Countless advice columns, talk shows and features in women’s magazines have documented the problems that arise in a marriage when one partner gains a significant amount of weight. “Our sex life is suffering,” is the common complaint, inevitably followed by, “I love him/her, but I don’t know if I’m attracted to him/her anymore.” But what happens when a partner actually manages to lose a significant amount of weight?
“When we got married we were both a bit overweight, but nothing too major,” says Samantha (not her real name), a thirty-something educator. While perfectly fine with her wedding weight, Samantha became increasingly less happy with her body over the years as the numbers on the scale continued their upward climb.
“Due to some medical circumstances, I went off a medication I was taking and my energy level went way, way up “, I decided now was the time – I could put the extra energy into exercise and focus on weight loss.”
Samantha joined a food and exercise tracking website, cut down her food intake and started working out four or five days a week. She lost forty pounds in five months.
But while Samantha was healthier than ever before, her marriage was not.
“I felt like (my husband) started losing confidence when I started looking better,” she says. “He started acting possessive and overprotective. He’d stand over my chair when we were out in a group. I think it must have been subconscious, as though he owned me.”
While Samantha lost weight the traditional route, some go to surgical lengths. The term “Bariatric divorce” appears on some websites as a risk factor for those who undergo weight loss surgery. When a partner’s physical appearance changes significantly, the other partner can feel insecure, and sometimes even resentful.
Relational psychotherapist David Fairweather says that there’s an adaption to change that must occur when either partner changes in some way.
“It really is no different if someone’s lost weight or gotten a PhD or been promoted from factory worker to department head,” he says. “There is a change in the structure of the relationship, in the foundation of the relationship. It changes their perception of one another and they have to understand that that’s happened. Some people might view such changes as threatening. Others might view it as a very positive thing. It is going to be based on their sense of self; if they have low self-esteem, they may find it quite threatening.”
In Samantha’s mind, her husband was most definitely threatened. “We weren’t communicating. The weight loss appeared to trigger his instincts. ‘My woman, must not let her get away,’ that kind of thing.”
Fairweather explains that some believe their spouse/partner has lost weight because they’re not interested in them anymore and they’re sprucing themselves up to go out and look for a new partner. “That’s very often not the case. But unless it’s actually spoken of and they can really each understand each other’s point of view, then there is (a great deal of) miscommunication.”
While Samantha and her husband continued to fail on the communication front, she began to see herself in a new light and noticed improvements in almost every aspect of her life. But six months after she’d started losing weight, the marriage broke up.
“I don’t think losing weight ended my marriage,” she says. “I think being happy ended my marriage. I wanted happiness in my personal life to go with happiness in my professional and social lives. Losing weight triggered emotions in both of us that led to a downward spiral.”
“There is no change without stress,” says Fairweather, who notes that partners have to renegotiate their relationship based on any major change. “Communication is the key, really, to understand what the change means for each partner and to truly understand each other’s points of view.”
KEEPING IT TOGETHER
While change in lifestyle can inevitably bring change in relationships, there are things a couple can do to grow from the experience. Dr. Cheryl Fraser, a Vancouver-based registered psychologist who specializes in couples and relationships,
“If you love someone, you should be thrilled for them when [something good] happens,” she says. “It shouldn’t be difficult and challenging, but it is.”
She suggests two behaviours – one for each partner – to help keep the relationship strong.
“The partner who’s changed needs to work hard to share their inner world as much as possible, to talk about the things that are happening when the partner isn’t around.” What this does, she explains, is make the non-changed partner feel as though they’re experiencing the change through their mate’s eyes, and not feel as left out of the experience. It’s this sense of abandonment that makes the partner feel threatened, and can cause them to act out.
For their part, the non-changed partner must utilize what a friend of Dr. Fraser’s calls “QTIP” – quit taking it personally.
“Your partner’s change probably has nothing to do with you – it’s not because they love you, it’s not because they don’t love you.” Be kind to yourself, she advises, acknowledge that you feel betrayed and like your partner fooled you, and then acknowledge that that’s not the case.