Advice Goddess

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advice goddess
Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

Q: My husband has a great body, but since we got married two years ago, he has completely stopped working out. One reason I was initially so attracted to him was that he was in great shape. I go to Pilates four times a week. How do I motivate him to go back to the gym?—Toned

A: If your husband’s starting to see definition in his legs, it shouldn’t be from rolling over and falling asleep on the remote.

As for how to get him back into workout mode, consider what psychologists Edward Deci and Richard M. Ryan have learned in studying motivation. They break it down into two categories—intrinsic and extrinsic, fancy terms for internal and external. The extrinsic kind is outside pressure to do something—like nagging from the wife to start going to the gym instead of just driving by the place and waving.

Extrinsic pressure tends to motivate defiance rather than compliance—which is to say that it’s remarkably effective at bringing out the “terrible twos” in a 46-year-old man. Intrinsic motivation, however, is the kind that Deci and Ryan find leads to lasting change. This is motivation that comes from within a person, meaning that it’s in tune with who they are and what they want for themselves—like abs of steel instead of … wait, there are abs in there?

So, the challenge here is not how to make your husband work out, but how to get him to start wanting what you want. You’re allowed to make requests of the person you’re married to, so ask him to try something for you—go to the gym … for just three weeks. Reassure him that you still find him hot, but explain that you really, really find him hot when it looks like you could chip a tooth on one of his biceps.

The three-week stint—beyond getting him back in the habit of going to the gym—should lead to some positive changes in his body, giving him a sense of accomplishment. Because Deci and Ryan find that feelings of “competence” are an integral part of intrinsic motivation, there’s a good chance that he’ll feel motivated to keep working out—instead of trying to get by on making those weightlifter grunts every time he changes the channel.

Q: I’m trying to get over a breakup, and one of my best friends, in an attempt to help me move on, keeps saying, “He doesn’t want you!” I get that (and I do need to move on), but hearing that makes me feel unlovable and even more depressed. I am seeing what went wrong; I should have believed him when he told me at the very beginning that he was “terrified of relationships.” I’m sure it’s frustrating for her to see me in pain, but I’m just not ready to get back out there. What do I tell her so she stops making me feel worse?—Still Sad

A: Misery sometimes wishes company would shut its big flapping trap.

Of course, your friend means well. She just wants Pain and its BFF, Suffering, to bugger off already. However, like most people, she probably doesn’t understand that the sadness you’re experiencing isn’t just a crappy feeling. Like all emotions, it has a job to do. In fact, sadness is a tool, just like a hammer.

Psychiatrist and evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse explains that “happiness and sadness usually follow experiences of gain or loss,” helping us by “influencing future behavior” in ways that increase our chances of passing along our genes (including surviving long enough to manage that).

Happiness, for example, urges us, “Do that again and you’ll see even more of me!” Sadness, on the other hand, warns us, “Do that again, missy, and I’ll drag you right back to Boohoosville.” Nesse writes that “those people who don’t experience much sadness … are predicted to engage again in the same behaviors that previously led to loss.”

Thank your friend for trying to make you feel better, but tell her that what you need from her is not tough love but the kind that involves hugs, Kleenex and maybe a snack. Explain the utility of sadness—and how you’re using it as a tool to understand the past and act more wisely in the future. In other words, you aren’t stalling in moving on; you’re learning—and not just how long you have to cry before the neighbors start going to work in rowboats and the government sends in the National Guard with sandbags and a year’s supply of Cheetos.

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