Earlier this year, my fiance decided to quit his heavy smoking. Of course, I wanted to help, but as someone who’s never had a true addiction, I had no idea how to make it easier on him. After months of living with someone who finally kicked the habit, here’s what I’ve learned.
When a loved one takes on any difficult task, it’s only natural to want to encourage them and understand what they’re going through — that much is obvious. But aside from cheering them on and making yourself available for support, there are some things you can do that will really help them through.
Remember: It’s Not About You
At the beginning of our relationship, Brian said: “I want to quit. But it’s something I have to do for myself.” I didn’t completely understand the significance of this at the time, but I got the gist of it: I’m going to quit when I’m ready. Throughout the years, I urged him to quit, but I never threatened or gave an ultimatum. He made it clear: the smoking wasn’t about me. Quitting was a goal for himself. According to him, the first way I supported his desire to quit was taking that statement to heart.
When he finally made the decision, it was something he truly wanted for himself, and that was important. It’s a lot easier to quit when you actually want to quit, rather than quit because you met someone new.
At the same time, secondhand smoke is pretty terrible. He had to acknowledge the impact of his habit. So while the quitting wasn’t about me, part of his inspiration to quit had a lot to do with how his habit affected me and others.
But You Can Still Offer Advice
Ultimatums are never a good idea, but studies do show that suggestions work. In a paper in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers wrote:
The 5 As outlined in the recent USPHS guideline are: ask about tobacco use, advise to quit, assess willingness to make attempt to quit, assist with treatments, and arrange follow-up. The major emphasis in this model is a clear statement advising the smoker to quit. If upon assessment…the smoker is unwilling to quit, one is to motivate the smoker using the 5 Rs; i.e., focus on personally relevant information on, risks of smoking, rewards of stopping, roadblocks to quitting, and repeating this advice.
There is substantial evidence from randomised trials that brief advice based on these models is effective. In the most recent meta-analyses, even 3 minutes of such advice done in a systematic and diplomatic manner increases quit rates by a factor of 1.3 to 1.7.
As much as I realised Brian’s obstacle was not about me, I also knew a little nudging would keep his mind on it. This study backed up my instinct. I, along with friends and family, occasionally reminded him it was important to quit. We were subtle, we didn’t berate him about it, but we did make sure he understood it was important. “You guys weren’t telling me anything I didn’t know,” he said. “And yeah, it was kind of annoying. But it kept it on my mind.” Basically, our persistence helped eventually make it a priority.
Don’t Try To Take Over
I know what works for me when I try to break a habit. And I’ve read quite a few studies and ideas on the matter, too. When Brian decided to quit, my inner control freak felt inclined to suggest a plan of action based on my own set of experiences and knowledge.
A lot of people figure what works for them should work for everyone. I made this mistake, too. Brian’s morning routine as a smoker was: wake up, make coffee, go out on the porch with his brew and a cigarette. When he quit, he continued with this routine, going outside to have his coffee, only without the cigarette. I worried this routine would tempt him too much. But it wasn’t my habit to break, so I had no idea what he felt out there. Maybe he wasn’t tempted at all. Maybe he was tempted, but that was part of his plan. It might not be something that works for me, but it’s what works for him, and ultimately, I had to trust that he can figure out what’s best for himself.
He used some of my advice, but he took most of it with a grain of salt, because at the end of the day, he’s the one experiencing his habits. He knows the nuance and routine of them, and he knows how to work with them best.
In addition, you have to accept that part of quitting is trial and error. The average smoker makes multiple attempts before they actually quit. They figure out what works and what doesn’t, and then adjust as necessary. The bottom line is: supporting isn’t so much telling someone what to do as it is offering your own two cents, then trusting their decisions.
Learn What Feedback Works Best
Negativity can be motivating. Even when it comes to something as emotionally difficult as kicking an addiction, a little negativity has its place. For example, CVS sponsored a study not too long ago that found the idea of losing money can be motivating for quitters:
Two of the programs required participants to pay an upfront deposit of $150, which was reimbursed if participants successfully quit smoking. Overall, study participants who enrolled in any of the four incentive-based programs were nearly three times more likely to quit smoking than those who received usual care alone. In addition, although participants assigned to the groups requiring an upfront deposit were more likely to decline participation than those in the pure incentive-based programs, deposit programs led to nearly twice the rate of abstinence from smoking at six months among people who would have accepted either type of program.
Of course, there are a lot of different factors to consider here. For one, I’d argue if you’re motivated enough to fork over an upfront deposit, you’re probably in a better mindset to quit. You’re willing to bet the money, because you’re pretty sure it’s a safe bet.
Still, the point is that negative reinforcement works for some people, in some cases. Most advice on how to support someone who’s quitting tells you to be constantly optimistic. It makes sense, and in my own scenario, I was optimistic probably ninety-five per cent of the time. It’s obviously motivating to tell someone you’re proud of them and you believe in them and all of that. But let’s talk about the five per cent of the time that I wasn’t so cheerful.
Once, when Brian slipped up and snuck in a cigarette, I told him I was disappointed in him. In doing so, I made him feel guilty, embarrassed and small. I acted in the heat of the moment, selfishly, without thinking about how that reaction might affect his progress. But surprisingly, he later told me this reaction actually helped. It made him realise something he thought of as no big deal should be considered more, not just brushed off. He processed giving into this craving, and that helped stave off future temptations. I was surprised, because I thought I did the wrong thing. While I probably should have thought about my actions more, he seemed to appreciate a little negativity.
This isn’t to say everyone will react the same way. And, for the most part, it helped more to be positive. But Brian is also cynical by nature. While he appreciated the occasional “I’m proud of you”, constantly saying it and being overly peppy also made him feel silly and irritated after a while.
The point is: everyone is different. While positive affirmations do work best most of the time, I found it more helpful to listen to my partner and learn what kind of feedback worked best, depending on the situation.
Fine Tune Your Empathy
Before quitting, he told me it might be a bumpy ride. He told me he could be snippy, more exhausted than usual, and he might not feel like doing stuff around the house.
Part of being supportive was learning to accept this and resist giving him a hard time about it, and according to him, this was the most supportive thing I did. I wanted to create an environment that didn’t make him want to smoke. This meant I tried to:
- Pick up some of his chores around the house, or just be OK that they didn’t get done.
- Focus on my own stress level, which often rubs off on him.
- Not give him a hard time if he was tired or irritable.
- Not guilt him into going places that made him want to smoke. For example, some friends wanted to meet at a bar, Brian wasn’t ready to be around alcohol, which was a smoking trigger, so I went alone.
In short, I had to be a little understanding, and I had to realise he was going through a pretty hefty process. That meant picking up a little bit of the load and helping out where I could. There are plenty of times where he’s picked up my slack when I needed it, too.
Of course, you don’t want to deal with a partner who’s being abusive or taking advantage of you. Being grumpy is one thing, verbal abuse is another.
The bottom line is that empathy is important. I’ve never been a smoker, so I have no idea what it takes to quit. In order to understand his situation better, I tried to learn about how addiction works and learn what people go through when they give up smoking. As a result, I was able to better recognise certain symptoms. I didn’t know what they felt like, but I knew what they were. Learning about addiction and learning how it affected him as an individual helped me hone my empathy and give better feedback and support.
Quitting isn’t an easy process. And supporting someone certainly doesn’t make it easy, but it can make things less difficult. In my experience, listening, learning, and trusting my partner’s judgment helped me offer the most useful support.