Couples, Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

When Jack Sprat and His Wife Go to Couples Therapy: Body Weight as a Problem in Marriage

couple weightOne day, pregnant with my second child, I went shopping for maternity clothes. I was feeling nauseous and suddenly experienced the familiar lightheaded dizzy feeling which accompanied all my pregnancies.  Afraid that I would pass out, I dropped down on the floor in the aisle of clothes, obscured from view.  A married couple walked up a few aisles over. The wife began questioning her husband about apparel and he reacted with indifference, communicating that he didn’t really want to be there. “That’s why I’m here by myself,” I thought, since my husband considers shopping a form of torture.

The wife was somewhat heavyset, and her spouse appeared to be average weight.  While considering different outfits, she suddenly pointed, “Oh, we can look over there in the “petites,” section.  His back was turned, so I couldn’t see his face, but I could absolutely hear the disdain in his voice.  His one-word response was a jab, “Petites?”  His contempt spewed his intended message, which was, “Aren’t you too fat for the ‘petites’ section, Fatty?” She paused a moment and snapped monosyllabically, “Short!” which throbbed, “Petite means short, Dummy, and by the way, I know I’m overweight—you don’t need to keep reminding me about it! Jerk!”

I remember sitting there, fighting nausea, thinking, “I can’t imagine my husband talking to me like that, even if I did fight weight gain.” I knew if anything, this man’s negative message would only heighten her shame and anxiety, likely driving her more toward food as comfort, which is verified by research.

Empirical studies of mixed-weight marriages show that they are at risk for higher levels of conflict. Weight can create sexual and emotional distance. Occasionally, I have a mixed weight couple in therapy in which the average weight partner expresses dissatisfaction with the heavier partner’s weight.  Sometimes it’s about health, but a lot of the time it can impact physical attraction.  Rarely, however, is weight the only presenting concern.  It’s usually just one of a myriad of complaints, but it’s a highly visible one, complex, and challenging in therapy.

For a while now, my husband and I have been answering couple questions in an app called “Happy Couple.”  This was one of my questions last week:

Steve pulls on jeans and finds that he can no longer zip them up.  How do you react?

A. Give subtle hints when he goes for second helping at dinner

B. Dole out a diet mandate

C. Probably wouldn’t be so into sex

D. Shrug it off and tell him to buy a new pair

Any guesses about my answer?  Definitely “D.” In fact, I was asked this question anonymously at a marriage presentation last year and I explained why I recommend the answer be “D.” Or, I might add an option “E,” for “Reassure him that you love him and ask how you can be supportive.”

Here’s why the other responses won’t work:

  1. Your partner doesn’t need a reminder that he/she is overweight. I guarantee that the broader culture is already reinforcing that message.
  2. Threatening a partner only increases anxiety and shuts people down. It’s the opposite of motivating.
  3. Attempting to control a diet makes it your problem, and if you have ownership of your spouse’s weight, your spouse cannot own it and be autonomous in developing healthier habits.
  4. Humiliating or shaming a partner also increases anxiety and hiding behavior.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that weight gain can create fear about attraction to a partner, or fear for a partner’s health. In my marriage, my husband has always put on weight easier than I do, even though he always exercised more consistently than I while I was having babies. His weight generally fluctuates between 10-20 pounds with external stressors. It bothers him a lot and me not so much. While it has never affected my attraction to him (I simply see the person I married, and I always thought he was good-looking), I have occasionally worried about his health, given his father’s history with heart surgeries.

I know 100% that I cannot control what he does and if I tried he’d feel criticized and resentful. I also know it bothers him and he’s always hyper-aware and working on it, and the last thing he needs is a spouse to make him feel worse.  In fact, throughout our marriage, I have frequently joked that the “teenage girl,” persona is showing up, because he will complain about how fat he is, and I almost never notice if he’s putting on weight. “When did you turn into a 14 year-old girl and what have you done with my husband?” I’ve mused. I think it’s the obsessive cyclist part of him.

So, how do you handle it when a spouse is overweight and it’s scaring you because you are worried about their health or worried about your physical relationship, or that you’ll never be united?

