Weighty Topic: In recent days I read an alarming article on newly published obesity statistics nationally, glimpsed a Today show segment on a book about post-its to make overweight folks feel beautiful, and browsed through a piece in The New York Times Magazine on retail’s struggle to provide a profit margin in dressing the overweight segment of the female population. While stimulated by the history of retail and weight that dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century, my focus shifted to the numerous women who have connected their diminished sexual appetite with weight gain; to the numerous men who appear somewhat puzzled by this connection and the therapist, me, who wonders, chicken or egg. Which came first, marital distress or weight gain, hormones or heartbreak, self image or interpersonal experience?
Weight Is An Interpersonal Issue: There is hardly a female in our American culture who does not worry “the weight issue”. And some men too. Body image composes a large percentage of “self image”. Weight is everywhere: On the First Lady’s agenda; Oprah; online; on paper; and in the Coupledom. Most of the verbiage revolves around the “very personal” issue of appearance and self esteem, tips to be slender, struggles to accept girth with pride, and the foods and exercises that led one to success; or the self help guides to cope with the failures. From Black Pride, to Gay Pride to Weight Pride; history is marking efforts to accept ourselves and to be respected in our society. All very good. However don’t let the weight buzz fool you; weight gain effects not just our self esteem, or our place of acceptance in our culture. Weight effects our relationships. And it tells a story.
And Men Put On Weight Too: Weight gain is a very complicated issue, and deeply personal. Nor is it gender specific. Men put on weight too; first the paunch and then the double paunch. Women awkwardly confess to discomfort with their partners weight gain but say little so as not to “hurt his feelings”. Additional poundage in men impact both their self image and their relationship much as it does women. Whether it diminishes sexual desire, or self esteem to the same degree as in women is difficult to assess, as men are less likely to verbalize these concerns. However, my hunch is that is does all of that…just with the subtle twist of male pride.
A Forbidden Topic: Weight talk in a relationship is so tricky and full of traps that most couples avoid it or allude to the problem in jest or a groaning complaint. Females commiserate with pals about the five, ten or twenty plus extra pounds they’ve put on post children. They shop for slenderizing clothes and fat free foods, and have an off and on relationship with exercise. But they are often defensive and easily hurt if the topic is raised by their spouses. Men in general, talk less and focus less on body image but know that paunches and heart attacks do an ugly dance and mark the passage of the six pack youth of adolescence. Sexual activity diminishes under the “weight” (pun intended) of familiarity, children, work hours and hormonal passages. And women describe, as mentioned earlier, avoiding sexual intimacy because “I feel fat” and no longer identify with the attractive and sexy girl of their youth. Occasionally, in secret, men will share with me that their desire too is lessening a bit as their wives lose their youthful shape. However, men do not seem as likely to let weight gain, either their own or their wives, prevent them from enjoying sexual intimacy with their partners.
The Hidden Costs Of Sexual Avoidance: The most toxic element of sexual avoidance to the Coupledom is the loss of spontaneous physical affection. Holding hands, sitting close on the couch, a quick kiss while washing dishes or passing in the hall, any of the former ways of “being close” are eschewed for fear they may give a false message of sexual interest. Physical contact is monitored carefully to insure that no misleading signals of encouragement are sent to the partner. Consequently mere proximity to the other becomes strained, vigilantly micro managed and ultimately heartbreaking.
Shame: Shame is such a powerful force in the Coupledom. And weight gain can feel quite “shameful”. It implies loss of self control, aging, frumpiness, sex less grandmas in house-dresses, Jackie Gleason and Archie Bunker, grouchy, demanding males who strike out impotently at imaginary enemies. It sucks, the whole thing. Thus the topic is silenced by shame, and only rears its ugly head as a “personal” issue, shared with close girlfriends and therapists or alluded to when getting dressed in the morning; “damn pants are too tight”, or over a piece of chocolate cake at dinner; “I shouldn’t have this”; all packaged as something exclusively about the self, and often followed by perfunctory reassurance by the spouse that “you look fine”. Yet, in fact, weight effects the couple. Love life is impacted, activities and socializing are encumbered, sensitivity levels spike, and health issues are challenged. Gaining weight is simple, anyone can do it, happy folk, sad folk, any folk. Far more complicated to explain is what hampers reversing the weight gain trend, what factors interfere with losing those extra pounds that so sully the sense of well being?
Roots to The Problem: The causes are multitudinous from aging metabolisms, hormones; post-partum, ***peri-menopause to menopause (see more information below), life style, thyroid, food choices, six packs (the alcoholic kind) anxiety, depression, medication, injuries, really too numerous to list. And the dynamics in the Coupledom.
Outing The Weight Issue: The dynamics in the relationship may be a significant contribution to both weight gain and difficulty reversing the weight gain trend. The role of weight is surprisingly omnipresent. It is operative in activity choices: taking a run together or not; traveling to resorts (the bathing suit terror); reduction in all things physical. And in emotional attitudes: jealousy from insecurity about appearance; misinterpretations and projections. Ironically the subject of weight gain is probably the most popular “media topic” in western culture and simultaneously a “taboo” topic in the Coupledom”; therefore a daunting conversation to begin but one that needs to happen.
The Essentials of That Conversation: The “let’s talk weight” conversation needs to be a true exchange, neither the standard bid for reassurance or reinforcement of “denial” nor the litmus test of heralded but fantastical “unconditional love no matter”. Nope this communication is concerned with the reality of love, not the kind found between the pages of fairy tales and chick lit. This kind of love comes with its unattractive but ultimately endearing imperfections and compromises.
What Is The Weight Story In Our Relationship? Okay Honey, let’s talk weight. Begin the conversation. I, You, one of us, both of us, have put on some weight here, over the years, recently, whatever. How is that effecting our relationship? Let’s be honest with each other. There is no shame in something so common, so human, and so complex. Self acceptance and Coupledom Acceptance means the same, no shame, just some exchange. I will exchange my ideas, thoughts and feelings and please do the same. And then maybe we can come up with useful goals, over time. If this involves spilling pent-up hurt feelings, or revelations regarding identity shifts from sexy girlfriend to breast-feeding momma, or depleted male who worries finance 24/7 but never feels acknowledged for the effort, or the mutual loss of excitement and sparks, acquisition of the sedentary life style, let it all be said, shared and aired. That nagging, insidious but common competition within Coupledoms over who gives more, works more, loves more needs outing too. Maybe weight gain to fill the void where self-esteem and love once sat; weight gain because “we don’t do anything anymore” but sit and watch T.V. Weight gain because I feel like that wash cloth, useful and then wrung out, set aside to dry up.
Wanted: Courage and Encouragement, two of the underpinnings of the strong Coupledom. It will take both to face “weight and us”. If you get stuck, get help. Work as a team of three to tackle yet another piece of the Coupledom Pie (sugar free but full of love).
© Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2010