Study Highlights How to Influence Health Behavior of a Partner

By Kieran Sullivan, Professor of Psychology at the Santa Clara University

Senior couple stretching

In short, what is the study about?

The study examines how attempts – even well-meaning attempts – to influence an intimate partner’s health behavior may be ineffective or even backfire.  A key variable seems to be how ready the partner is to make a health behavior change.

What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?

First, do no harm.  In other words, don’t try to influence a partner’s health behavior before the partner is ready to make a change.  Second, when the partner is ready to make a change, try to help the partner get/stay healthy using positive tactics (e.g., engage in the behavior with them) but not negative change tactics (e.g., making the partner feel guilty).  An important caveat is behavior that is leading to serious physical harm, such as a high risk of heart attack or diabetes. In those cases, it may be important for an intimate partner to speak up about health behavior, even when the chances of positively influencing the health behavior are small.

How are these findings important in practice?

When working with couples with issues around health behavior, focus on helping the affected person become more ready to change and consider asking the partner to refrain from trying to influence health behavior as the therapist works with the individual. This might involve education the couple about the dynamics of partner health improvement attempts and using motivational interviewing to assist the unhealthy partner to become more ready to change.

What other studies can be recommended to further an understanding/application of the findings?

Motivational interviewing is a well-established technique for practitioners working with an unhealthy and reluctant patient/client.  There are many resources for training in motivational interviewing, including websites (e.g., and books (e.g., Motivational Interview, 3rd edition by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick)

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Latest update: September 20, 2017
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