We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. Now, onto this week’s topic: how to talk to your partner about their changing appearance.
Q: “Since we got together a few years ago, my partner has been losing some of his hair. He's also in good shape, but is less buff than he was when we met (he used to lift weights, but hasn’t been to the gym in ages). I'm still totally attracted to him, but sometimes he'll ask me straight up if I liked the 'old him' better, and I don't know what to say because yes, I was more attracted then, but like I said, I'm still attracted now. Should I lie? Be honest? One time, I wanted to talk about buying some hair loss shampoo but I'm afraid of hurting his feelings — I know I'd freak out if he ever tried to change my appearance. How do can you talk about this stuff in a long term relationship?”
A: Thanks for the question! This one sure is a doozy. We all have the tendency to get a little lazy about grooming and upkeep in long term relationships. Date night when you’re just starting to see each other usually means spending hours planning your outfit, shaving your legs, and trying to master winged eyeliner. Date night when you’re in a long term relationship usually means tossing on those yoga pants that you’re pretty sure can pass as regular black pants. One of the best things about relationships is knowing that our partner loves us even when we’re in our sweats and haven’t showered in a few days. But of course, we don’t want to slip into ruts. We want to keep being the best versions of ourselves for our partners. It’s tricky enough managing this balance on our own, but it gets way more complicated when trying to figure out how to communicate that sentiment to our partners.
Here are seven tips for talking to your partner about their appearance.
1. Don’t Initiate These Conversations
There are two different types of situations in your email — your boyfriend bringing up his concerns about his muscle mass, and you considering bringing up your own concerns about his hair loss. In general, I don’t recommend bringing up criticisms of your partner’s appearance (with a few exceptions, which I’ll get to in a moment). We all have our own ideas of what we find attractive, and we’re entitled to those opinions. But we’re not entitled to trying to shame or pressure our partners into fitting those exact molds. You don’t sound like you’re being a jerk, but these are still delicate waters to tread. You said it right there in your question — you’d freak out if your boyfriend tried to change your appearance. It’s one thing for him to initiate a conversation, and another for you to be the one bringing it up. Plus, it seems like these are minor preferences for you; they're not affecting your baseline level of attraction to your boyfriend.
2. Remember That Your Partner Already Knows Their Faults
It sounds like your boyfriend hasn’t brought up his hair loss on his own yet, so again, I’d refrain from bringing it up. Odds are that your boyfriend already knows that he’s losing his hair, and doesn’t need you bringing up his shortcomings. Most of us are our own worst critics, and we are acutely aware of our perceived “faults.” Think about your own relationship with your body. I’m sure you could rattle off a list of things you wish you could change. We’ve all been brainwashed into having these perfectionistic expectations of ourselves. Your boyfriend is probably looking at himself through a much harsher lens than you are.
3. Don’t Answer Unfair Questions
Your boyfriend is putting you in an unfair position by pressing you to answer which “version” of him you like better. If you tell the truth and admit that you liked the more buff version of him better, you’re going to hurt his feelings and make him feel self-conscious about his body. If you tell him you like the new version, he’ll probably accuse you of lying.
If he asks you that question again, I’d say something like, “I was attracted to you then, and I’m attracted to you now. I’m more than happy either way.” If he presses you, I’d say something like, “this feels really uncomfortable for me. I don’t compare you in my mind, and I don’t think you should ask me to do it.”
4. Be Compassionate
Like I said above, it’s perfectly normal to have your own ideas of what’s attractive. It’s also totally understandable to want your partner to look his best. There are gentle ways to encourage your partner to take good care of themselves. Let’s stick with your example of your boyfriend’s exercise habits. Here are some ways to get him back in the gym:
- Act as an example. What has your gym routine been like lately? You might be able to get him more motivated to hit the gym by heading there more often yourself. Say something like, “all this talk about the gym has reminded me of how much I miss it. I want to take better care of myself. I think I’m going to try to go more regularly.” Invite him along with you. Perhaps the sight of you getting more fit might be the push he needs.
- Work as a team. You and your boyfriend can get healthier together! If your boyfriend starts complaining about not getting to the gym frequently enough, or wanting to be more careful about what he eats, offer to join him. Sign up for a joint personal training session, or join a new gym together. It’s a lot easier to tackle life changes when you have a partner in crime. You can even reward yourselves together for sticking to your plan.
- Give compliments. Positive reinforcement is the best reinforcement. Whenever your boyfriend comes back from the gym, tell him how good he looks all sweaty. Grab his muscles and compliment him on how strong he’s getting. Get him to try out some athletic sex positions with you!
5. Treat Health And Hygiene Differently
So far, I’ve been talking about aesthetic issues like muscle tone and hair volume. We get into very different territory when health and hygiene come into play. If you’re genuinely worried about your partner’s health, you should speak up.
For example, if your partner has rapidly gained or lost a lot of weight, if they’re not being regular about their medication, if they seem depressed, or if they never exercise. This is always going to be uncomfortable, but I’d suggest saying something like, “This is really hard for me to talk about, and I’m feeling nervous because I don’t want to hurt your feelings. But I love you, and I want us both to be as healthy and happy as we can.”
In particular, focusing on the future can be helpful. It’s easy to bury our heads in the sand in the moment, but it makes it a lot harder when we’re forced to think about the decades to come. Say something like, “I want you to be around for a really, really long time.” Or personalize it with something like, “I want us to be able to do that hike we love for years and years” or “I want us to be able to dance at our grandkids' weddings.”
6. Give Reassurance
I think that what your boyfriend is looking for in those moments when he asks you about his appearance is some reassurance. He probably feels self-conscious and insecure, and is wanting to know that you’ll still love him, no matter what. Try asking him something like, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been asking me that question a lot more lately. Are you feeling self-conscious about your body? Anything going on to make you feel less secure than usual?” Try to be thoughtful about giving him even more compliments than usual. Ask him if there are any other ways you can support him or help him feel loved.
7. Let Them Make Their Own Decisions
Ultimately, your boyfriend’s body is his own, and he gets to make decisions about what he does with it. You can offer him options and support, but he gets to make the final call.
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