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updated 10/22/2008 3:46:55 PM ET 2008-10-22T19:46:55

Judy Lederman, 49, couldn’t stand her ex-husband’s constant nagging about the 80 extra pounds she was hauling around.

“He said he didn’t want to be seen with me and called me names,” says Lederman, of Scarsdale, N.Y. “It was abusive. I felt like a dartboard.”

The more her ex insulted her, the worse Lederman felt about herself, and the more she ate. If that weren’t bad enough, when she finally dropped the weight, her husband brought her cookies.

“He was jealous,” she explains. Not surprisingly, the marriage ended in divorce.

Lederman’s husband’s behavior was obnoxious, but not unusual, experts say. Belittling a loved one about being too fat and then undermining efforts to lose weight are common mistakes among couples, says psychologist Amy Gorin, a University of Connecticut behavioral psychologist specializing in weight loss and weight control.

Telling your partner it’s time to lose weight can be tricky, but it’s something many couples grapple with these days. Close to two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, an almost 50 percent increase from 30 years ago, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then there’s “the marriage penalty” problem. Five years after saying “I do,” married people on average gain six to nine more pounds than their single counterparts, a recent study of young adults by University of North Carolina researchers suggests.

Having the talk is worth it. Not only can your partner's health be affected by excess weight, but packing on the pounds can weigh on the relationship in other ways. An overweight spouse may not be as physically appealing to you or may not even feel like being physically intimate.

So, how do you convince your partner to slim down — without doing more harm than good?

First, don't criticize, says Gorin. Instead, praise any exercising or healthy eating you witness. "Most important, shape up yourself," says Gorin. "If you’re living healthily, it’ll be easier for your partner to do the same.”

Here are four other do’s and don’ts when it comes to helping your sweetie slim down.

Don’t nag. Constantly berating your partner only spurs conflict and resentment, says Maye Musk, a New York nutritionist and couples counselor. The targeted person will likely feel ugly, angry and depressed, leading to more weight gain. “It becomes a downward spiral,” says Musk.

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Be loving. Jennifer Blair, 59, of Alexandria, Va., largely credits her husband’s tender ways for helping her drop 33 pounds since May. For years, she’d been working 18-hour days and weekends as a technical training consultant, grabbing fast food and getting no exercise. As a result, she puffed up from a size 12 to a size 22.

Her husband’s response? A big hug.

“He said he was concerned about my health," she says. "He told me, ‘I really want my wife to be around.’” Blair listened. She quit the job, switched to a low-carb diet, and added a five-day-a-week gym routine.

Don’t judge. We all get tempted by sugary, fatty foods, and it doesn’t help to scold when somebody gives in, says Gorin. “If your spouse says they ate all the sweets at a work function, don’t say, “There you go again,’” she advises. “It only adds to their guilt and doesn’t help them avoid the problem in future.”

Help problem-solve. Offer strategies to resist temptation, such as suggesting fruit as a snack instead of cookies. Buy healthy, low-calorie snacks such as berries or low-fat yogurt, rather than chips. If your honey succumbs to a snack attack, ask nicely, 'is there something you might do differently next time?’, suggests Gorin.

Don’t sabotage. Bringing junk food into the house only fuels a partner's weight problem, says Musk. If you're inhaling potato chips on the sofa, your partner will most likely want to join you. It may seem obvious, but if your partner has dropped a few pounds, don’t use food as a reward.

Be a role model. If one partner starts exercising and eating better, the other partner also tends to lose weight — five pounds or more, on average, says Gorin.

Don’t play cop. Most people don't like being told what they should and shouldn’t eat, says Gorin. “Nobody likes to feel like they’re losing control,” she says. “If you push something on them, they’ll rebel.”

Team up. Pitch a joint health kick as a fun adventure and your partner will more likely sign on. Try new low-calorie recipes and go grocery-shopping together, she suggests. Or you could plan joint expeditions to the gym, as Carin Walling of Mount Pleasant, S.C., and her husband often do. Walling, 32, started going four times a week to trim off 30 pounds she’d gained from a pregnancy with twins. Her husband followed her example and slimmed almost as much. “Our joint weight loss has brought us closer together,” says Walling.

When Jennifer Blair and her husband went to get a physical, she made an appointment for herself, too. Tests revealed she had sky-high cholesterol, life-threatening sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes. Her husband joined her efforts to shape up, sharing her low-carb meals. Along with her, he's now lost more than 30 pounds.

“We used to be couch potatoes, but the weight loss has given us more energy for our couple time,” says Blair. “We’re thinking about taking a walking vacation to England.”

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