Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Your Partner(s)'s Health

I promised that argument I had on Facebook would prompt a series of posts, and here's the first of them! In this post, I'd like to discuss whether we have the responsibility to monitor and/or manage the health of our partners. (Note, I am specifically not talking about managing the health of, say, your kids. That is completely different.)

So. Many people enter into long-term romantic relationships with each other. Sometimes these relationships last whole lifetimes; more often, they last years or decades. However, our bodies can also change substantially over years or decades. So it is entirely possible for partner #1 to physically change in such a way that partner #2 now finds it difficult to eroticize them. Which poses a great challenge for the two if they wish to maintain a sexual component to their relationship. (This can apply to any two people within a poly relationship as well, of course.)

According to the internet, the most common way that this happens is when a partner gains weight. Not surprising, since the overall trend is to put on weight as you age, and since we have a cultural aversion to fat. I tend to agree with both Kate Harding and Dan Savage that, in this scenario, partner #2 has one of two options: [1.] learn to love partner #1's new, fatter body, or [2.] end the relationship.

This is by no means the majority opinion, though. Most people (and this includes friends of mine, friends of friends, advice columnists, bloggers, and TV personalities) are of the opinion that you are justified in encouraging/manipulating/coercing your partner into modifying their body back into a shape you find attractive. Did I say attractive? I meant to say "healthy." This is where the conversation veers off in a new direction, in which everybody claims responsibility for monitoring the health of their partners.

You guys, I object to this concept. I assert that I retain complete autonomy in my health care decisions regardless of my relationship status. Whether those decisions increase or decrease my health, they are mine alone to make.

Now, other relationships may function differently. Some couples prefer to completely share the responsibility for both partners' health. Here's the thing, though. Entering into such an arrangement is also a health care decision you make. And you have the right to rethink that decision any time you like. Furthermore, the fact that you have such an arrangement does not mean that any other two people on Earth are obligated to do things the same way. Furtherfurthermore, we shouldn't assume that other couples have the ability to make health decisions for each other.* If a man shows up in a doctor's office seeking a vasectomy, you don't get to quiz him about his wife's opinions. If a woman's lifestyle leads to her gaining weight, don't give her girlfriend tips on how to induce her to lose weight. That shit is problematic.

*I'm not talking about when one partner is incapacitated by illness. Obviously that's a different situation, in which you have to get someone else to make the decisions.


  1. The whole weight monitoring issue is, as you noted, absolute bullshit (and may not actually have anything to do with health at all). But other health-related issues may be a little more complex and dependent upon the relationship. Ideally, those involved in a relationship would be concerned about each others' health, well-being, and happiness, so they would be able to agree on decisions and be supportive of each other. But I'm with ya--ultimately the decision falls on the individual, and they have to do what's right for them.

    But the whole weight thing--as I read that article that initiated the facebook discussion mentioned in the first post, all I could think of was, "So, your goal is to make the person you supposedly CARE ABOUT or LOVE feel like complete shit about themselves?" Yeah. That's showing concern for your partner's health.

  2. I agree with 99% of this. However, I feel that when children enter the equation, as a partner and father or mother, you have a responsibility to your children to 'monitor' your partner's health. Though monitor is too strong a word, I think. Maybe 'look after' is better, and then gently encourage them to go to the doctor. ;) You're right that ultimately the decision is theirs, but if there is the possibility for illness that will affect their relationship (or time) with your children together, I think it's fair to be concerned.

    The vasectomy/tubal litigation/birth control thing is tricky. While a person should absolutely have autonomy over their body and what they do with it, I am hesitant to say that their partner's feelings on the subject should not be considered by the doc. I feel like I could go around and around and around in a circle re: that subject and only come to the conclusion that, in an ideal world, partners should care enough about each other to be considerate of the other's needs and feelings before making any huge decisions. Or, like Mr. Savage said, end the relationship. Of course, you can't make that into law.

  3. I think we basically agree, Desi, but I'm gonna split a hair here anyway:

    "Ideally ... they would be able to agree on decisions ..." I think it's important to emphasize that this is your specific ideal (may you always be blessed with it.) I do not particularly value this, though. It's not important to me that my partner agrees with me on everything, just that they respect my autonomy. I can imagine other individuals not even wanting to share medical information with their partners; except when it involves communicable diseases, that's a valid choice, too. And still others value disagreement; finding it intellectually stimulating.

    Hence, third parties should assume autonomy rather than interdependence because if you share your medical decision making, you can simply share the diagnosis or whatever with your partner. But assuming interdependence for a couple that prefers complete autonomy can cause serious problems. And if that assumption is widespread in the culture, it restricts the forms that relationships can take.

  4. Good point. Yeah, I guess I only addressed one "ideal" situation, but I absolutely agree about respecting autonomy. And third parties should ALWAYS assume autonomy. Even though my hubby and I are pretty much on the same page when it comes to our medical decision making (thus far), I'd be infuriated if when discussing birth control options, for instance, my doctor/nurse practitioner said, "And what would your husband have to say about this?"

  5. @Sarah: 99%? I think we disagree on the fundamental point here!

    "The vasectomy/tubal litigation/birth control thing is tricky. While a person should absolutely have autonomy over their body and what they do with it, I am hesitant to say that their partner's feelings on the subject should not be considered by the doc"

    These two things are completely incompatible. You cannot have complete autonomy over your body if you need your partner to sign off on a medical procedure. And by making prescriptive statements like this, it really means you mean that not just you, but I and everybody else should have to get any existing partners' permission before getting sterilized. Which I find frightening in the same way that I find people arguing for reduced abortion access frightening. Stop trying to restrict my health care options!

    "in an ideal world, partners should care enough about each other to be considerate of the other's needs and feelings before making any huge decisions"

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, different people are different. Some people like their wives to regularly kick them in the testicles. Others may mutually desire a casual long-term sexual relationship with complete independence.* What you or I want out of a relationship is not what everyone wants, and I don't think we should extrapolate rules based on our own ideals.

  6. I'd also like to add that co-parenting relationships can vary widely, too. Children could be reared by large groups of people (to which they may be related or not) or just one person. The degree of responsibility of each child-rearer may vary, and romantic partners of child-rearers may or may not be involved in the child-rearing itself (yes, even if they contributed genetic material.)

    Additionally, child-rearers may prioritize other factors over health. They may stay in a stressful job in order to provide for their children financially, or they may skip the gym in order to spend time with their kids. These are their choices to make, and I don't think it's right to assume that they necessarily sign away sovereignty over their own bodies any more than individuals in relationships that do not involve child-rearing.