  1. Ask how you can be a support person. Once my husband tore a ligament in his foot which shut down his exercise for months. He was also working full-time, in full-time MBA school, and being a father to 7 children. He was cranky about it and complained about his weight constantly. I finally reassured, “I want you to know that your weight gain isn’t bothering me—I don’t notice–but you keep talking about it, so it’s bothering you. Do you want me to do something differently to help you?”  I had been trying to make dinner healthy, but I have always despised eating breakfast and usually skip it, so I’m really lacking in that area, and he lunched with his work buddies. We decided if I made up healthy snacks, it would help him stay on track with his eating.
  2. Model behaviors. I’m not going to pretend that I’m a nutrition expert, but I know enough to impact the food choices in my home, and my family takes a lot of cues from what I purchase, eat and prepare.
  3. Understand and respect differences. Cooked spinach and chard with lemon were my sometimes comfort foods growing up. While pregnant with my third child, I planted a garden with a bunch of chard and decided I would serve it to my family without telling my husband because he hates cooked spinach, so I didn’t want the protest. When he showed up, I started serving the kids with my sales job, “Look, daddy, this is the chard we grew, just like Grandpa Cluff—we’re eating it with lemon.  It’s yummy, right daddy?” I put a forkful in his mouth, winking at him to play along.  He did. He ate the serving on his plate with a smile and extolled its health benefits to our sons. I thought I had him sold. Then, he approached me while I was doing dishes, bent down and calmly whispered in my ear, “By the way, that was the most vile, disgusting thing I have ever had to eat; I choked it down because I knew you wanted the example for the boys, but if you ever serve that to me again, my serving is going right in the trash.” OK. Fair enough. I won’t make him eat cooked greens, beets, or cucumbers soaked in vinegar as long as I don’t have to eat melted cheese.
  4. Find a physical activity to enjoy together. My husband is a cyclist and I’m a runner. We don’t usually exercise together, but we do like hiking and tennis, which count. Find something you both like. There’s always walking.
  5. Identify whether the problem is really the weight or something deeper. Usually weight becomes symbolic of dissatisfaction coming from other areas of the marriage. Are there previous relationship injuries or conflicts to address?
  6. If the sexual relationship is impacted, try focusing on other forms of physical affection first. Because weight and attraction and sex are intertwined, I’m not going to pretend like sexual connection won’t be affected. However, couples get hyper-focused on orgasm. Sometimes slowing down and increasing sensuality first can increase sexual desire and/or performance.
  7. Focus on other characteristics you like about your spouse. I know this sounds trite, but it can shape your level of support. When my spouse gains weight, I really rarely notice, because I like HIM–I just like him for who he is, not for weight changes.

In mixed weight marriages, studies verify that many partners try to regulate their spouses’ eating behaviors. A rule of thumb in addressing weight issues is to approach it with positive influences. Negative influences (criticism, nagging, shaming, lecturing, threatening, punishing, stonewalling, withholding) only make the problem worse.

Weight can become like a separate entity in the marriage, either dividing or uniting the spouses.  Think teamwork. If my husband is inspired by a certain program, because the structure gives him scaffolding, I will use the recipes in the program, as long as they’re consistent with the basics and simplicity I think are foundational to a healthy life style. The only way to address weight without compromising the marital relationship is to gain unity—the couple against the weight challenge.

Maybe that’s why Jack Sprat just helped his wife lick the platter clean.

References:

Romantic Relationships and Eating Regulation: An Investigation of Partners’ Attempts to Control Each Others’ Eating Behaviors by Markey, C. M., Gomel, J. N. & Markey, P. M. (2008) in Journal of Health Psychology, 13(3), 422-432.

The Meaning of Weight in Marriage: A Phenomenological Investigation of Relational Factors Involved in Obesity by Ledyard, M. L. & Morrison, N. C. (2008) in Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 7(3), 230-247.

“You’re Going to Eat That?” Relationship Processes and Conflict Among Mixed-Weight Couples by Burke, T. J., Randall, A. K., Corkery, S. A., Young, V. J., & Butler, E. A. (2012) in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(8), 1109-1130.

Photo credit: Copyright: mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo

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