my weight.’ That’s an inroad into starting the conversation again.”
Remember, too, that men are actually at a slight disadvantage—women have been hardwired to go to the doctor since puberty. Gynecological exams become a routine part of life for women, and anyone who has been pregnant will have had her fair share of poking and prodding and testing. “Men don’t have this preventative maintenance built in,” says Karam. “It’s not until mid-life that they need to start going regularly.”
Also consider the consequences of not talking to your man about his health and persuading him to make regular visits to the doctor. Besides the specter of an early death, resentment can build up if he is diagnosed with something scary but preventable. “I’ll get clients that neglected these issues and, when something does happen, the couple is scared and resentment builds up in the other partner,” Karam says. “They think: ‘You didn’t care enough about me to take care of this.’” If you take the time to tend to the man in your life, your relationship will improve.
Be patient with your man. It’s taken him a lifetime to learn his bad habits, and it will take some time to unlearn them. Your love and persistence will pay off when you end up living longer together.