Help A Date Break A Bad Habit

Trying to help a new partner break a bad habit? Learn how to be supportive without turning into the vice police.

By Annie Dennison, Ph.D.

aybe motivation came in the form of some shocking bathing-suit pictures from a recent beach vacation, or maybe it’s “just time”—whatever the reason, the person you’ve just started dating is trying hard to break a bad habit. Of course, when you’re first smitten with someone new, you want to do everything you can to help—but you also don’t want to overstep the bounds of what’s appropriate during the early stages of dating. Here, some key rules for helping somebody through a struggle without making it your own:

Talk about the temptation
Even someone with the best intentions to overcome a bad habit won’t be 100% successful at it right away. Many goal-setters feel so guilty over a slip-up that
What you don’t want to do is get critical or preachy…
they go right back to the bad habit, figuring they’re failures. One of the best things you can do is start an actual conversation about how the process is going — slip-ups and all — while you act as a non-judgmental listener.

For example, if your date confesses to lighting up after being smokeless for a week, nod sympathetically—and acknowledge how hard it is to quit. What you don’t want to do is get critical or preachy (“You should try the nicotine gum!”). That will only make your date feel defensive and judged, neither of which are much of an aphrodisiac. Explains Jeff of Miami, “When I told my date that I wanted to drop about 10 pounds, that didn’t mean I wanted my hand slapped if I tried to steal a French fry off his plate. It just made me feel as if I had no self-control—and feel more than a little mad at him for pointing it out!”

Get with the program
In a successful habit-kicking campaign, your date will let you know what will help—and what won’t. So get behind that campaign, rather than imposing your own. Consider this story from Jesse from Baltimore: “A couple of years ago, I had just started dating my now-partner Frank. He thought he was drinking too much and decided to go ‘cold turkey.’ I didn’t see why he had to go totally dry versus just taper off some, but I trusted him to do what would work for him. Let me tell you, we spent a lot more time at the gym together than at bars after
When a person is trying to kick a bad habit, the world is filled with temptations.
that.” The lesson here is let your date problem-solve. Follow his or her lead. Acknowledge and applaud any and all progress that’s made. In other words, avoid being bossy or controlling. After all, the person needs to conquer the bad habit on his or her own terms—you’re not a couple yet, so this isn’t a team effort. Trying too hard to get your date to do it your way will create resentment.

Don’t be part of the problem
When a person is trying to kick a bad habit, the world is filled with temptations. You don’t have to change your personal approach for a new partner, but if you do really want to help him or her, make sure you’re not sending mixed messages: Inviting a person out to a smoky pub doesn’t exactly say, “I support your decision to quit smoking.” So when you’re planning time together, consider locations and times that will support your new sweetie’s best habit-kicking efforts. Remember that your own choices can help make it easier (or harder) for your companion to make this positive life change and achieve his or her goals. Go out to a tea salon instead of a bar if your date wants to drink less; if your date wants to shape up, follow the lead of David, of Portland, ME: “I got a guidebook to the hiking trails in our area for my date’s birthday, and offered to explore them with him on the weekends—it was terrific for his health and for our relationship!”

Obviously, while it’s not your job to protect this person from all the things that could sabotage the goal, at least you don’t have to actively tempt your honey yourself. It doesn’t guarantee you two will go the distance, but if you do, your thoughtfulness and support during this challenging time will deepen your bond. Anything that does that is a good habit to get into.

Annie Dennison, Ph.D., is a singles coach, psychologist, and freelance writer in Orange County, CA.
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